American Council on Education Calls For Abolition of Student Organization Records

Recent Policy Statement Seeks Protection of Political Freedom

(The American council on Education, a non-profit agency in Washington, D.C. which represents more than 1500 colleges and universities, issued the following policy statement two weeks ago. The Council's most significant recommendation was that universities should not keep membership lists of student organizations, especially those related to matters of political belief or action)

In the summer of 1966, the House Un-American Activities Committee issued subpoenas to obtain from two leading universities the membership lists of campus organizations known to oppose the present policies of the United States in southeast Asia. The institutions in question complied. Thus far, the information obtained by the Committee has not been publicly released.

Although educational institutions, like others, have an obligation to co-operate with committees of the Congress, they also have an obligation to protect their students from unwarranted intrusion into their lives and from hurtful or threatening interference in the exploration of ideas and their consequences that education entails. The American Council on Education therefore urges that colleges and universities adopt clear policies on the confidentiality of students' records, giving due attention to the educational significance their decisions my have.

For educational reasons, our colleges typically favor the forming by students of organizations for political activity and the consideration of politically relevant ideas. For instance, space is regularly provided such groups for offices and meetings. In such circumstances, it seems only appropriate for students to expect their institutions to resist intimidation and harassment. Where particular persons are suspected of violating the law or are thought to possess information of value to an investigatory body, they can be directly approached in properly authorized ways. There is no need to press the college or university into the doubtful role of informant.

The maintenance of students records of all kinds, but especially those bearing on matters of belief and affiliation, inevitably creates a highly personal and confidential relationship. The mutual trust that this relationship implies is deeply involved in the educational process. Colleges acquire from students and other sources a great deal of private information about their enrollees for the basic purpose of facilitating their development as educated persons. This purpose is contravened when the material is made available to investigatory bodies without the student's permission. Thus, although a student may not require that his record be withdrawn, improperly altered, or destroyed, he may appropriately expect his institution to release information about him only with his knowledge and consent. Without that consent, only irresistible legal compulson justifies a college's indicating anything more about a student than his name, dates of registered attendance, the nature of any degrees granted, and the dates on which degrees were conferred.

The educational concept of a confidential relationship between the student and his college or university is supported here by the legal principles of freedom of association and the right of privacy. Like other citizens, students are entitled to engage in lawful assembly; if they are to learn true respect for the Constitution, they must learn from their own experience that that entitlement is never abridged without serious reflection, due cause, and profound reluctance. similarly, at a time when every individual's privacy is subject to serious erosion, each new invasion should be strongly resisted. Except in the most extreme instances, a student's college or university should never be a source of information about his beliefs or his associations unless he has given clear consent to its serving this function.

Finally, requests for information about a student's beliefs and associations inevitably imply the spectre of reprisals. To the extent that they do, they put at hazard the intellectual freedom of the college and the university. This dampening of free in-quiry and expression may affect faculty members and administrative officers as well as students. It is therefore in the interests of the entire academic community to protect vigilantly its traditions of free debate and investigation by safeguarding students and their records from pressures that may curtail their liberties. America cannot afford a recurrence of the incursions made on intellectual freedom in the 1950's.

In the light of these considerations, the American Council on Education offers four recommendations to institutions of higher learning:

* Mindful of the principle that student records should be held in a relationship of confidentiality between the student and the institution, each college and university should formulate and firmly implement clear policies to protect the confidential nature of student records. Such policies should reflect a full unrerstanding of the intimate connections between this relationship and the historic traditions of freedom of association, of the right of privacy, and of intellectual liberty.

* When demands which challenge the fundamental principle of confidentiality are made for informtaion about students' beliefs or associations, no response, beyond the reaffirmation of the principle, should be made without consultation with attorneys. Counsel for the institution should be asked not merely to advise a prudent course, but to prepare every legal basis for resistance.

* Institutional policy should pay proper respect to the intersets of research and scholarship to insure that the freedom of inquiry is not abridged. Neither investigators seeking generalizable knowledge about the educational enterprise, historians examining the background of a deceased alumnus who became a publicly significant figure, nor other legitimate scholars should be unduly restricted in their pursuits. When there is any doubt about its being safe-guarded, the person's consent to its use should be formally obtained, and the same general principles should be applied to the preservation of records as are recommended here with respect to the maintenance of records.

* Colleges and universities should discontinue the maintenance of membership lists of student organizations, especial those related to matters of political belief or action. If rosters of this kind do not exist, they cannot be subpoenaed, and the institution is therefore freed of some major elements of conflict and from the risks of contempt proceedings or a suit. The communicate with a campus group, the institution needs only to know its officers, not its entire membership. Whatever may be the advantages of more comprehensive listings, they must be considered, in the determination of policy, against the disadvantages and dangers outlined here. In addition, it must be remembered that the surrender of membership rosters to invetigative bodies carries no guarantee that they will not be re-produced and fall eventully into unfortunate hands. The use of black-lists, limited neither in time nor by honor, is a practice to which no college or university wishes to be, even inadvertently, an accessory.