UCA cites FERPA as reason for withholding scholarship information

ARKANSAS — The University of Central Arkansas is withholdinginformation about the distribution of presidential scholarships, some of whichwere reportedly given as political favors, saying the release of informationwould be a violation of students’ Family Educational Rights and PrivacyAct (FERPA) rights.

As a result, Debra Hale-Shelton, a reporter for the Democrat-Gazettewho covers UCA, has found herself in the middle of a debate about the limits ofFERPA.

Hale-Shelton wants access to the names of presidential discretionaryscholarship recipients. She said the school wants to keep withholding thembecause some of the scholarships were given out as political favors.

“The chairman of the board of trustees has said publicly — hastold this newspaper — that some of the people on that list got thesescholarships because they were friends or children of friends of the formerpresident, Lu Hardin,” Hale-Shelton said. “[The scholarships] werepolitical favors.”

The issue has sparked broader questions about the limits of the federalprivacy law and how it relates to students at public institutions who receivepublicly funded scholarships. FERPA stipulates that some “directoryinformation” about students can be given out, without the consent of thestudent, unless students otherwise make it known to the school that they do notwant the information released. UCA’s definition of “directoryinformation,” according to school policy, includes major, class level,dates of attendance, place and date of birth, address, and degrees and awardsreceived. Information about other scholarships is given out publicly becausescholarships are considered “awards.”

“I don’t know of any scholarship or honors that [UCA] haswithheld before,” Hale-Shelton said. “They were not calling theserewards ‘financial aid’ until we were trying to get them, thensuddenly they were titled that way.”

Hale-Shelton said in the past, UCA has erred on the side of releasing toomuch information, rather than too little. She said the school regularly sendsthe Democrat-Gazette dean’s lists and presidential scholars lists,which reveal even more information than she is currently seeking.

Hale-Shelton met resistance from administrators at UCA, who said theycouldn’t give out the information on a legal basis.

“Ultimately, what we concluded, was that this was an educationrecord,” said Jack Gillean, UCA chief of staff and vice president.”It was not directory information as defined by UCA in our view, andtherefore the information could not be released unless there was a written FERPArelease from that person.”

Gilean said he is concerned the school not releasing the records will makethe university look bad, and could raise additional questions about theiroperations.

“I will tell you on a personal level, and I know I speak for othersat the university — If I felt there was a legal basis by which we couldrelease this information, I would hold a press conference and release ittoday,” he said. “I’m troubled that we’re between a rockand a hard place here.”

In making the decision not to release the records, UCA sought legal advicefrom Paul Gammill at the Department of Education. The school was advised that itwas not legally allowed to release the information under FERPA guidelines.Additionally, it sought a second opinion from the Arkansas Attorney General, whodeferred to the opinion given by the Department of Education.

Although UCA administrators said the only way now to obtain the informationis to get each of the students on the list to sign a waiver, the ArkansasDemocrat-Gazette and the Student Press Law Center have both sent letters toGammill at the Department of Education to encourage him to offer a new opinionon the case.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said inhis letter the case is “emblematic of the problems that journalistsfrequently experience when they make requests for newsworthy information inwhich there is no legitimate privacy interest.”

He also said that this is an example of the public’s right to knowbeing subordinated for “privacy for privacy’s sake.”

Although Gammill has received the letters, he said he can not legallycomment until the Department of Education issues a new opinion on the matter,which may take weeks.

The scholarships, which total approximately $1.8 million since fallsemester 2006, were allegedly awarded based on the discretion of theschool’s former president, Lu Hardin, members of the board of trustees andsome of the friends of the president, the Democrat-Gazette reported.

Hardin’s time as president ended approximately a year ago, amidstcontroversy over school funding and favoritism in providing preferred housing tosome students, according to reports in the Democrat-Gazette.

David Huckabee, the son of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, statesenator Steve Faris and former Arkansas house speaker Benny Petrus are some ofthe people who are reported by the Democrat-Gazette to have maderecommendations on the allocation of the scholarships.