URBANA – The University of Illinois has restricted access to its student-information system following a News-Gazette report that found legislators attempted to influence the admissions process on campus.
The office of government relations, or the university's lobbying branch, was suspended from having access to the UI's Banner system, which includes student information.
The latest action is one of a few taken by the university after the recent disclosure of the "Category I" list, which the UI used to track applicants on whose behalf admissions inquiries were made by trustees, legislators, alumni and others.
On Monday, the university announced it was suspending use of the Category I list. And a task force of university and nonuniversity personnel will be conducting a review of the practice this summer.
Restricting some employee access to the student data, or the Banner system, is "consistent with not having any kind of Category I tracking going on. There's not a reason for them to have that access," said UI spokesman Tom Hardy.
"The need for Banner access can be reassessed once the admissions task force has completed its work," he added.
"Anyone who inquires about applicants will be directed to the appropriate admissions office, where they can access the same assistance and resources available to all," Hardy said.
In February of this year, a UI administrator sent an e-mail to Chancellor Richard Herman outlining concerns about possible violations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, the federal law that protects the privacy of student records. It applies to all schools that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education.
Although FERPA provides certain rights to the students, including limiting the release of personally identifiable information, there are exceptions, said Carol Malmgren, registrar for the Urbana campus.
"One (exception) is school officials with a legitimate educational need can access without a students' expressed written consent," Malmgren said.
UI Associate Provost Keith Marshall, who oversees the admissions office, wrote that he was concerned Terry McLennand, the UI's assistant director of state relations, was sharing too much information with legislators and the families of students the UI was tracking, according to documents obtained by The News-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act.
"And this is not the first case this year," Marshall wrote. "Terry should not share this information with anyone because 1) it is counterproductive to our efforts and gives people ammunition to use against us, 2) it's a violation of FERPA to share that information, and 3) estimated ranks are often inflated and require expertise he does not possess to interpret them. If I had my druthers, we would take Banner access away from Terry and his staff."
McLennand told The News-Gazette on Friday that he hadn't seen Marshall's e-mail or talked to him about the complaint, but added that "it's possible I have made a mistake along that front."
On Tuesday, Hardy said the "situation was brought to attention of people in government relations, and they apologized for it."
When asked if the UI is conducting an investigation into possible FERPA violations, Hardy said the university does not comment "on what, if any, legal advice has been sought or provided. The campus works with FERPA issues on a daily basis and maintains compliance."
Malmgren, the UI's registrar, said she has found that when student information is released without approval, in most cases the information is released inadvertently.
Malmgren's office conducts several different kinds of training on FERPA and conducts annual reviews of who has access and what kind of access is allowed to certain units and personnel.
Two of the five staff members in the government relations office had student system access, and that access only pertained to recruiting and admissions data, according to Malmgren.
The Office of Executive Inspector General, an agency of the Illinois governor, would investigate any complaint about violations of the confidentiality of student records, said Gilbert Jimenez, the agency's deputy inspector general of investigations.
Created in 2003, the agency is charged with investigating fraud and abuse in state government, including the state's public universities. It must receive an official complaint to launch an investigation, but a law recently approved by the state Legislature may allow it to initiate investigations on its own, he said.
Jimenez said Tuesday that he could not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation or whether a complaint had been filed.
If the inspector general's office received a complaint and an initial review indicated FERPA may have been violated, the agency would refer the case to federal authorities, he said.
A complaint of that nature might also involve a violation of university procedures or the state Privacy Act, even if FERPA were not compromised, he said.
In that case, the inspector general's office might complete the investigation itself, and if the complaint was founded, the agency would issue a final report to the "ultimate jurisdictional authority" – in this case the UI Board of Trustees, he said.
Asked if any university employees violated any university code or the state privacy act, Hardy said he was not aware of any. Hardy also said he was not aware of anyone filing a complaint with the inspector general's office.
Documents obtained by The News-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act showed that legislators and trustees used their influence with UI administrators to win admission for favored prospective students.
The 2008-09 Category I list contained 163 names, and more than 100 of those students were admitted.
UI officials contend that only about a dozen students were admitted because they were on the list, and there's no evidence that any unqualified student was accepted.
Jimenez said he could not "prejudge" the reports about the UI's shadow admissions process.
"We don't know what went into this whole package of conduct that allegedly involved special treatment," he said. "It could encompass an awful lot of behaviors."