When it comes to colleges inventing strained excuses to withhold public records and conceal unpleasant truths from the public, it’s hard to pick just one standout. There’s the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which forced the news media to sue — successfully, it turned out — for documents relating to an athletic-department scandal. And there’s Louisiana State University, which is courting its own lawsuit after inventing a look-aren’t-we-clever artifice to avoid creating a paper trail while picking a new president in defiance of state sunshine laws.
But in the pantheon of obstructionist colleges, Oklahoma State University occupies a special place of distinction. Its abuse of student privacy laws allowed a known sexual predator to run loose in Stillwater, because the college put concerns for its own image ahead of the community’s safety.
On Friday, Oklahoma State’s remorseless disregard for public accountability was “honored” by the Society of Professional Journalists with the annual “Black Hole Award.”
The SPJ singled out OSU from among several worthy contenders, for the university’s unfounded claim that FERPA, the federal student privacy law, prevented the college from telling anyone — even the police — about four verified complaints of sexual assault by the same OSU senior, who was quietly suspended from school last fall in a closed-door disciplinary process. (Belatedly, an internal investigation concluded that FERPA does not, in fact, prevent colleges from telling their own police or warning the public when there is a suspected sex offender at large.)
“FERPA was not meant to be a Harry Potter-like invisibility cloak that could turn any record that names a student into a protected document,” said Salt Lake Tribune columnist Don Meyers, one of the SPJ award judges.
Remarkably, Oklahoma State has never said anyone would be fired, demoted or otherwise punished for unnecessarily placing public safety at risk. Apparently, “whoops” will be the sum total of the institution’s response.
The sexual-assault case was a disturbing misuse of FERPA but not, at Oklahoma State, an aberration. The university continues to insist, even though judges in Maryland and North Carolina have ruled otherwise, that students’ parking tickets are exempt from public disclosure because they are “confidential education records.”
Oklahoma State is the first college to “win” the award — though the University of Maryland was a strong runner-up in 2011 for gouging student journalists to see copies of crime reports for a story about sexual assaults on campus. (Do we sense a theme here?) Congratulations to OSU President Burns Hargis and Vice President Gary Clark for a richly earned “national championship.”