In a classroom lined wall-to-wall with 33 identical blue-screened computers, 11 University employees began training on a new student records database program last Wednesday.
The program allows University employees easy access to student records, including social security numbers, grades, phone numbers, addresses, and financial aid information. Access is granted without the explicit permission or knowledge of the student.
Many students and some staff feel the program could lead to violations of student privacy.
The software, called DSIS (Distributed Student Information System) is providing USM employees easier access to student files. The University hopes to encourage professors who traditionally shied away from bulkier, antiquated programs to use the new system, according to training instructor Pat Davis, the director of Student Info and Research Services.
Faculty and staff primarily use the software to acquire academic histories and degree audits for advising and addresses for departmental mailings. Professors also print class lists for attendance.
All faculty, staff, and administrators can gain access to the system. Through the program, all academic employees have access to the records of all students. All faculty and staff with a password are given access to files at the comfort of their desktop computers.
Many students consider their records too accessible and some staff agree.
Melissa Jones, junior nursing major, acknowledges that some staff and faculty should have access to her records, but does not feel that all should.
“I knew there was fairly easy access, but I am surprised anyone in the University can access my record,” said Jones. “I think that if someone from another department has nothing to do with me, they should access my department and ask for [my record].”
Some students, such as Scott Merrill, are comfortable with the access given to faculty but wish they were aware of who viewed their records.
“As long as you have a record that informs you [that someone has viewed your record], it would be fine,” said Merrill, a media studies senior.
Ann Perry, administrative assistant for the Biology Department, uses DSIS to access student records and degree audits for advising, and prints class lists from the system for biology professors. However, she also feels that access is too easy and the software should maintain a higher degree of accountability.
“DSIS does need some really strong restraints. It should only allow certain info to certain offices, [and] students should be warned that we are accessing their records,” said Perry.
Yet other staff members view DSIS as a valuable and secure tool without which their duties would be severely limited. The safeguards built into the system, such as password protection, and the integrity of the staff make the system safe, according to Therese Martin, administrative assistant for the Environmental Science and Policy Department.
Martin is an avid user of DSIS who believes limiting its capabilities with stronger safeguards could impede her job.
“[DSIS] is very important to my job when I need certain info. I probably couldn’t provide the same services to students as I now can,” said Martin.
As an example, Martin explained that students often arrive for advising unprepared or do not know certain information about their records. With DSIS, she can help the student without trading phone calls and faxes with the Registrar’s Office.
Registrar Steve Rand said he is confident about DSIS. In 12 years of ISIS operation (the program being replaced by DSIS), two issues of misuse were found and “both were dealt with very swiftly.”
Student privacy is protected by a federal law known as the Family Education and Rights Privacy Act (FERPA). Under FERPA, a student, the student’s family, and employees of a university with “legitimate educational interest” may access student files.
USM interprets “legitimate educational interest” loosely, according to Rand, as is recommended by the U.S. Department of Education.
“I treat any academic record as valid information for anyone on the faculty or staff to view,” said Rand.
Although Rand broadly defines the terms of FERPA and said he trusts the USM faculty, he admits that DSIS could easily allow misuse, such as discrimination against students based on lackluster academic histories.
“Academic history should not be used for prejudgment, but it happens,” he said. “If [professors access files] on a not need-to-know basis, it is a federal violation.”
Despite the confidence of some and the safeguards protecting DSIS, some students will continue to be uneasy about the ease of access to their records.
Sonia Acevedo, an undeclared freshman, is one such student and said she is uncomfortable with the easy one-way flow of information.
“We don’t know where they [the professors] live, why should they know where I live?”
Assistant News Editor Matt Clifford can be contacted at [email protected].