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Confidentiality and Students’ Rights in Advising

Although FERPA recognizes student’s rights to the privacy of their educational records, it also recognizes an advisor’s right to confidential communications. This right, however, is not an absolute one. Discussion between staff or faculty advisors concerning an individual student may be both appropriate and beneficial. Discretion, concern for the student’s best interest, and good judgment will dictate the circumstances and content of the sharing of confidential information. 

No information concerning a student, however insignificant it may appear to be, should be given to anyone other than appropriate members of the University professional staff or faculty. Information given by the student in confidence should be kept in confidence unless the student agrees that some other person should have knowledge of the information or situation. To protect the interests and right to privacy of the student, all grades, records, and reports are to be handled as confidential information.

Information concerning a student should generally not be given on the telephone since it is not possible to identify the caller positively. Students will receive any information they need by mail or via a Shepherd email account from the appropriate office. Grades should never be given over the phone. As a faculty or staff advisor, your safest course of action is to refer all external requests for information to the Office of the Registrar.

Privacy of Student Records (FERPA)

In academic affairs, a contractual relationship exists between the student and the college. The basic provisions of the University Catalog, recruiting and departmental brochures, various bulletins, and the Student Handbook become part of this contract. The University sets forth certain requirements for passing courses and for successful completion of programs and degrees. If students fail to meet the required standards, they can be penalized through such actions as dismissal, suspension, or failure to graduate on schedule. If the institution fails to respect its own regulations, then students may seek judicial relief.

However, because the responsibility for student information, such as course and graduation requirements, is placed on the shoulders of students, a faculty advisor is usually liable only in situations of gross negligence, irresponsible behavior, or arbitrary or capricious treatment of a student. It is important that faculty advisors be informed of services the University promises to provide for its students. It is equally important that faculty advisors meet their responsibility to refer students to the appropriate person or office whenever they feel incapable of completely answering a student’s questions or assisting with a student’s requests.

It would be helpful if academic advisors kept notes of their discussions with students during formal and informal advising sessions. An accurate record of advising sessions can help solve disputes over the content of such sessions and can serve as a legitimate protection against claims of erroneous advising.

As faculty advisors, you should seek to understand the legal issues related to academic advising. Such an understanding will protect students’ rights as well as your own. Being familiar with the current legal parameters, you can maintain those policies and practices which respect the worth and dignity of each student. And by doing so, you can help create a better climate for respecting the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities of every member of our campus community and thereby reduce the chances for legal procedures. Educational advisors–professional, staff, or faculty–are in a critical position in dealing with students, and the success or failure of students’ education and growth is influenced greatly by the advising process. In fact, in today’s litigious atmosphere, the advising process is more critical than ever.

Academic advising occurs under the auspices of Academic Affairs. The courts have hesitated to enter the academic arena and substitute their judgment for that of academicians. In doing so, the courts have recognized the academic freedom which protects academic decisions, including advising decisions. They have also recognized that their repeated presence in the academic community could possibly deteriorate the otherwise beneficial student/faculty relationship. Keeping this in mind, if academicians and professional staff do not abuse their discretion in dealing with students, they need not fear judicial intervention. However, the courts will intervene if evidence exists of arbitrary or negligent treatment of students or a denial of their protected rights. The increasing judicial sensitivity to students’ rights is therefore an important issue of which each member of our academic community should be aware.