Florida A&M University’s student government president recently was removed from the college’s board of trustees. But no one will say why. Officials told the student newspaper, The Famuan, that the matter is confidential under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
The Famuan published a strongly worded column criticizing the university’s decision to withhold information about the trustee’s removal.
“However, people need to realize that by putting yourself into the position of a public figure and joining the BOT, you are subject to scrutiny, and your actions have to be made publicly,” Managing Editor Jorge Rodriquez-Jimenez wrote. “For the university to try to protect a public figure by screaming FERPA makes me question what other lines they are willing to blur to save face.”
Source: The Famuan, Stop hiding behind FERPA, (March 22, 2013)
SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte:
So, here’s the thing. In January, the editor of the FAMU student newspaper vanished — and the university wouldn’t say why. Then in March, the student representative on FAMU’s board of trustees disappeared — and again, FAMU wouldn’t explain why.
There’s only one logical explanation.
Florida’s full of these suckers, they’re fast, they strike without warning — and they’re hungry.
So… on the remote possibility that the campus is NOT full of killer sinkholes — that, instead, FAMU’s student body president was disqualified from the board for academic or disciplinary reasons — is there any reason FAMU can’t say so?
Well, for starters, a Tallahassee TV news station reported March 21 that the former trustee, Marissa West, “resigned” from student government. A resignation from elected office is not a piece of confidential education information, so FAMU clearly can (but apparently won’t) confirm that much.
And FAMU probably can say quite a bit more. By way of reminder, FERPA protects the confidentiality of records — not of facts. If FAMU’s information about the former elected official comes from a source other than education records (for instance, from city police reports), then that information is not FERPA-protected.
As even universities themselves admit (when admitting it serves their self-interest), FERPA does not apply to one-off disclosures — it penalizes schools that have a “policy” of releasing confidential records. What “policy” might conceivably exist here? “Every single time we fire the student member of the Board of Trustees, we tell people why” isn’t (let’s hope!) a routine practice.
The fact that we’re even arguing about this at all illustrates how hopelessly dysfunctional FERPA is. When you run for the highest-profile office on your campus, and agree to sit on the university’s governing board, you implicitly waive a degree of privacy as it relates to your job performance and your fitness to serve.
But because the FERPA statute doesn’t provide for a “waiver by conduct,” it’s literally possible that you could get your grade-point average tattooed on your forehead (by the way, don’t) and yet file a FERPA complaint if the college discloses it.
Bottom line: FAMU legally can (and ethically should) say something about why its students no longer are represented by the elected trustee of their choice. And unless disclosing the basis for the departure necessarily requires giving away a piece of confidential information gleaned from education records, then the college legally can (and ethically should) give the public a full explanation.
Just to be safe, Florida needs to get cracking on plugging those killer sinkholes. Starting with the information sinkhole that is Florida A&M University.