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EWU pulls privacy guidelines

Eastern Washington University has withdrawn a controversial confidentiality “expectation” it asked employees to sign, after professors raised criticisms about it.

The document outlined information EWU employees are not supposed to disclose under state and federal law or university policy, ranging from student grades and addresses to the Social Security numbers of employees. Administrators said it was an attempt to make sure all employees are familiar with recent privacy laws.

Critics said it went too far, defining confidentiality too broadly and categorizing some public information as possibly private, such as university salaries. It also attempted to restrict information about collective bargaining, which raised concerns with the unions.

“This was very, very troubling to us for a number of reasons,” said Tony Flinn, president of the faculty union at EWU.

The faculty and administration will now work out a new way to ensure that professors are trained regarding privacy laws. Some members of the classified and administrative staffs have already signed the documents – though not all.

Tom McArthur, a heavy equipment operator and former president of the classified staff union at EWU, said he refused to sign it. He’s been a sharply vocal critic of the document, calling it an attempt to clamp down on dissenters and restrict public information.

“It’s indicative of a larger issue,” he said. “There’s a complete lack of trust.”

Ron Dalla, interim provost at Eastern, spoke to the Faculty Senate about the issue Monday. He said Friday that the document could have been presented with more context and explanation, and that the administration was going to work with the faculty to develop another approach.

“It sort of appeared out of nowhere,” he said.

He also said that there were problems with some of the items on a list of potentially confidential or privileged information. The list included employee compensation, which is considered public record, as well as any record that included “personally identifiable information.”

That’s much broader than the state law’s definition of the privacy exemption to the public records act, which limits private records to those whose release would be generally offensive and that have no legitimate public interest.

“Probably the list wasn’t very well thought out,” Dalla said.

Flinn said he was satisfied that the university has withdrawn the document, and that it was now a “dead issue” among the faculty.

Bill Youngs, vice president of the Faculty Organization, agreed with some of the concerns over the initial document, but said he’s also happy with the administration’s response.

“I’m rather pleased, right now,” Youngs said. “I feel like the train is back on the tracks.”

But Keven Shipman, a graduate student and adjunct professor at EWU who wrote a column critical of the document in the campus newspaper, said he remains concerned about the university’s next move in the issue, and thinks the central ideas behind the document are still university goals.

“Their position is that it was improperly presented,” he said.

Eric Combest, associate secretary with the American Association of University Professors, reviewed a copy of the document and said he found it “a bit baffling.”

He said he would wonder about the motivation for the agreement, if it covered things already required by law, and what would a refusal to sign the document mean for a professor.

“Precisely what rights would it sign away that a faculty member might want to reserve?” he asked in an e-mail.

Dalla said that the document was not meant to have binding authority, but just to show that employees had received information about privacy laws. He said employees were told they weren’t required to sign it.

With the recent passage of laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to protect personal information, universities have a growing responsibility to protect confidential information, he said.

“Institutions are expected to make sure employees are aware” of the laws, he said.

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