Florida students can no longer submit complaints about their professors and be sure their identities will never be revealed. Earlier this month, a Florida court ruled that the identities of students who submit complaints about faculty members at public universities are public record.
Seventy year old math teacher Darnell Rhea filed suit against Santa Fe College, in Gainesville, after school administrators decided not to renew his contract at the end of the year. Rhea suspected that a student complaint claiming that he had made humiliating remarks in class caused his dismissal. Rhea denied the allegations and asked college officials to tell him which student had made the complaint.
The case centered on how to interpret the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which allows the federal government to withhold funds from schools that release educational records "directly related" to students.
The three-judge panel of Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal ruled unanimously that complaints are directly related to teachers and only tangentially to students. As long as complaints are not directly related to students, they are a matter of public record.
The new interpretation could discourage students from speaking up out of fear of repercussions from angry professors.
"If public schools, universities, and colleges expect to hear the truth about their faculty then they need to grant students confidentiality," said Allison Bravo, a college senior from Fort Lauderdale who goes to Boston College, in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "I've found that complaints only stem from situations where the professor is overly difficult, has a bad attitude or is unwilling to help his students. We aren't given a say in teaching methods or how a course is designed and when we encounter situations where professors treat students unfairly, we deserve to have a venue where we can express our concerns."
Bravo also feared that the ruling would distort the widely-used faculty evaluation process: "Each year at my university we are required to send in course evaluation forms, which are anonymous. Without the assurance that my evaluations would be kept anonymous, I admit I that wouldn't be able to make honest statements without fear of backlash."
But Rhea contended that many anonymous complaints have nothing to do with faculty performance. He suspected that the student who complained about him had only showed up to class once and so could not have given a fair assessment of his performance as a teacher.
Clayton Chambers, a sophomore at The King's College in New York City, understood Rhea's point but still didn't like the potential consequences of the court's ruling in his case.
"There will always be students who choose to file complaints for the wrong reasons, but that's not something the school can mend, because it's not their job to," Chambers said. "I believe that forcing a student to disclose his name when writing a complaint about a professor is an infringement upon that student's right to remain unidentified."
But Rhea also phrased his position in terms of rights: "To me, it's just un-American that you don't have a right to know who your accuser is," he told The Associated Press.