In recent weeks, Wheaton College has experienced one too many technical difficulties — everything from Banner Web shutting down temporarily, to late chapel seat notifications, to the printers malfunctioning. Even the IT servers crashed on the first day of school, affecting both internet access and student logins. But the most stunning and controversial one by far occurred late Monday afternoon, when the Office of the Registrar mistakenly sent an email to the entire student body listing the names of all undergraduates currently on academic probation.
“Attached please find the Probation List for Spring 2015,” read the email, which included an attachment listing the full names of 53 undergraduate and 5 graduate students. In an instant, the academic status of these students was made known to the entire campus. The Office of the Registrar contacted IT Services with the hope of retracting the email but it was not possible.
As news of the email spread, it quickly became apparent that the message was a significant mistake. The Office of the Registrar and the administration took action, issuing a number of emails apologizing for the mistake.
“We deeply regret this error and sincerely apologize to all who have been impacted,” wrote Provost Stanton Jones in an email on Wednesday. “We ask that you show special concern and respect towards each other and help us together resolve the concerns that this inadvertent disclosure has raised.”
The email goes on to discuss ongoing policy changes meant to address security and privacy concerns, such as plans to utilize a “secure server” for sensitive information.
But the damage was done.
Following the incident, many Wheaton students raised serious concerns, especially those that were on the list. The Record spoke with several students on the list, but agreed to keep their names anonymous.
“I had no idea I was on probation until then,” wrote one student. “I sent a brief email to the registrar right away, asking why the information was made public. It was pretty clear to me that it was only an accident, just a really bad one.”
“My heart dropped,” wrote another student, “I didn’t want others to know.”
Some students even expressed that the situation has affected their personal and social lives. “The thought that everyone on campus could know my academic situation is pretty jarring,” said one student. “When you’re not doing well, you work really hard at keeping things together so that people don’t wonder or worry … I was struggling with my mental and physical health last semester, and of course I didn’t want to wear that on my sleeve.”
“It made me uncomfortable because I’ve been made vulnerable (without choosing),” wrote another student. “I felt defensive at first. But I realized I have no reason to. I’m afraid of judgment, but I’m confident that my closest friends and family understand … I’m okay … I know that the registrar just made a clumsy mistake.”
While administrators were understanding, they were also disappointed by the misstep.
“I just felt so distraught that I would cause people pain,” said Associate Registrar and Transfer Analyst Janet Miller, “75 percent of my job is dealing with sensitive information and so I was horrified that it happened.”
Shortly after the email, Miller sent out personal apologies to each personal on the list, communicating her deepest sympathy and regret.
Provost Jones offered a similar outlook. “I got a phone call as I was stepping onto a plane and this was just not what I wanted to hear,” he said. “It was a disappointment, but an understandable one.”
The Administration was also careful to point out the nuances of academic probation. According to Registrar Peggy King, academic probation is linked to unsatisfactory academic progress, which means that undergraduate students must earn a certain grade point average and pass a minimum of 12 hours each term. Consequently, sometimes students may wind up on academic probation due to an illness or death in the family which causes them to drop below full time hours.
“In past years, I’ve had students with a 3.8 GPA that had to drop a course and were put on the probation list,” King said. “Under all circumstances, most students on probation, with the help of their peers, faculty and staff, get off probation and ultimately obtain their degrees,” said Jones in the letter.
Moving forward the Registrar has offered to meet and apologize to affected students, as well as explain future plans to ensure similar problems will not happen again. “We plan to implement new software immediately,” said Jones. This new software, he explained, will entail a web-based login system accessible only through Wheaton login credentials. This will allow administration and faculty to share sensitive information without the risk of public disclosure.
Nevertheless, some Wheaton students have expressed concern on social media platforms that the school’s action — publicly disclosing students’ academic records without consent — may be in violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Acts (FERPA), a federal regulation that, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s website, “protects the privacy of student education records.”
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, “FERPA prohibits the disclosure of a student’s ‘protected information’ to a third party.” This includes educational information. A similar policy is outlined on Wheaton’s own website: “Release of student record information is generally not done at Wheaton College without the express written consent of the student,” it says.
Despite the critical response from the student body following the Administration’s mistake, many have offered statements of sympathy and kindness. “I am grateful to be part of a community of grace,” said Jones, “Sometimes people make completely inadvertent mistakes … I myself have (on) occasions.”
One student on the list said, “If I look at the bigger picture, “(the) registrar has still helped me more than harmed me.”