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University of Illinois Told Our Partners They Must Share Sexual Misconduct Tips With Campus Authorities. Here’s How We’re Protecting Our Sources.

To maintain the privacy of our sources, ProPublica will collect tips coming in about sexual misconduct at the University of Illinois and only share them with our partners at NPR Illinois under certain circumstances.

Last fall, we chose NPR Illinois public radio reporter Rachel Otwell to join our Local Reporting Network to investigate sexual harassment at public colleges and universities in the state.

Her first stories focused on how the flagship campus of the University of Illinois had helped several professors retain seemingly unblemished records even though they were found to have violated its policies, including its sexual misconduct policy. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign allowed them to resign, paid them for periods they weren’t working and, in some cases, kept them on the faculty or promised not to discuss the reasons for their departures. The University of Illinois System holds the license to operate NPR Illinois.

Like many of our stories, Otwell’s articles were accompanied by a questionnaire asking other victims of sexual harassment at Illinois colleges and universities to help our reporting by sharing their experiences.

It’s the kind of hard-hitting package we’ve come to expect from our Local Reporting Network.

Within days, the Title IX coordinator at the University of Illinois Springfield, where the station is based, approached the general manager for NPR Illinois and mentioned that Otwell and the staff, as university employees, were considered “responsible employees.” What that means is that under university policy, they are required to “report in detail all incidents of sexual violence, sexual harassment, or other sexual misconduct to the Title IX Coordinator,” according to an FAQ page on the university’s website.

(This does not apply to allegations at colleges other than those in the University of Illinois System.)

“Given the importance of this topic and the importance of safety at each of our universities, it is critical that Title IX Coordinators receive information regarding potential misconduct,” the university ethics officer wrote in an email to an NPR Illinois reporter and its general manager. “By being informed of potential sexual misconduct, the University may respond appropriately from both an investigative and support perspective.”

Our partners at NPR Illinois identified some other public radio stations affiliated with universities in other states that are apparently subject to such policies.

NPR Illinois is editorially independent of the university, and neither we nor station officials believed that tips generated by our questionnaire might somehow be covered by the university’s Title IX policies. When we learned of the university’s interpretation of its rule, we took several steps to preserve the confidentiality of tips we received.

We generally share tips with our partners, including those in the Local Reporting Network. In this case, however, ProPublica itself will collect these tips and respond to them. The university policy does not apply to us.

NPR Illinois reporters will not have access to tips sent to our email address, texts or calls to our phone number or people who fill out our questionnaire unless the cases are already known to the University of Illinois or unless they involve other colleges.

We also have added clarifying language to our stories and our questionnaire to make this clear.

Separately, NPR Illinois asked the university to exempt reporters from any requirement that they share tips they receive in the news gathering process, saying it hampered the ability of reporters to gather news on an important issue.

This week, the university responded by saying it would not do so. “The University has determined that requiring journalist employees to adhere to the ‘responsible employee’ reporting requirements would not violate any constitutional or other legal protections. Instead, maintaining the need for such employees to report would appropriately support the interests of campus safety and advance the principles underlying existing mandatory reporting requirements,” Donna McNeely, executive director of ethics and compliance at the University of Illinois System, wrote in an email.

On Thursday, NPR Illinois officials and reporters released an open letter asking the university to reconsider.

People should feel secure sharing information with us. We intend to protect their ability to do so.

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Portrait of Charles Ornstein

Charles Ornstein

Charles Ornstein oversees the Local Reporting Network, as well as ProPublica offices in the Midwest, the South, the Southwest and a unit operated with The Texas Tribune.

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