Who gets hurt when information is withheld?

June 30th, 2009 by Grace Meng

Whenever people talk about why information matters, it’s easy to throw around abstract formulations about transparency and the free flow of information.  I do it all the time.  But this story from the Columbus Dispatch on how universities around the country are using a federal law on student privacy to withhold information has some great concrete examples of why disclosure is so important, and why not disclosing isn’t actually protecting anyone’s privacy

Basic background: FERPA or the Family Educational and Rights Privacy Act generally prohibits schools from disclosing students’ “education records” without written permission from the student (if 18 and older) or the student’s parent.  But interpretations of FERPA vary widely from school to school.

The Columbus Dispatch discovered that many schools cite FERPA as a reason to withhold documents that arguably don’t fit into the definition of an “education record.”  In response to the Dispatch’s requests, FERPA was cited as a reason not to disclose reports of NCAA violations, lists of people designated to receive athletes’ complimentary admission to football games, and football players’ summer employment documents.  Without such records, it is “virtually impossible to decipher what is going on inside a $5 billion college-sports world that is funded by fans, donors, alumni, television networks and, at most schools, taxpayers.”

The article didn’t just ask you to be shocked and horrified on principle that the university was keeping secrets.  It told you exactly who is being hurt and in what ways:

1.  Other students and the public. In addition to potential misuse of taxpayer funds, “some universities are covering up criminal behavior in the name of student privacy.”

2.  The athletes themselves.

When news that a quarterback at OSU had accepted $500 from a booster went public, the Columbus lawyer and Ohio State fan was “swamped with e-mails from current or former collegiate athletes across the country.”

“They all were saying thank you, that it was out of hand at their school, too,” Webster said.

Before giving money to Smith, booster Robert Q. Baker had tripped up at least two other Ohio State football players. But those problems didn’t become public until after the Smith incident.

If not for Webster’s intervention, it’s impossible to know how many other players might have been approached by Baker, now banned by Ohio State from his luxury suite at Ohio Stadium. Baker was not banned until after public disclosure of the facts.

And ultimately, the universities are hurting

3. The schools themselves and their athletic programs.

All of those schools deleted names and many details of such violations from public records.

Those violations resulted in financial losses, damaged reputations and, in some cases, forfeiture of athletic victories.

The Final Four banners were removed from Ohio State’s Value City Arena because of NCAA rule-breaking. That violation involved former men’s basketball coach Jim O’Brien’s gift of money to a potential recruit and illegal benefits and academic help given to another player. Those violations cost the school more than $1.3 million in legal fees and NCAA penalties.

Florida State currently is spending about $200,000 to appeal one sanction of its numerous NCAA penalties in the cheating scandal. It is trying to preserve football victories so that Bobby Bowden might retire as the winningest football coach in college history.

The story illustrates a difficult but really important truth about information and disclosure.  In the end, we’re all better off when we have more information, even those of us who think we have something to lose.  This might not be true all the time, but it’s true most of the time.  People who think they’re protecting their own interests by withholding information are often taking a rather dim, short-term view of their situation.  And certainly, “privacy” isn’t what gets protected in the end.

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