U athletic department among least transparent, study finds

By Jeff Dixon, Asst. News Editor

A recent report by The Columbus Dispatch found the U has a far more restrictive interpretation of a student record privacy law than most of its public-school cohorts in the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A.

In the May 31 article “Secrecy 101,” the Dispatch stated that it “sought airplane flight manifests for football-team travel to road games, lists of people designated to receive athletes’ complimentary admission to football games, football players’ summer-employment documents and reports of NCAA violations.”

The requests were made of all 119 FBS schools. The Dispatch said it wanted to gauge respondents’ openness and the use of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Of the 119 requests, 69 responded. The U was one of 23 that redacted athletes’ names from every document.

Former U.S. Sen. James L. Buckley, who crafted FERPA, told The Dispatch that it was intended to keep academic records from public view, but the scope of records it’s now being used to protect goes beyond the law’s original intent.

The law defines education records as those directly related to a student and maintained by his or her school, or by a party acting on the school’s behalf.

One of the U’s lawyers, Robert Payne, said he does not believe FERPA is ambiguous and that it can be broadly applied. That’s why the U redacted all student names in the request, he said.

Although a student whose FERPA rights have been violated does not have a private cause of action against the offending school, that student could complain to the Department of Education, which could in turn investigate and potentially withdraw federal funding from the institution, Payne said.

The investigation turned up vastly different interpretations of the law, with some schools saying it only covers records related to grades and coursework, with others, such as the U, interpreting it as any document containing a student’s name.

Payne said that FERPA contains exceptions, but that he doesn’t believe that any could be applied the Dispatch’s request.

“I believe the University of Utah had a federal obligation to protect its students from disclosure of their identities on the records requested,” Payne said. “I do not understand how other institutions could have reached a different conclusion.”

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