WASHINGTON -- Several groups have been tapping on the door of Congress lately with a request for oversight into the often opaque, big-money world of college sports.
But the door seems shut tight.
There’s been no shortage of front-page scandals involving blue chip collegiate athletic programs, from the Penn State child sex abuse tragedy to the University of Miami booster-gate episode, where an avid fan lavished players with cash, women and other extra benefits.
But it’s a 16-year academic fraud case at the University of North Carolina that has crystallized concerns that a federal academic records privacy law has been used by schools as a tool to keep certain records from the public that critics believe should be kept open.
“There is not a culture of transparency,” said James Sears Bryant, an attorney who was involved in a campus privacy issue related to sexual assault complaints at Oklahoma State University
Sometimes the law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, known as FERPA, has been used to keep even police and state officials in the dark.
At Oklahoma State, Bryant said school officials mistakenly told reporters that the law prevented them from reporting sexual assault complaints to the police.
FERPA was intended to protect student privacy, primarily grades. But educational institutions have used it to keep other kinds of records secret – including disciplinary actions after sexual assault reports, parking tickets that would show what kind of cars student-athletes are driving, and other non-educational information.
North Carolina, one of the top public universities in the country that also boasts one of the premier college basketball programs, was the scene of one of the worst-ever academic scandals at an American university. The school, known as a “public Ivy,” quietly placed hundreds of students – many of them athletes – in lecture-style classes in the African studies department, which never met, and which only required of them a term paper at the end, which likely wasn’t read.
The fraud began to unravel in August 2011, when McClatchy’s The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C, obtained the transcript of a football star showing a B-plus in an upper-level class before he had even begun his first full semester as a freshman.
Since then, university officials have acknowledged that there have been more than 200 bogus classes in the department. A recent independent investigation found that the more than 450 unauthorized grade changes in the classes were spread among both students and student-athletes in a manner consistent with the class enrollments.
“This was not an athletic scandal,” former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin, who headed the investigation, told the school’s board of trustees. “It was an academic scandal, which is worse.”
Journalism groups say even general information, such as what classes attract large numbers of student-athletes and who teaches them, is kept secret. The Drake Group, an association of professors, has published articles seeking broad reforms in line with its mission, “to defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports.”
But there are no plans for hearings on Capitol Hill. And there’s no powerful group lobbying Congress to pay attention.
“It’s like pushing a wet noodle,” said Drake member Frank Splitt, a retired electrical engineering professor, who has pressed lawmakers and published numerous articles on the need for college sports reform. “Nobody’s responding in Congress.”
North Carolina’s academic fraud problem was not unique. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is monitoring the case, has waded into others, including:
– Florida State University in 2006 and 2007, cases of cheating on tests and papers involving football, men’s basketball and other sports.
– Georgia Southern University in 2010, academic fraud involving a former coach and two players on the men’s basketball team.
– University of Southern Mississippi in 2013, two former tennis coaches were cited for offering impermissible benefits, including $5,000 – and in the case of one student, a car – as well as academic misconduct, including paying one student-athlete to write papers for another.
Meanwhile, the University of Kentucky refused a request by the school newspaper’s editor for correspondence between the university and its athletics staff, and between the university and the NCAA about the athletic status of freshman basketball player Nerlens Noel. The NCAA later ruled that Noel was eligible.
The state attorney general’s office asked for the same information but was turned down, as well. Nonetheless, the office ruled in December that the university was right to deny the newspaper the material.
“The overuse of FERPA, in ways that the sponsors never intended, to conceal information that’s just inconvenient or embarrassing, is really an epidemic,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a journalism advocacy group that is not allowed to lobby.
LoMonte said Congress should overhaul the privacy law and make clear that only “core academic and disciplinary records” are protected. And with the penalty for violating FERPA – withdrawal of federal funds – so extreme, schools overreact for fear of being put out of business, he said.
Higher education lawyers say the law doesn’t need to be fixed.
“Only rarely does it restrict us from communicating about our students when we need to do so, and hardly ever does it compel communication about our students,” Steven McDonald, general counsel at the Rhode Island School of Design, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “It gives us considerable discretion to do what we, in our own best judgment, think should be done.”
Alexandra Sollberger, a spokeswoman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said that it would continue to monitor the application of FERPA but that the issue was not on its immediate agenda.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a former member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and a former state attorney general, said that “a new look may be worth doing” because he hears from school administrators, parents and others that they’re troubled about the law.
Asked last fall about the North Carolina scandal, Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat and a former Duke University professor whose district includes UNC, said, "I think this situation has reached the point where we need to ask ourselves, is there a federal legislative approach that could be helpful?"