There are more than 11,000 board members of accredited universities in the United States, plus another 6,500 trustees of community, technical, and junior colleges. You could multiply the sum of the two by some factor of the number of terms they’ve served in the 42 years since enactment of Sen. James Buckley’s amendment that he believed would take the “lid off secrecy in our schools.”
In the decades since, that amendment has become the lid of secrecy itself, an invisibility cloak called FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — that school officials throw over anything that threatens to become a humiliation. This veil divides the public on one side from the university and all its “school officials, including teachers” on the other.
Yet in the constant stream of embarrassment that our 4,000-plus colleges have produced over those decades, out of all the hard questions asked by tens of thousands of board members, never before has any of those institutions attempted to draw the veil of secrecy between the school’s overseers and its hirelings. That is to say, if briefing papers in the case of Wallace Hall v. William McRaven are correct, nobody has had McRaven’s audacity in pretending that federal law requires employees to hide information from board members.
Hall is seeking access to the unredacted records of an investigation into political and donor favoritism in university admissions that was conducted by Kroll Associates. Watchdog.org has already proven that Kroll’s official report, released a month after McRaven took office, understated the scale of the corruption by a factor of 10, and that Kroll also whitewashed abuses at UT Law out of its findings.
McRaven has insisted that he is protecting “personally identifiable information” from disclosure. But in practice, that means he gave Hall a 24,536-page record with every last page redacted.
A friend-of-the-court brief filed by an attorney for four current and former regents of the University of Texas System last week says that they “are unaware of another instance in which a university has invoked FERPA against one of its own regents.”
The brief from regents Brenda Pejovich and Alex Cranberg and former regents Eugene Powell and Charles Miller points out that it has become commonplace for schools to invoke FERPA whenever they need to cover something up, just as Watchdog has reported.
“While universities’ misapplications of FERPA to avoid disclosing negative or embarrassing information to the press have become increasingly common over the past several decades, this is the first time an educational institution has invoked FERPA against its very own regent,” the brief states.
In order to deny Hall the full Kroll papers, McRaven had to take the position that Hall held no “legitimate educational interest” in them, despite the fact that the UT System had already determined just the opposite, that Hall “would have an educational purpose since oversight of campus admissions standards (is) consistent with the role and mission of U.T. System institutions.”
In other words, McRaven’s position is that there is a strict federal prohibition on record-sharing that comes in and out of existence depending on how he feels about it.
The four regents are challenging the notion that McRaven has any such discretion to deny information requests, pointing out that “it is the regents who have been statutorily ‘authorized and directed to govern, operate, support, and maintain’ the UT System,” not the people they employ.
They also argue that even if McRaven did have the authority to determine that Hall’s “legitimate educational interest” had suddenly vanished, that determination couldn’t have been made on any factual basis, as neither McRaven nor his delegate has ever read the Kroll papers.
“The UT System’s general counsel did not ‘personally’ review any of the Kroll documents before invoking FERPA,” the brief states, adding that “Chancellor McRaven has never reviewed the Kroll records.”
Hall needs access to student names for the same reason that investigators were given that access, the regents argue: It’s impossible to determine whether favors were traded without knowing which politicians and which of their children, friends, and associates were involved.
“It is an individual Regent’s job to call for further investigation if there is the appearance of such management impropriety and to call for appropriate disciplinary action,” the regents write.
Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.
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