<i>Chicago Tribune</i> files suit against University of Illinois over applicant grades, test scores

ILLINOIS — The Chicago Tribune filed a lawsuit Tuesdayagainst the University of Illinois in Urbana, Ill., after attempts to getpreviously redacted information was met with a letter of denial from universityPresident B. Joseph White citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act(FERPA).

The university is refusing to hand over high school grade point averagesand test scores of its applicants to the Tribune saying that theinformation compromises student privacy.

The Tribune originally sent a Freedom of Information Act request tothe university in April to supplement a series of articles called “Clout Goes toCollege,” investigating the admittance of unqualified applicants because of theapplicants’ connections to upper-level administrators. The university respondedby releasing nearly 1,800 pages of documents relating to student admissions thataccording to a June 17 article on the Tribune‘s Web site, was thefoundation for the series.

The first story in the series, published by the Tribune May 29,detailed how an applicant who was going to be denied by the university’sadmissions department was allegedly allowed entrance after White sent an e-mailto admissions staff stating that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich expressed”support” for the applicant.

However, the Tribune is suing for information that was withheld whenthe university originally complied with the request regarding applicants’student grade point averages and standardized test scores.

In his denial letter, White said that although he was a “strong proponentof an open and transparent government,” that under the circumstances, he wouldnot put the privacy of students in jeopardy and cited FERPA regulations.

FERPA is a federal law protecting student education records. The Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, applies to any public or private school that receives federal funds. There areongoing efforts by government officials as well as First Amendment advocates tobetter define the scope of the law and keep institutions from using the law toshield public information.

In the suit, the Tribune says that the redacted records should beopen because the newspaper is requesting information regarding applicants andnot students, meaning that FERPA regulations do not apply.

The university’s independent student newspaper, the Daily Illini,published an editorial defending the Tribune‘s lawsuit.

“Theinformation being sought by the Tribune is the only quantitative way we have ofassessing the strength of the applicants on the clout list,” the paper wrote.”By refusing to release grades and test scores of the applicants, the universityis denying the citizens of the state the right to assess the performance oftheir institutions.”