UPDATED: April 9, 2015, at 11:16 p.m.
In a two-hour discussion with administrators on Wednesday, students raised concerns about student privacy in advance of the Bureau of Study Counsel’s move back to the purview of Harvard College.
Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris announced Monday that, after 11 years as part of Harvard University Health Services, the BSC will report administratively to the College starting in July.
About 30 students and faculty members attended Wednesday's town hall event, some of whom expressed worries about a potential loss of privacy, as the Bureau’s transition from UHS to the College means a different set of guidelines for confidentiality.
Currently, as part of UHS, the Bureau is subject to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act which “protects the privacy of individually identifiable health information,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. When the BSC rejoins the College, students’ records and other private information will again fall under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a different kind of protection that previously applied to the Bureau before the move to UHS 11 years ago, administrators said at the meeting.
“We’re moving from a healthcare notion of privacy to an educational definition,” Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education for Academic Support Ann Gaylin said.
Some students are concerned about losing the protection of HIPAA, raising issues about the potential differences between medical and academic privacy privileges.
William A. Greenlaw ’17, an Undergraduate Council representative, said he also wondered how the BSC’s move would affect student comfort levels in expressing their problems, academic or otherwise. Greenlaw asked whether moving the BSC to the College would mean that students could not, for example, disclose cheating on an exam when discussing stress without risking academic disciplinary action.
Administrators said they have strived to protect students’ best interests and that focus will not change with the BSC’s move.
“We don’t compromise student privacy,” Harris said. “We’re not moving this so we can make things worse.”
Ultimately, administrators said the motivation for the BSC’s move to the College lies with the more flexibility it provides with respect to academic support for students. Without the clinical mandate of hiring licensed physicians, the BSC can take on staff members who may have particular specialties but not medical degrees, she said.
In addition, with the BSC as part of the College, aggregate data about academic life can be shared among offices including the Advising Programs Office and Accessible Education Office to “knit together academic services,” Gaylin said.
“A lot of what we’re looking forward to is an ease of communication,” BSC Director Abigail Lipson said.
In addition to privacy concerns, several students who spoke at the town hall meeting said they were worried that transferring the mental health and certain counseling aspects of the BSC to UHS may deter students from seeking help because of the stigma of going to UHS.
Director of UHS Paul J. Barreira said at the town hall that, even with additional resources and appropriate suggestions, some students will continue not to seek counseling.
Some attendees at the town hall said the BSC, as it now stands, has provided them with a non-clinical space to discuss both traumatic experiences and day-to-day stresses with trusted counselors. The resulting discussion prompted even more questions, and it remains unclear as to what the dividing line will be between academic and mental health issues after the transition.
Craig Rodgers, a counselor at the BSC, said administrators should make sure that the relationships between BSC counselors and their students remain of utmost importance, citing an anecdote about a traumatic car accident in which he, along with a Counseling and Mental Health Services staff member and medical personnel, were called to the scene.
“Students are not just personally devastated [by stress and traumatic events]; they’re academically devastated,” Rodgers said. “I hope that we’re there at the front and center [when students need help].”
The discussion also turned to the decision-making process behind this transition, which came under fire from some who criticized what they saw as a lack of student input.
Jacob R. Steinberg-Otter ’16, a Undergraduate Council representative, criticized what he described as administrators soliciting student comment only after the important decisions have been made.
“We are asked for feedback and not for input,” he said. “My personal frustration is with the change and how it was carried out.”
Administrators responded by saying that an external review was conducted in 2011, and an internal review was conducted in 2012 to gather students’ opinions.
—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: April 9, 2015
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jacob R. Steinberg-Otter ’16 referenced the closing of Stillman Infirmary in his comments about administrators' solicitation of student input in important decisions. In fact, he did not reference the Stillman decision.