Professors weigh in on grade privacy and practices

Written By Mick Stinelli, Co-Arts & Entertainment Editor

Professor James Leary was surprised to hear most professors do not draw awareness to students about grade privacy laws.

“I would say that I probably think about it…oh God, I probably think about it multiple times a day, just in terms of student privacy,” Leary said.

Leary, a part-time professor of English composition, was referring to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s website, the law, passed in 1974, provides students over 18 years old “control over the disclosure of personally identifiable information” from their educational records. Though this typically refers to grade privacy, it also includes students’ schedules, ID numbers and other personally identifiable information. Despite being federal law, students and professors do not have clear information about the law from the university.

“Initially, I don’t think it was discussed at all when I was hired in 2011. I guess it was just understood what to do and what not to do,” said Fred Shaw, an adjunct assistant professor in the English department. “A couple years back, I remember having to do some online training that just explained exactly what it was.”

Leary and Shaw both described a training video that is viewable on the staff’s Blackboard. According to Shaw, the video gives an overview of what can and cannot be shared with students, with a focus to “err on the side of caution.” Point Park’s Office of the Registrar did not respond to a request to provide the video to The Globe.

Point Park’s guidelines for faculty and staff related to FERPA states to “refer requests for information from the education record of a student to the Office of the Registrar.”

Scott Spencer, the newly-hired University Registrar, was unsure about how staff is trained on FERPA regulations.

“I’m the newest person in the office here, and I’m pretty well-versed in that law, but I haven’t figured out yet how we disseminate that information out to the rest of the institution,” Spencer said during an interview in his office. “That’s one of the things on my very long list of tasks and projects. I don’t think we have a formal system for sharing that information at this point in time.”

He added that some faculty has told him the video is no longer required viewing for staff.

According to Spencer, one of the greatest problems with FERPA is the law’s outdated language.

“It really hasn’t been updated too much to match technology, or anything like that, since [1974,]” Spencer said. “There’s nothing written into the law, or that has been amended to the law, that takes into account people looking for information, disseminating information, giving out information in any way other than either face-to-face, on the telephone or via a letter – like an actual, written letter with signatures and stuff like that.”

Spencer said the law is too strict. Under the literal interpretation of FERPA, an e-mail does not count as a written letter. Students need to write out a letter and mail it to faculty in order to obtain grade information.

FERPA applies to more than just university faculty, though.

“We use FERPA in residence life,” President Bobby Bertha explained in an interview in the Point Café. “A lot of what we deal with there falls under FERPA.” Bertha explained that incidents that occur within the residence halls are discussed only with supervisors, not with other resident educators. “We have to sign documentation whenever we’re brought on board saying that we’re going to follow these guidelines.”

Leary shared his own personal philosophy on why it was important to respect students’ academic privacy.

“A university is an environment where you’re not always supposed to be successful,” Leary said. “You’re supposed to have moments of failure and things like that. Why would you want all of that out in the world for anybody to see at any time?”