I am writing to notify you of a change in policy relating to the Student Instructional Ratings Survey (SIRS) administered by the Teaching Excellence Centers.  The change relates solely to evaluations of Teaching Assistants (TAs) and does not affect administration of SIRS as it pertains to faculty or part-time lecturers (PTLs).  Effective for the Fall 04 semester, the University will be unable to provide the entire University community with access to summaries of SIRS data pertaining to TAs.  The University will continue to survey TA teaching using SIRS and to make the results available to the departments in which they teach.  The change only affects access to the summaries by students and other members of the University community.  This change is necessary to comply with federal law governing student records as is more fully explained below.

The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) governs access to a student’s education records.  Subject to some exceptions set forth in the statute and regulations, the general rule under FERPA is that a student must give prior written consent to the release of personally identifiable information from their education records.  This summer, the Office of Compliance, Student Policy and Judicial Affairs received a complaint contending that the summaries of SIRS data for TA’s constituted a part of that TA’s own education record and thus could only be released publicly with prior written consent.  The Compliance Officer investigated this complaint and concluded that the SIRS summaries of TAs did indeed fall within the definition of education records and were therefore covered by FERPA.  The Office of University Counsel has reviewed and confirmed this determination.   The basis for this conclusion is the regulatory definition of education records under FERPA set forth at 34 C.F.R. § 99.3.  The term “education record” is broadly defined to mean any record “directly related” to a student and “maintained” by the institution.  There are then certain specifically enumerated exceptions to this broad definition.  While there is an employment records exception that might appear to except out records related to the teaching activities of TAs, that exception is limited by a clause stating “[r]ecords relating to an individual in attendance at the agency or institution who is employed as a result of his or her status as a student are education records and not excepted….”  Given that an individual can only be employed as a TA if s/he is also a student, records relating to such employment are considered education records and not employment records under FERPA.  Accordingly, to continue to make the teaching evaluation summaries of TAs available to students, Rutgers would have to first obtain the prior written consent of each TA.

In reviewing this concern, we considered whether the University could require each TA to provide such consent as a condition of accepting their position, but we have been advised against adopting such a practice by legal counsel.  We also considered whether to permit individual TAs the opportunity to opt in (i.e. to freely choose to make their SIRS summaries available via the publicly viewable database).   At this time, we have elected simply to exclude all TAs from the publicly disclosed SIRS data.  The Teaching Excellence Center administers SIRS with very modest resources and the TEC staff has expressed concern as to their ability to accurately record and track such individual elections, particularly given that we would have to provide TAs with the opportunity to retract their election and revoke their consent even after initially opting in.

Based upon all the above, our practices with respect to SIRS will be as follows:

  1. The University will continue to have students complete instructional ratings surveys of TAs.
  2. The University will continue to provide academic departments with the same SIRS data concerning their own TAs as they have received in prior years.
  3. The University will no longer include information about individual TAs in the summaries of the SIRS results made available to the whole University community as of the Fall 04 semester.
  4. There will be no changes to SIRS for faculty, PTLs or any other instructional staff who are evaluated under SIRS.
Thank you for your understanding of this necessary change in our practices and for your continued support of SIRS.