The Bumbling Amendment Opens the Seals in 11 Days

Its official title reads "Section 438 of Public Law 93-380--Protection of the Rights and Privacy of Parents and Students."

It passed the U.S. Senate on a voice vote early in August, then won cursory approval by a joint congressional conference committee, and was signed into law by President Ford on August 21, to take effect 90 days later.

Seventy-eight of those days have passed, meaning that a week from next Tuesday, Sen. James F. Buckley's (R-N.Y.) fabled-and-faulted "files bill" will break the seals on those inscrutable, hitherto-unpenetrated mysteries--Harvard students' confidential folders.

The University, under the law's provisions, will have to comply with students' requests for information--that is, make copies of files available--within 45 days after such requests are made. Thus, early-bird students who storm the newly-designated "files-keeper" in the College on November 19 will be savoring their own life-stories by January 3, 1975, at the latest.

The "Buckley amendment," as it has come to be known--critics call it the "bumbling amendment"--has attracted more attention than the average rider tacked onto annual educational appropriation acts.

All of which was something of a surprise to the amendment's authors. "We never expected schools like Harvard to react so strenuously over a move to protect the civil rights of students," John Kwapisz, legislative aide to Buckley, says with a tinge of bitterness in his voice.

Concerns from college administrators over the confidentiality of some of the documents in the files have merit, Kwapisz says. Still, he defends including colleges and universities in the bill's jurisdiction, "because we don't think students should have fewer rights in higher education than they or their parents have at the lower level."

The bill provides that parents of children in grade schools and high schools, and students themselves in post-secondary institutions, shall have "the right to inspect and review any and all official records, files and data directly related to [them]."

Harvard officials, in all of their meetings held in September and October to decide upon compliance and guidelines, made a point of attacking Buckley for both the way the bill was passed and the way the bill was written.

Buckley, it was pointed out, circulated the amendment to his Senate colleagues four days before it was adopted on the Senate floor--with no debate. There were no hearings in committee session to weigh its merits or hammer out its wording. Fact is, as higher-ups around Mass Hall tell it, Buckley himself knew few details of the rider when contacted several days after its passage.

Kwapisz, however, insists that Buckley's office knew what it was doing. He openly admits that the amendment "was primarily drafted" to end complaints by parents on the primary and secondary school level that false or harmful information in files "followed children, uncontested, all the rest of their lives, whether in getting into schools or in finding jobs."

The Buckley staff, Kwapisz says, did not have the empirical studies and records to outline the problem in higher education, as it did on the lower levels. "But we did have evidence in universities of abuses--abuses cited by the student American Medical Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Citizens Committee for Education, the Childrens Defense Fund and other groups."

The proof came in the pudding, too. When Harvard drummed up the other Ivy League schools' support, when its lawyers and lobbyists drafted position papers for the six higher education groups opposing the bill in Washington, when, as participants in informal sessions aimed at delaying the bill have reported, the Cambridge emissaries to the Hill "took the lead among the country's schools" in fighting to kill the bill, Buckley's staff refused to budge--as some had expected. Buckley did agree to try to "amend his amendment" to exempt past recommendation letters from inspection and enable students to waive their rights to see their files. But the bill will go into law without delay, Kwapisz says.

The amendment is "badly-drafted," Harvard officials contend. "I couldn't cover all the faults in its wording in one conversation," Daniel Steiner '54 says, "but it is, to summarize, a case of taking a nice concept and applying it to a real-life situation where it'll have completely unintended consequences. It's as if I sat down and wrote a bill on the marketing of agricultural products in India--it might sound nice, but my knowledge of the subject would make the bill ludicrous in practice."

Apparently, the drafters of the bill placed priority on a civil libertarian principle--not on the possible ill-effects the rider will have on university administrators' daily routines and good-will.