Public school systems have long hidden behind trumped-up claims of protecting student privacy to shield themselves from scrutiny for poor performance or misconduct, but this story from the world of higher ed really takes the cake.
The University of Central Arkansas (UCA) was in the practice of giving out “no-criteria presidential discretionary scholarships” totalling $1.6 million from 2006 until the program was ended this year. The no-criteria and discretionary feature of these scholarships are what have drawn concerns. Folks suspect that these scholarships were being given to the children of politically powerful people and other key allies to advance the political interests of this public, state university and/or the private interests of key trustees and school officials.
The suspicion that there was political hanky-panky in selecting who would be awarded these no-criteria scholarships has some support:
An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette review of hundreds of emails awarding the scholarships showed UCA handed them out often with no criteria, in wideranging amounts and under the occasional recommendation of high-profile people. Those who recommended recipients for the scholarships included the son of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, David Huckabee; state Sen. Steve Faris; former Arkansas House Speaker Benny Petrus; and some current and former UCA trustees.
There is no way to really investigate these concerns further because the university has refused to release a list of scholarship recipients. The U.S. Department of Education isn’t helping at all. In an advisory letter to UCA, the Department warned that “because the release of this type of scholarship information in personally identifiable form could be potentially harmful or an invasion of privacy, FERPA would preclude the University from disclosing this information without the prior written consent of the recipient.”
The U.S. Department of Education joins public schools in having a long track-record of being overly and selectively protective of student privacy. Universities regularly announce the names of recipients of scholarships. For example, a quick Google search finds that “The Graduate School of the University of Central Arkansas recognized Angela Quattlebaum and Jamie Martin as the 2004-05 recipients of the Robert M. McLauchlin Graduate Scholarship.”
How can those names be released but not the names of the no-criteria scholarship recipients? The logic, if you can call it that, is that a criteria-based scholarship is flattering to the recipient so that releasing the person’s name does no harm. A scholarship given for financial need or with no criteria might be embarrassing, so the names of the recipients of those scholarships cannot be released.
This makes no sense. Releasing the names of merit-based scholarship recipients still invades their privacy, even if with positive information. For example, the UCA announcement of the McLauchlin Graduate Scholarship provides all sorts of details, like “Angela Beth Quattlebaum is from Helena, Arkansas… She is the daughter of Terry and Monica Quattlebaum of Helena. In high school, she was a Girls State Delegate and listed in Who?s Who Among High School Students…” I strongly doubt that UCA received written permission from Ms. Quattlebaum before releasing all of this information about where she is from, who her parents are, and what she did in high school. I’m perfectly fine with it, but this hardly seems like protecting privacy.
On the other hand, refusing to provide information about no-criteria scholarship recipients may shield them from the release of embarrassing information. But that information would only be embarrassing if they were awarded these scholarships for reasons of political corruption. If that were the case it would be especially important that the public be informed about this even if it were embarrassing.
(edited for typos)