Illustration by Patrick Yeung.

As a student, you pay tuition. As a faculty or staff member, you receive a salary. All checks come from and go to the University of California Regents — but beyond that, you don’t know how the UC handles its finances. Because of a lack of transparency, you have no idea.

Last May, $6,000 of UC finances went to Scott H. Newby, private investigator. Disregarding the First Amendment right of the students to assemble peacefully, UC Santa Cruz paid Newby to photograph and film students participating at a teach-out last spring, arming itself with the documentation to launch criminal investigations against anyone the university could prove attended the event, should it so choose.

And the administration didn’t tell anyone.

In the face of devastating budget cuts coming from every direction, the university has continued to promise both transparency and fiscal responsibility. It has delivered neither.

Public records requests theoretically afford anyone literate an insight into the decisions and transactions that make the UC tick. But there’s a caveat: Anyone requesting information has to know exactly what he or she is looking for.

Case in point: Tom Pazo — the student who requested the invoice detailing Newby’s 24-hour contract with UCSC — was able to acquire the invoice because he approached Newby at the May 18 and 19 teach-out and documented the name of the private investigator (who was hired as a “photographer/videographer” if you ask Jim Burns Often).

And $6,000 is not just another drop in the bucket. At first glance — compared to the tens of thousands of dollars students dish out every year to pay for tuition, books, food, the exorbitant cost of living in Santa Cruz… and the hundreds of millions of dollars California faces in debt — it’s easy to say $6,000 doesn’t matter. But with $6,000, UCSC could have paid one lecturer’s salary for a quarter. A large lecture could have been afforded one more teaching assistant. Two quarters of tuition can be purchased at the price of $6,000.

The implications are not limited to academics. Students who might otherwise choose to exercise their rights to freedom of speech and freedom to assemble may be quieted by the threat of photographic documentation of activity that could be misconstrued as illicit.

Students’ right to access this information has been violated by the university, which delayed releasing requested documents for seven months in this case, and more than a year in others.

The administration claims that it acted with the interests of the students at heart. It reports compliance with records requests. The information director has even maintained that the university supports students in their endeavors to demonstrate against rising fees and growing class sizes.

In reality, UCSC administrators’ clandestine transactions convey an ugly truth: students’ right to assemble without fear of reprimand is in jeopardy, and too often public information is too difficult to make public.