U of L ‘outraged’ over records release @ PageOneKY

Via a press release issued this morning, University of Louisville Provost Shirley Willihnganz says she is outraged over the leaking of university information about a degree program and a student’s academic career posted on a local blog.

The story,
published on PageOneKY, was about another questionable degree awarded by the university’s School of Education & Human Development, which has been under watchful scrutiny due to the Robert Felner scandal.

“The university takes seriously its obligation to protect our students’ records and privacy,” said Willihnganz. “We are outraged that anyone would violate that trust.”

The student in question is philanthropist Lewis “Sonny” Bass, a former U of L football player from the early 1940s who has been one of the university’s wealthiest donors over the decades. Bass’ multi-million dollar contributions to the university include a project to help single mothers earn their college degrees and a tennis center for the men’s and women’s teams.

According to the original PageOneKY story:

“Mr. Bass was offered an honorary degree over the summer. But he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted an actual, earned degree. So individuals within the College of Education enrolled him in a fast track program that would give him credit for life experience, which has to be documented in the form of a portfolio.

A student was assigned (and paid) to assemble a portfolio for Bass but eventually grew to be uncomfortable with the arrangement. At one point, after complaining, she was reportedly offered more money to appease her worries but eventually backed out of the process. A new student was then assigned.

According to professors we spoke with at UofL, Bass never showed up to classes he was supposed to attend this summer. He never did any of the work required of him. And professors were uncomfortable giving grades to him– that he didn’t earn– since he was never in their classes.”

Jacob Payne, blogger at PageOneKY, told LEO Weekly nothing confidential was posted in his story and the university is trying to distract the public from the PR nightmare of another fraudulent degree.

“The university is trying to do damage control and attack my character and credibility,” he says. “They want to threaten people because Bass is one of the biggest contributors and he’s upset at my news organization.”

Payne says his sources at U of L have told him that Bass was initially upset with PageOneKY for breaking several stories about the Felner scandal over the past several months. He says today’s press release is a direct retaliation to the Bass post.

U of L says that’s not accurate.

“It’s not about the blog,” U of L spokesman John Drees says. “It’s about the violation of federal regulations.”

Drees told LEO Weekly the university cannot release any records about a student besides basic directory information without the express written permission of the student. He says that whoever released the information has violated the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of student education records and applies to all schools that receive federal funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Drees says the university is in conversation with its legal counsel but would make no further comment on what actions the university may take.


“It is vital for the university to protect its students’ privacy,” he says. “This is a serious breach of their information.”
(PB)

2 Comments

  1. Charles Springer
    Posted September 29, 2008 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Drees is correct about privacy. What point about the law do you not understand?

  2. Bob McCluskey
    Posted September 30, 2008 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    A couple of important points need clarification:

    1. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) only governs student records, not student information. The university provost is characterized as using both terms by the blog General Sense of Outrage. The term “information” is potentially much broader than “records,” as defined by FERPA. Unless a school employee discloses information from “education records” maintained by the school, FERPA is not concerned.

    2. An e-mail that is “maintained” on school e-mail servers, and that personally identifies a student can be a student “education record” governed by FERPA. FERPA regulations define a “student” as “…any individual who is or has been in attendance at an educational agency or institution…” There doesn’t seem to be any question that Mr. Bass meets this criterion and is, under FERPA, a “student.” If that is the case, the statement in the original article that “There is absolutely no confidential information involving students in this story.” may be incorrect, at least as far as FERPA is concerned.

    3. Perhaps more important, however, is the idea conveyed by the university spokesperson “that whoever released the information has violated the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act…” Actually, only schools can violate FERPA. There is no provision in FERPA for penalties for individual school employees. FERPA places the responsibility for maintaining student records privacy on schools. Schools cannot avoid accountability for violations of FERPA by blaming individual employees. However, schools can defend themselves against an accusation of a FERPA violation by providing evidence that the unauthorized disclosure violated their published policies or practices. Presumably such evidence would include penalties for such violations.

    In summary, if the e-mails were maintained by the school, and were disclosed to PageOneKY by a school employee, and that disclosure did not violate some school policy or practice, it is possible that the school violated FERPA. Otherwise, probably not.

    This is not to say that such disclosures are acceptable. Schools certainly have a responsibility to protect the privacy of student records. FERPA, however, focuses primarily on the policies and practices of schools. The schools themselves are expected to deal with their individual employees.

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