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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Letter to the editor: Federal privacy laws don’t seem to apply at Brandeis

Published: August 31, 2007
Section: Opinions

To the Editor,

Each year the Brandeis Registrar transfers students personal information to Bank of America so that a marketing letter, written by a Brandeis official, can be mailed to students homes, urging them to take out an affinity Mastercard. If Brandeis can get you to take out its credit card, the school will make a lot of money off you during your hopefully long and prosperous life!

Nowhere is Brandeis transparent about what it is doing. All you can find is a sentence buried in the New Student Handbook, in a paragraph confusingly entitled Public Notice Designating Directory Information. The sentence reads: Brandeis University assumes that failure on the part of any student to specifically request the withholding of public information indicates individual approval for disclosure.

Can students actually opt out? The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (1974) gives students and their families the right to opt out of having their personal information used by the school in this sort of way. So in July 2006 our family decided that we didnt want any more Brandeis solicitations for credit cards (having already opted out of all other such solicitations), nor did we want Brandeis giving a bank our personal information. So we wrote to the President, the Registrar, and the Alumni Association and eventually figured out what we had to do. Our son did then opt out – the Alumni Director and the Registrar even confirmed that he had. But it made absolutely no difference. Still in 2007 he continued to receive new marketing (new because in 2007 Brandeis and the Bank rewrote the letter and raised the interest rate for most students to 19.24%).

So we wrote again to the administration. On July 30 Senior VP Jean Eddy replied, saying that Bank of America had re-used the student database for additional marketing when it wasnt supposed to. No apology, just the implication that it wasnt Brandeis fault. What this tells us is that Brandeis doesnt know what the Bank is doing with students personal information (Brandeis only knew because we had told them), and Brandeis certainly cant control what the Bank does with it.

The only positive turn so far is that, according to Lisa Hornyuk, the Bank VP in charge of Brandeis credit-card program, on February 14 Brandeis decided to reduce its student marketing to once a year instead of twice a year.

In January 2007, the New England Journal of Higher Education called for increased transparency by college administrators. It asked: How many students drop out after incurring life-changing debt? How about the precise terms of deals struck between colleges and commercial vendors, from Nike to credit card companies?

Brandeis isnt doing too well on transparency. It should start by being up-front with students that the school will be transferring their personal data to Bank of America. Then it should make it much easier for students to know they are entitled to opt out. Third, it should control what the Bank of America does with students personal data, and it should disclose to the Brandeis community the financial terms of its deal with Bank of America. After all, it is the students personal information that makes the deal possible in the first place.

J. H. Humphrey,
Parent 08