University of Illinois shields data on clouted students
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the state's top public college, and many fear a clout list taints it. (Tribune photo by Zbigniew Bzdak / May 28, 2009)
The Tribune plans to legally challenge the university's decision, said Editor Gerould Kern.
In response to a Tribune request under the Freedom of Information Act for documents related to U. of I. admissions, the university turned over about 1,800 pages, some of which were heavily redacted. The records led to a series of stories chronicling how some unqualified students were admitted only after inquiries from lawmakers and university trustees.
The Tribune appealed the decision to hide ACT scores and grade-point averages, arguing that the public had a right to know about the role of powerful patrons in the admissions process. The Tribune did not ask for the students' names.
On Monday, U. of I. President B. Joseph White rejected the appeal, ruling that releasing test scores of unnamed students would still warrant an invasion of privacy.
"Uppermost in my mind, as a public University President, is the protection of students' and applicants' individual privacy rights," White wrote in denying the data. "Fortunately, [the law] specifically provides public Universities with the necessary tools to protect the privacy rights of our students and applicants."
Though documents obtained by the Tribune show that admissions officers worried about the "terrible" and "weak" academic records of some applicants, the university redacted their academic qualifications, preventing analysis of just how far below U. of I. standards prospective students fell.
Open records experts scoffed at White's reason for withholding the information, saying the data do not identify the student and as such cannot be an invasion of privacy.
"I find their decision-making so far in this story or scandal to be suspect, and therefore I don't trust this is a clean legal decision. I wish I did, but I don't," said Medill School of Journalism professor Jack Doppelt.
Experts point to a 2002 decision in which the University of Wisconsin was forced to turn over test scores, grade-point averages and class rankings. In that case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that when a request does not seek personally identifiable information, there is no overriding public-policy interest in keeping records confidential.
Though the decision has no jurisdiction in Illinois, open records advocates say the same principle would apply with the Tribune's request.
"The key issue is whether this is identifying information," said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. "And there's no identifying information in a three-digit number."