The Sinister Institutions Vs. the 'Right to Know'

A growing awareness in the past few years of the mountains of data and statistics that institutions now collect on citizens has given birth to a widespread, though loosely-organized, "right-to-know" movement. With the advent of widespread use of computers, record-keeping by government, credit agencies and schools has become more efficient and comprehensive and more sinister.

The "Buckley amendment" is one of a series of attempts to stem this massive invasion of privacy, by granting students access to their school files and some control over both what goes into the file and who gets to see it.

"There's a growing awareness of records and abuses of the individual's right to privacy," Barry Hock, a lawyer with the Mass Advocacy Center who has coordinated the center's work with student files, says. "Student records are a more critical area because they affect just about everyone at some time."

Student records have been "like a giant sponge that indiscriminately soaks up information," Hock says. One of the first positive effects of the bill has been a massive review of student record policies at Harvard and other schools around the nation.

Jonathan Brant, legal counsel to Governor Sargent's Commission on Privacy and Personal Data, says that an individual's right to access to his records and control over them is a "coming" movement. The commission concluded, Brant says, that there is no valid reason why letters of recommendation should not be included in this and be available to the student.

"We professionals who hold people's future in our hands have to be held accountable for our actions. We ought to be able to look someone in the eye and tell him why" a recommendation was written, he says. "You can't rely on an informal 'gentlemen's agreement' anymore" to ensure honesty.

Brant says the concept behind such legislation is that "the world's not such a nice place." To protect individual rights "we're going to have to institutionalize practices that had traditionally relied on good grace."

A major aim of the bill is to prevent dissemination of information from the files outside of the school system without the written consent of the student. Harvard has traditionally refused to allow anyone to see the files without student authorization--though the student, of course has not been able to authorize his own inspection of them. But many universities and public schools regularly release such information. A staff report by the Governor's privacy commission last summer showed that a number of public colleges in Massachusetts release data to government agencies without obtaining the student's consent.

A study of the student records policies of Massachusetts high schools in 1972, before the Massachusetts open files legislation took effect, showed that over half of the public schools surveyed allowed partial or complete access to student files to police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, social workers and prospective employers, although only 46 per cent allowed students to see their own files. Almost one-third of the schools gave military investigators access to the files.

Horror stories about the damaging material collected in closed files abound. A Massachusetts college student claims she was denied admission at a number of universities because her high school sent incomplete transcripts to the schools. The student, now a freshman, says that she was unable to correct the mistake because she was not allowed to see her transcript.

Students, parents and educators also claim that unfavorable and unsubstantiated statements filed in the school record can hurt a student for years. "Decisions are made about a person and he has no idea of why," Hock says.

John Holt, author of numerous books on children's education, says that "a pseudodiagnostic" psychiatric language has seeped into teacher comments in students' records. "Many people read these comments as tantamount to a psychiatrist saying you're nuts," he says, "and it stays in your record."

Many advocates of the legislation feel that critics are attacking issues which are secondary to the principle of the student's right to know.

Whatever the administrative inconveniences the Buckley bill creates for college registrars, they say, whatever the disruption of the traditional recommendation-writing system it causes, there still is an overriding necessity to extend right-to-know legislation to higher education. The "bureaucratic hassles" pale next to the civil libertarian principle at stake, they say.

"It's a fair trade-off," Hock says, since the university has to re-examine its policies and its files, while the student "gains a greater degree of control over his own life."

Another objection to the law is the possibility that a prospective employer might force the job applicants to obtain a copy of the entire file and include it within applications for employment. The student loses the protection from the extortion of outside parties which Harvard offered although other schools did not, and gains the right to see the file himself.