San Diego, CA
After a lecturer at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) revealed personal academic information about a student in a public online forum, students accused her of violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The university launched an investigation into the incident in June 2018, which is still ongoing.
Rundong Zhong is a fourth-year student of mathematics and computer science at UCSD. He transferred there from Irvine Valley College, a small community college about 70 miles north.
Susan Marx holds the rank of “continuing lecturer” at UCSD, where she teaches computer science classes, including Introduction to Programming and Fluency/Information Technology, the course in which Zhong was enrolled.
In June 2018, in Marx’s class, Zhong asked via Piazza, a online forum instructors often use to answer students’ questions publicly, whether he could post “funny stuff” (i.e. a photo of a cat) as part of a class website project. In the assignment’s instructions, students were to choose a “picture that represents your planned UCSD academics.”
Marx rejected Zhong’s request and, in the same public comment, revealed some of Zhong’s sensitive personal academic information before ridiculing the community college he had previously attended as being inferior to UCSD. She also told Zhong he would receive no credit for the assignment unless he changed the photo in question, which he did, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Zhong consented to changing the picture, but was dismayed by Marx’s comments, which read as follows:
“Your homepage image of a cat does NOT relate to your UCSD academic career as required in Lab#1. I will reprimand the tutor who approved of it,” Marx wrote, according to a screenshot of the post circulated online. “Since you are on academic PROBATION as a Math/CS major, and failed CSE major course, please *THINK* of your actions, BEFORE you escalate your penalty to major consequences. UCSD is of the highest in international academic standings and NOT the same as your Irvine Valley College. Humor can be offensive to some and to others amusing depending on culture, politics, and ethics.”
Zhong wrote to The Chronicle that the comment made him feel that Marx did not think he was “as good as other students.” But many other UCSD students were similarly alarmed, because they saw the post as a violation of FERPA, which mandates that schools have an eligible student’s written permission to release information from his or her education record. (An eligible student means one who has reached 18 years of age and attends a postsecondary institution.) According to The Triton, UCSD’s independent, student-run newspaper, students rallied their peers to report Marx to the Office for the Prevention of Discrimination and Harassment or to the UCSD FERPA compliance officer. They also protested Marx’s action by creating a website that combines a summary of the incident with the original picture Zhong had posted.
Zhong saw the incident as emblematic of greater privacy concerns, and he expressed hope that his story inspires any other students who were shamed by Marx to speak up, according to The Triton.
“Every professor has the power to look through [a] student’s private information…every student in UCSD [could potentially] get private information leaked,” Zhong said to The Triton. “What we should really do is figure out who gave professors the power to look through student academic information and why.”
University investigates the incident
On June 12, Dean M. Tullsen, chair of the CSE department, said the university was investigating the incident, according to The Chronicle. As of August 14, 2018, the investigation into the incident was still ongoing, Tullsen wrote in an email to the Free Speech Project.
“UCSD CSE department believes very strongly in treating all students with respect, and greatly values the privacy of each student,” Tullsen told The Chronicle. “Any actions that violate those principles will be taken very seriously.”
Given the case’s unresolved status, Marx did not teach her scheduled summer session courses, and was instead assigned other duties in the department. Although she apologized for her actions in statements to both publications, the open investigation precluded her from offering further comment.
“The public posting of this information was inadvertent and I am deeply sorry,” she wrote to The Triton.
Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20
Uploaded August 21, 2018