Activist Toolbox: FERPA as a Strategizing Tool

CUNY Office hrs-Kottner-Access to office space is far from uniform in the adjunct world. Those of us who are lucky enough to even have offices as adjuncts know they’re almost always less than the ideal space in which to meet students. My own experience has varied wildly, from none at all to sharing a nice large office with only three other people. The photo at right represents the in-between; it’s the door to my office at York College, City University of New York, where I share five of six desks with all those other people whose office hour schedules are on the door. (The sixth desk has been co-opted by a retired prof who is now adjuncting for whatever reason.) None of those desks has even a semblance of privacy, not even a cubicle wall between them, except the retired prof’s, which is at the back of the room and has a bookcase stacked on top of his desk to block the rest of us out of his little world.

In our sad, Oliver Twist way, we just put up with this. At York, I mostly conduct conferences in the classroom, while students are working on other tasks, because it’s both quieter during conference week and far more private than my office is. At New Jersey City University, where I share with three other people, we just work around each other for conferences, and there are always other computers available to work at while someone’s using the office to meet with students. At the College of New Rochelle’s South Bronx campus, I didn’t hold conferences at all, and spoke to students in empty classrooms and hallways.

Therein lies a potential problem for the colleges and universities that neglect to provide us with private places in which to meet our students. The office space like that pictured below in Oakton Community College‘s new science building look deceptively nice, but they may actually lead to violations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) if you are conferencing with students there and discussing their grades.

Oakton science adjuncts officesThe FERPA website states, “FERPA generally prohibits the improper disclosure of personally identifiable information derived from education records. Thus, information that an official obtained through personal knowledge or observation, or has heard orally from others, is not protected under FERPA. This remains applicable even if education records exist which contain that information, unless the official had an official role in making a determination that generated a protected education record” [emphasis mine]. That would be us.

The Delphi Project’s “The Imperative for Change” recognizes this possible problem and describes it this way:

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act Violations
The working conditions of faculty also present many problems for institutions. For example, since most part-time faculty are not provided private office space, they may be routinely meeting with students in places that are not appropriate for conversations about student coursework or performance and violate requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Noncompliance with FERPA not only places institutions at risk of being sued, but can also result in a full withdrawal of all federal funds received. When faculty members do not receive any orientation to campus policies and procedures, as is often the case for non-tenure-track faculty, they may unintentionally violate important policies on campus (FERPA and otherwise), which places the campus at greater risk of facing legal action.

So how can we use these facts to force changes in our working conditions? The easiest way would be to bring these conditions to the attention of compliance officials at your school and tell them you’re worried about students filing a complaint for having to discuss their grades and progress in what amounts to public space. The result of this, however, might be nothing more than a flurry of consent forms for your students to fill out to agree to holding such discussions in your overcrowded “office.”

Hatchback officeAlternatively, we might want to point out to students that they have a right to privacy when we discuss grades and performance and that the college is not providing it by denying office space to adjuncts. Since only students (or parents of underage students) can file complaints about FERPA, that leaves it up to them to actually make these complaints. But they can’t do that unless they’re aware it’s a violation. Groups of students may want to organize to file federal complaints to force change at your institution. You and others can take photos documenting your “office” space to back up student complaints.

On a larger scale, this is an issue that professional associations can take up with academic administrations, to insist on best practices that allow students and professors the privacy in which to discuss grades and performance. And it’s an issue that should be brought to the attention of legislators interested in education standards and conditions. The issue should also be made public, not kept to ourselves; speak about it regularly when discussing adjunct working conditions. This could easily also be the focus of a local or national media campaign.

Please add other ideas you may have in the comments, especially if this is something you’ve done.

–Lee Kottner

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