FERPA Author to Colleges: Stop Violating FERPA!

By on March 15, 2011

Another day, another attempt by a university to distort the intent of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This instance, according to The Register-Guard (Eugene, Oregon), regards the records of an official NCAA investigation into the past activities of the University of Oregon men’s basketball team. Aside from a token 127-word statement on the issue, however, the school since September has refused to provide The Register-Guard any information regarding any of the student-athletes involved.

The Register-Guard doesn’t know what’s going on, because UO won’t tell them. As the paper says, UO is arguing that "to provide any information, any document, of any kind" would be a FERPA violation.

FERPA was designed to protect students’ "education records," and it is not clear how an NCAA investigation would fit either the letter or the intent of the act. Yet the state of Oregon’s Department of Justice has upheld UO’s use of FERPA to refuse to reveal records to the paper. This decision has dismayed numerous experts:

Carolyn Carlson, chair of the FERPA subcommittee of the Society of Professional Journalists and a journalism professor at Kennesaw (Ga.) State University, called it "an abuse of FERPA to conceal records of an NCAA investigation into possible rules violations by student athletes."

"Those records clearly should be in the public domain," Carlson said, adding: "I don’t believe it was ever the intent of Congress to hide those types of records from the public’s view."

Indeed it wasn’t, if you ask former Senator James Buckley, the main figure behind FERPA’s enactment (FERPA is, in fact, also known as the Buckley Amendment):

But what about the law’s sponsor?

Former U.S. Sen. James L. Buckley said his intent 37 years ago was to allow parents access to their children’s academic records – we’re talking report cards, transcripts and behavioral evaluations – and to shield those records from others. He never imagined how the interpretation would evolve.

"One thing I have noticed," Buckley said during a telephone interview Thursday, "is a pattern where the universities and colleges have used it as an excuse for not giving out any information they didn’t want to give."

And Buckley added: "Based on what I believe to be extreme misinterpretations of (the law) by colleges and universities, if I was still in the Senate, I would long ago have introduced amendments to the bill to get rid of the kind of (issue)."

It’s hard to think of a more damning indictment of universities’ misuse of FERPA than that, and it tells a sad tale of the disrespect for transparency at too many universities today.