A recently deleted Reddit post about a University of Wisconsin student calling their teaching assistant brought attention to UW publishing TA’s personal phone numbers in their faculty directory.
The university is not transparent about the disclosure of this information, according to UW Teaching Assistants’ Association Leader of Membership Coordination Rachel McClure. Unless they opt out, the data of university employees is shared with members of the public upon their request, McClure said.
“The university never informs graduate workers that this is the case, and so no one knows to opt-out, unless they are advised by peers to alter the correct settings deep within the Student Center,” McClure said in a written statement to The Badger Herald.
According to UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone, students are informed of their right to restrict public information prior to enrollment.
“Students have the right to restrict their directory information from becoming public and the university provides instructions for how to do that,” McGlone said in a written statement to The Badger Herald. “Students are informed about this through the pre-enrollment checklist.”
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In response to a tweet about the Reddit post, the UW Division of Information Technology posted a link to a university article that explains how to change what personal information is visible to the UW community.
Teaching assistant Gryffin Loya said while the DoIT article gives members of the university an opportunity to control their data, it does not fix the underlying issue of personal data being publicly available in the first place.
“I think this puts the burden on us to protect our data when we should be able to entrust the university with that role, or part of that role at least,” Loya said. “I think a better solution would be a clear opt-in policy rather than an opt-out.”
TAA Stewards’ Council co-chair Anthony Flynn said he sees the opt-out policy as part of a larger pattern, characterized by the university shifting burden onto individual students instead of addressing structural challenges. For example, if graduate students do not want their awards, grants and other forms of financial aid to go towards segregated fees, UW requires them to go to the Bursar’s office every semester to sign a form indicating as such, Flynn said.
Flynn said there is mixed information as to whether or not the form applies to all charges on graduate students’ accounts, or only a handful. UW administration told a group of graduate students who went into the Bursar’s office last year that there would still be funds subject to garnishment despite the form saying otherwise, Flynn said.
“I don’t expect an instant remediation of every single grievance issue that we have and that there are processes here, but these issues have persisted for years,” Flynn said. “They don’t seem to be interested in taking steps to adjust a few lines of code to ensure that a myriad range of students do not have seriously adverse effects foisted upon them.”
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Loya said a TA at his previous university, which had a similar opt-out policy as UW, was harassed by a student who found their personal phone number listed in the university’s online phonebook.
Both Loya and Flynn said they routinely email TAs in their department to inform them of the policy and how to protect their information.
“It’s really unnerving and kind of scary when you get a call from someone and you’re not really sure who it is,” Loya said. “Especially when it’s a student, you’re not able to maintain that professional boundary of communication.”
McClure said it was brought to TAA’s attention that while most information can be restricted from the directory, there is no way to remove a legal name.
McClure said the TAA knows of at least one graduate student whose legal name does not reflect the name they use. While all other university systems reflect their preferred name, for years their efforts to remove their legal name from the directory were unsuccessful, McClure said.
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“One instance where this would be especially problematic is if it were to dead-name a trans person,” McClure said in her email statement. “The university needs to do better, and easily can.”
McClure said the disclosure of this information furthers the existing lack of trust between the university and its workers.
Flynn said in the context of a global pandemic, the university has many opportunities to support their students, but in his view, they are not doing so. Flynn said UW has failed to engage with workers in order to understand their input and perspective on the issues they face.
“[The university has] an opportunity to step up here, and it’s up to them to choose whether or not to do it,” Flynn said. “But the notion that a few lines of code are the difference between my privacy, my safety and not having it is frankly absurd and unjust.”
This article was updated at 12:52 p.m. on Feb. 11, 2021 to reflect a written statement provided by UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone.