NWOSU claims names of tax-funded scholarship recipients protected under FERPA

OKLAHOMA — After nearly 10 years of disclosing the names ofscholarship recipients at Northwestern Oklahoma State University (NWOSU),university officials are now claiming that the information is protected underthe Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The scholarships, which arefunded through an Alva city sales tax, total nearly $214,000, and are anincentive to bring students to the area.

The issue of disclosing the names came up in a city council meeting earlierthis month, when Alva councilman Roger Hardaway protested the disclosurechanges.

“In a democracy, you can’t be making decisions in secret or in private,it’s like the old smoke-filled room analogy for nominating candidates foroffices,” Hardaway said. “The more open you do things, the more scrutiny (youhave), makes it better.”

Hardaway requested to view the scholarship list from the university and hisrequest was granted. However, when he requested a hard copy, he was told thatthat could be a violation of FERPA.

Some of the incoming freshmen and transfer students who receivedscholarships signed a FERPA waiver form to allow the school to notify theirlocal newspapers, said Steve Valencia, associate vice president for universityrelations at NWOSU.

The university made an agreement with the city in 1999 to disclose thenames of recipients, how much each recipient was given and why they were chosento receive the scholarship.

Helen Barrett, assignment editor for the Alva Review-Courier, saidshe believes the secrecy began after she had written in January about thediscrepancies between the students receiving different amounts, primarilyvaledictorians and athletes.

However, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter, says that if students have waived FERPA confidentiality, there’s nolonger an issue of privacy.

“If the student has consented for their scholarship information to appearin one newspaper, there’s no plausible basis to object to another requesterhaving the same information,” LoMonte said. “This is yet another example of whyCongress and the Department of Education have to fix this broken statute. It’sjust far too easy for people who want to conceal embarrassing information to cry’FERPA.’ “

Hardaway said that city attorney Rich Cunningham, husband of NWOSUpresident Janet Cunningham, told him that he could be cited for violating afederal law if he shared the information with someone other than a councilmember.

Hardaway, who is also a history professor at NWOSU, signed the FOIOklahoma’s Open Government Pledge in 2009. He said he plans on bringing theissue back up before the council at the next meeting July 6.