UCA cites FERPA as reason for withholding scholarship information

ARKANSAS -- The University of Central Arkansas is withholding information about the distribution of presidential scholarships, some of which were reportedly given as political favors, saying the release of information would be a violation of students' Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) rights.

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

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

"The chairman of the board of trustees has said publicly -- has told this newspaper -- that some of the people on that list got these scholarships because they were friends or children of friends of the former president, Lu Hardin," Hale-Shelton said. "[The scholarships] were political favors."

The issue has sparked broader questions about the limits of the federal privacy law and how it relates to students at public institutions who receive publicly funded scholarships. FERPA stipulates that some "directory information" about students can be given out, without the consent of the student, unless students otherwise make it known to the school that they do not want the information released. UCA's definition of "directory information," according to school policy, includes major, class level, dates of attendance, place and date of birth, address, and degrees and awards received. Information about other scholarships is given out publicly because scholarships are considered "awards."

"I don't know of any scholarship or honors that [UCA] has withheld before," Hale-Shelton said. "They were not calling these rewards 'financial aid' until we were trying to get them, then suddenly they were titled that way."

Hale-Shelton said in the past, UCA has erred on the side of releasing too much information, rather than too little. She said the school regularly sends the 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 they couldn't give out the information on a legal basis.

"Ultimately, what we concluded, was that this was an education record," said Jack Gillean, UCA chief of staff and vice president. "It was not directory information as defined by UCA in our view, and therefore the information could not be released unless there was a written FERPA release from that person."

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

"I will tell you on a personal level, and I know I speak for others at the university -- If I felt there was a legal basis by which we could release this information, I would hold a press conference and release it today," he said. "I'm troubled that we're between a rock and a hard place here."

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

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

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said in his letter the case is "emblematic of the problems that journalists frequently experience when they make requests for newsworthy information in which there is no legitimate privacy interest."

He also said that this is an example of the public's right to know being subordinated for "privacy for privacy's sake."

Although Gammill has received the letters, he said he can not legally comment 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 fall semester 2006, were allegedly awarded based on the discretion of the school's former president, Lu Hardin, members of the board of trustees and some of the friends of the president, the Democrat-Gazette reported.

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

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

Democrat Gazette, news, University of Central Arkansas