UF to scan student, faculty e-mail in admissions leak

Published: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 12:02 a.m.

The University of Florida has launched a privacy investigation, looking for students and faculty members who may have leaked confidential information about a controversial admissions decision.

UF's Privacy Office is questioning members of UF's Medical Selection Committee and also searching through student and faculty e-mail for evidence of illegal disclosures of private student information, according to officials.

"We have an obligation to maintain student privacy and patient care privacy, and depending on whether or not there's been a violation, there may be a sanction for an individual or a change in policy or procedure," said Dr. Douglas Barrett, UF's senior vice president for health affairs.

With few exceptions, faculty e-mails are considered public records in Florida. Student e-mails, on the other hand, are protected under federal law, just as student records are protected.

Under the circumstances of an investigation, however, UF officials say the privacy office is authorized to read through student e-mail.

"We reserve the right to go through anyone's e-mail when there is an appropriate justification to do so, and in this case (there is a) potential violation of federal laws," said Janine Sikes, UF spokeswoman.

The investigation of students will be limited to scanning through UF e-mail accounts, not accounts set up through other services like Yahoo or Gmail, according to Sikes.

The federal Family Education and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA, protects students' academic records. The investigation centers on the notion that FERPA may have been violated by committee members who discussed the group's deliberations.

The investigation launched by UF is in part the result of stories that ran in The Sun in April, discussing the admission of a student who did not have the support of the committee that traditionally handles admissions decisions.

The student, Benjamin Mendelsohn, did not have basic qualifications, having never taken the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT, according to three members of the selection committee and two other sources close to the situation.

Mendelsohn is the son of a major Republican fundraiser, and a prior application he sent to UF's medical school contained letters of recommendation from Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

Dr. Bruce Kone, dean of UF's College of Medicine, says he overruled the committee because the student was "exceptional."

Kone could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In an April 15 e-mail, Kone touted the importance of the privacy investigation - at the same time complaining about his own e-mail being reviewed by the press.

"Every form of my private professional and personal communications has been breached and is being investigated, as is the very serious breach of confidentiality of the admissions committee's deliberations," he wrote. "I hope all of those investigations will be completed very soon. I fully expect this e-mail will be published, based on my recent experience."

Jack Stripling can be reached at 352-374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.

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