By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz and Eric Dexheimer | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011
An agreement between the University of Texas System and MyEdu Corp. designates the Austin-based company as "a UT System official" with permission to see students' education records.
The agreement also lets the company display trademarks and logos of the system's 15 campuses on its website, which offers a free service that students can use to plan courses, track their progress toward a degree and rate professors.
Administrators at the Austin flagship and other campuses say implementing these and other details of the agreement is a work in progress.
The members of the UT System Board of Regents voted unanimously Aug. 25 to invest $10 million in privately held MyEdu and to sign on with it for customized website functions for each of the system's nine academic and six health campuses. The American-Statesman has reported on several unusual aspects of the partnership this week.
The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act allows colleges to release publicly so-called directory information about students, such as name, phone number and address. But individual student grades and schedules are considered private under the law.
Although he said he could not speak to the arrangement between the UT System and MyEdu specifically, Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the law permitted schools to designate contractors to view and gather otherwise private student information.
"As 'school officials,' these outside parties may inspect and review students' education records and are under the same obligations to protect the information as internal school officials," Bradshaw said.
Steven McDonald, general counsel for the Rhode Island School of Design and an expert of the privacy act, said contractors given access to otherwise private student information must meet a series of legal tests, including being under the direct control of the school.
The contractors also must use the information only for matters pertaining to student education, he said.
UT System officials said student information will be protected with security safeguards, system oversight and campus-by-campus authority to decide what will be shared with MyEdu.
But officials at the system's campuses, who were not consulted in depth before the MyEdu deal was struck, said it was not yet clear exactly how all this will work.
"If we can make MyEdu a useful advising tool for faculty advisers, that could potentially be helpful to us," David Daniel , president of UT-Dallas, said Thursday. "However, we have to do that in a way that is FERPA-compliant. We do not yet know precisely how that will work."
A spokesman for the Austin flagship said no other contract or partnership is precisely comparable to the one involving MyEdu.
But, Gary Susswein said, "We believe the framework exists in this agreement for us to protect student privacy and safeguard our brand in a way that is consistent with our operations."
MyEdu did not respond to a request for clarification.
Barry Burgdorf, the UT System's vice chancellor and general counsel, said individual education records wouldn't be shared with MyEdu without a student's permission. Patti Ohlendorf, UT-Austin's vice president for legal affairs, said that was her understanding, as well.
"The application will not even access a particular student's information unless he or she signs up for the service," she said. "If a student wants to use the advising application and UT-Austin has decided to offer it, the student can sign on for the application and only then can it access that particular student's record."
S tudents around the country use tools on the company's website, myedu.com, to help them plan their schedules and then log on to official university sites to confirm class and scheduling information. Students and faculty members have occasionally complained that information on myedu.com has been inaccurate.
Regents and UT System officials said the partnership with MyEdu would ensure greater accuracy, and they predicted that the website could become a kind of one-stop shop for degree planning. But if campuses decide not to share some educational records with MyEdu, students might still have to check with their schools to ensure that their educational plans are on track.
Carisa Neitsche , president of UT-Austin's Senate of College Councils, the voice of students on academic affairs, said past surveys show students are concerned with protecting their privacy. Regarding the MyEdu deal, she said: "There are so many question marks at this point. None of us knows what this will look like."
John Davis Rutkauskas , the UT System's nonvoting student regent, said students at many of the campuses want expanded and enhanced advising services. "As an undergraduate student at UT-Austin and a user of MyEdu, I can personally attest that the service works and has enhanced my student experience," he said.
The system's partnership with MyEdu came together in an unusual fashion. Investments from the multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund are normally made by money management firms chosen by an arm of the UT board, the University of Texas Investment Management Co.
The regents made a direct investment in this case, without competitive bidding, because they saw MyEdu as a unique and innovative tool to help students plan their educations and thereby improve graduation rates, system officials said.
The regents and other system officials did not disclose the fact — nor were they apparently aware in some cases — that William Cunningham, the system's chancellor from 1992 to 2000, is an investor in MyEdu and that his son is the company's senior vice president of information architecture and a co-founder. No law or rule required such disclosure.
System officials said this week that the son of Regent Wallace Hall held an unpaid internship at MyEdu from Aug. 1-12 and was invited to return this fall, also for no pay. That does not constitute a conflict requiring any action, Burgdorf said.
UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. said this week that the decision to partner with MyEdu "was a decision of the board not a decision of the campus."
He added that he would have had different priorities for the $10 million.
The system later issued a statement defending the investment: "This purchase was a literal 'gift' from the Board of Regents directly to the 211,000 students matriculating in the system's institutions. In time the board is hopeful that administrators, faculty and staff at our institutions will find the MyEdu software that is customized for their use to be very helpful and useful in improving advising and improving help to their students."