March 14, 2003

To the Columbia Community:

In recent weeks there has been a growing concern among some students and faculty members about the way Columbia is responding to external requests for information about members of its community. Specifically, there has been some apprehension expressed that Columbia has changed its policy regarding the privacy of student records and how it deals with requests for information concerning our students from abroad.

I am writing to clarify the University's position on these issues. Before noting how we are protecting our students and the limited conditions under which we will release information about them, it is important that I make it clear that Columbia is a truly international university: About one-quarter of our full-time faculty members were born in nations other than the United States; and 18 percent of our students come from other nations. We take great pride in these facts and we have every intention of maintaining this diversity and extending it. No part of the world is excluded from Columbia's reach; none will be in the future.

In times of great concern for national security, there may be some who would sacrifice individual rights. We are not among those who would, unless compelled to do so by Congress or our courts. We want to continue to help the nation during this difficult time -- and we will. But we will not do so by sacrificing the individual rights of our faculty and students.

In this context, then, I am setting forth a brief summary of the laws and policies that govern Columbia's release of student information. For many years the privacy of the educational records of Columbia University's students (i.e., all students, including international students) has been protected by the University's policies adopted to conform with the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 ("FERPA"), as amended (also known as the "Buckley Amendment"), and its implementing federal regulations. FERPA restricts the persons to whom the University may disclose a student's records without the student's written permission. The University does not release a student's records to others, unless the request is in conformity with FERPA. Contrary to some rumors that have come to our attention, the University has not violated FERPA, and the University will not violate FERPA or other legal requirements. In light of recent concerns and the possibility that few are familiar with FERPA, let me outline a few of its basic principles:

First, if a student requests that their educational records be released to a third party, or the student specifically consents to the release, the University will comply. Sometimes students make such a request or consent in connection with an application to another university or an application for employment, and the University's Registrar's Office releases educational records in those instances. Occasionally, also in connection with a student's application for employment, an FBI agent or other official may contact people at the University as part of a "background check" about a student. If you are contacted as part of a "background check" about another person, you do not need to cooperate. However, cooperation may very well assist the person in securing employment. In any event, before you cooperate, you should ask to see a document setting forth the person's written consent to the release of their educational records.

Second, the University releases "directory information" about a student without the student's consent, unless the student has completed a request to withhold directory information. Directory information at Columbia includes each student's name, address, telephone listing and certain other categories of information that are specified in the University's FERPA policy published in FACETS. Students’ names, addresses and telephone listings are available freely through the University's web "directory." If you are a student attending Columbia and do not want "directory information" about you to be released, you should contact John Carter at the Office of the Registrar (at 854-1458) about the procedures to follow (or for more information see Privacy Rights on the Registrar's webpage. If you follow these procedures, directory information about you will not be released to anybody without a judicial order or lawful subpoena.

Third, FERPA and the University's policies provide that the University may release information in compliance with a judicial order or pursuant to a lawful subpoena. As a general policy, the University will notify the student at the address on file in the Registrar's Office that the University has received a judicial order or subpoena. However, some judicial orders and subpoenas issued for law enforcement purposes specify that the University cannot disclose to any person the existence or contents of the order or subpoena or the information furnished in compliance with it.

Fourth, FERPA and the University's policies also provide that, under limited circumstances, in connection with an emergency, the University may disclose educational records "if the knowledge of such information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other persons." This FERPA exception is not a substitute for a judicial order or lawful subpoena in an investigation.

Many of you have read about the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism" Act of 2001 ("USA PATRIOT" Act) which was adopted to respond to terrorism. Although the USA PATRIOT Act amends FERPA in connection with investigations and prosecutions of terrorism, the basic principles set forth above have not changed. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, the United States Attorney General or his designee may apply to a court for an order requiring an educational institution like Columbia to permit the Attorney General to obtain educational records of individual students. If an educational institution was served with such a court order, the institution would be prohibited from disclosing the order to the student or to others. Federal regulations implementing this recently enacted provision have not yet been issued.

Many of you have also read about proposed legislation that would prohibit or create a moratorium on student visas for international students. The University is monitoring such legislation proposals closely and has been actively involved, on its own and together with other universities, to prevent passage of such legislation.

Finally, in these times it is normal for some people to feel anxiety or fear when confronted with requests for information about themselves or others. I want to provide you with some information about how you can find out more about your rights if a law enforcement or an immigration official wishes to speak with you. Although the University cannot give legal advice about what to do in such an event, to assist students and others at the University, we are (1) attaching a publication issued by the American Civil Liberties Union entitled What to Do If You're Stopped By the Police, The FBI, The INS, Or the Customs Service, and (2) setting forth below an up-dated contact list of organizations that can provide legal advice and assistance if the need arises:

  • Columbia Law School Center for Public Interest Law - (212) 854-3535
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) - (212) 549-2500
  • American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) - (202) 244-2990
  • Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) - (212) 966-5932 ext. 222
  • Center for Constitutional Rights - (212) 614-6464
  • National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild - (617) 227-9727 ext. 5 (contact: Leila Laoudji, 9-11 Lawyer)
  • New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) - (212) 344-3005


I hope that this letter has helped to clarify the University’s position and has given you some information that might prove useful to you.



Jonathan R. Cole
Provost and Dean of Faculties