The Arizona Desert Lamp

Fearful Educators Redact Public Archives: FERPA creep strikes again

Posted in Media, Politics by Connor Mendenhall on 2 June 2009

The Columbus Dispatch sent requests for athletics-related documents to every Division I-A college in the United States. Easy enough, right? All public records, mostly public schools, and a process so routine that most schools have special offices dedicated to handling them. Turns out, most colleges are going crazy with the CIA highlighters, thanks to varied and creeping interpretations of the federal privacy law that protects student information. From the article:

Across the country, many major-college athletic departments keep their NCAA troubles secret behind a thick veil of black ink or Wite-Out. Alabama. Cincinnati. Florida. Florida State. Ohio State. Oklahoma. Oregon State. Utah. They all censor information in the name of student privacy, invoking a 35-year-old federal law whose author says it has been twisted and misused by the universities.

Former U.S. Sen. James L. Buckley said it’s time for Congress to rein in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which he crafted to keep academic records from public view.

A six-month Dispatch investigation found that FERPA, as it’s commonly called, is a law with many conflicting interpretations. And that makes it virtually impossible to decipher what is going on inside a $5 billion college-sports world that is funded by fans, donors, alumni, television networks and, at most schools, taxpayers.

Read the full investigation here. The University of Arizona isn’t mentioned in the article, but according to the newspaper’s online database, we’re no paragon of transparency. The athletics department ignored a request for team flight manifests, refused to disclose recipients of complimentary plane tickets, blacked out names on student job records, and redacted names and details in a report on NCAA violations.

Of course, UA invokes FERPA outside of athletics, too. UA’s official interpretation of the law is covered in this memo from the Office of General Counsel. It’s pretty strict, defining student records as “any information or data recorded in any medium including but not limited to handwriting, print, tapes, film, e-mail, microfilm, and microfiche, which is directly related to a student and maintained by the University or a person acting for the University.”

Then it carves out a few big exceptions: administrators and support staff with “legitimate educational interest” (there goes a privacy objection to Project Crime STOP), a few exceptions in the case of serious disciplinary violations, especially sex offences, and most controversial, notifying the parents of students caught drinking underage.

As the Ohio investigation shows, it’s not an uncommon interpretation, but it is an overbroad one. In the past, UA has used FERPA to protect student government records and information on crimes committed on campus. The law has interfered with publishing a yearbook, and embroiled UA in serious controversy when they rolled out the first CatCards in 1998.

Protecting the academic records of adult students is a perfectly good goal, but even at UA, FERPA has crept far beyond its original intent. In practice, it is used to privilege some records that would otherwise be public information–things like athletics information and conduct violations–while maintaining exceptions for others, like student surveillance and parental notification. There’s a fair case for strict privacy without consent, and a compelling one for total transparency, but UA’s current interpretation of FERPA–along with those of many of its peer universities–offers the worst of both.

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3 Responses

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  1. Dave said, on 2 June 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Fun FERPA/privacy related story:
    I work at the front desk of one of the dorms. If you want any of your information hidden, even information that the front desk of the dorm doesn’t have, you get an asterisk next to your name on the roster. This means that the person in question does not exist as far as we’re concerned. I don’t care if your daughter left her cell phone in your car when you dropped her off two seconds ago. You can’t get her room phone number because that bitch is a ghost.

    This makes for an especially interesting situation when an RA has an asterisk because THE RA HAS A PICTURE WITH THEIR NAME UNDER IT IN THE LOBBY.

  2. Joe Hogan said, on 3 June 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Just wondering Connor, how much of university privacy action/lack of transparency is just extra strength protection from frivolous lawsuits?
    Of course I have no doubt that FERPA is often applied to athletics just to avoid legitimate lawsuits.

  3. Connor Mendenhall said, on 4 June 2009 at 3:13 am

    Hard to tell, but I’d imagine fear of litigation is definitely one influence–certainly in athletics, but no doubt also in issues of internal discipline. Of course, there’s no good way to tell as long as the law’s in place. I’m not sure that I’d ascribe it to anything conscious as much as the general tendency towards opacity in big bureaucracies.


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