Students voice concerns over FERPA policy
By LAURA TAYLOR
In the past two years, the dean of the UMW College of Business has received 12 student complaints about their professors according to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as FERPA, these records are private and therefore students who are not directly involved cannot know the outcomes of the complaints. Because of FERPA, other students to whom these cases might be relevant are not privy to the information and the nature of the complaints or even the professors involved.
Students have voiced frustration about this policy, saying it inhibits them from making informed choices about which professors to take or whether anyone responded to these complaints.
“I feel that it’s not fair that students don’t have access to statistics regarding how students’ complaints are handled,” said senior business major Savannah Syms.
Others say that they understand the privacy concerns involved but still wish they had the opportunity for better understanding what happened, even if the records were redacted.
Regardless, investigating the process of how these cases are handle provide a window into the judicial process for complaints against teachers and brings up questions about whether it is fair.
HOW CASES ARE HANDLED
When students file general complaints against professors, they first submit a written complaint to the academic unit head, whether that be the department chair or the program director. The academic unit head will then meet with the student involved, the appropriate faculty member, and any direct supervisors if needed.
Throughout the whole process, the academic unit head will create a summary of the steps take to work towards a resolution which will be copied for the student and any relevant faculty member. Should the student be dissatisfied with the outcome, he or she can appeal to the college dean as according to Appendix D of the Faculty Handbook.
“I think most would suggest that the process is fair because of the appeals processes built into both policies,” said the acting dean of the college of business, Ken Machande.
If a case still doesn’t reach resolution, then it can be appealed to the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia. In the past several years, no cases from UMW have reached this point. This might be because the parties were satisfied with the conclusion. It could also have been because they didn’t want to take the time to pursue their issues further, according to procedure outlined in Appendix D of the Faculty Handbook.
THE PUBLIC RECORD
As stated, the documents that are produced are never made public due to privacy issues.
According to Marty Morrison, the director of media and public relations at UMW, the University of Mary Washington does not keep such a record of the outcomes regarding student complaints against professors. The only documents that exist are the files that build the cases, and those are kept private in accordance with FERPA and will not be released to the public.
The documents can only be released when they reach the level of the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia.
“Students can fill out of a Freedom of Information Act request to The State Council of Higher Education of Virginia pertaining to a certain school and complaints against that school,” said the director of private postsecondary education at the council, Sylvia Rosa-Casanova. “When the student requests this information, we redact all personal identifiable information from the records and release that information to the student.”
Rosa-Casanova has been working at the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia for 10 years and when asked about the student complaints about professors reaching the council level, she said she had seen one case at most.
Most of the cases fall into a specific category rather than general student complaints implying that student complaints may involve specific policies rather than just the professor.
Rosa-Casanova set up the database in 2007 and has been cataloging cases since then. Most of the complaints fall under financial aid, financial, administrative or academic. For students interested in finding out ethics disputes, complaints that have reached the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia that are of ethical nature are categorized under ethics in the administrative complaints.
If students cannot find the information they are looking for through the council, their inquiry may never be answered. The university may have more documents and records than the council because not all cases leave the university level.
Students have one more option for researching the outcomes of how a school at the university handles student complaints about professors.
Students can contact the Fredericksburg General District Court and asking if there are any documents pertaining to student complaints about professors.
“Our website is public record and may help with this kind of research,” said clerk of court Laura Hatch.
WHY MORE RECORDS AREN’T OPEN
The Virginia coalition for open government explained the details about how FERPA applies to schools.
Institutions such as schools are not required to release private records in accordance with Section §2.2-3705.4 of the Code of Virginia which states that individuals will not have access to “scholastic records containing information concerning identifiable individuals, except that such access shall not be denied to the person who is the subject thereof, or the parent or legal guardian of the student.”
“The university has chosen not to disclose information because the entirety of the document could be identifiable information,” said a representative from the Virginia coalition for open government Megan Rine.
Filling out a Freedom of Information Act request for all records that regard student complaints against professors in the UMW college of business will be rejected even with a request to redact all personal and identifiable information.
Morrison later denied the request to create such a document that would record the nature and the outcomes of student complaints about professors in the College of Business.
“Even if the department were to create a record despite the limitations of FOIA, the individualized nature of complaints and complaint resolutions are such that no document could be created with purely aggregate, non-identifiable information,” said Morrison. “Any such information is consequently exempt from disclosure and, further, prohibited from release under FERPA.”
Students currently enrolled in the college of business revealed their reactions to not being able to have access to documents pertaining to the outcomes of how the college handles student complaints about professors.
“There should be public record because it allows for other students to know that the complaints were acknowledged and worked to a resolution,” said Syms. “If the complaints aren’t reported, it makes the school look suspicious.”
Others say that it’s enough for the records to be available to the student who are involved in the dispute, if not the larger population at the school.
Still others say that they feel like they can speak openly in course evaluations of a professor, which are read by multiple people. This relieves some of the secrecy in handling the dispute cases.
“I know I’ve had teachers who have said they’ve changed things because of feedback they have gotten,” said senior business administration major Emily Keehan. “I think it is also up to the teacher’s discretion and not necessarily the college to document that kind of thing and make those decisions.”