Computer science TA removed from staff following potential FERPA violation

Feb. 20, 2020, 9:42 p.m.

A computer science teaching assistant (TA) was removed from the staff of CS 224N: “Natural Language Processing” after using its course enrollment list to recruit for a private company, a potential violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Fountain Hopper reported on Tuesday. 

FERPA, which prevents schools from disclosing students’ education records without prior consent, does have an exception regarding “directory” information, a category that includes students’ names, addresses, telephone numbers, dates and places of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. Stanford’s definition of directory information, however, does not include course enrollment. 

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda told The Daily that Stanford is reviewing the incident. The TA, who confirmed to the Fountain Hopper that he had been removed from the course staff, declined The Daily’s request for comment.

Students in CS 224N — which currently enrolls 531 students, according to ExploreCourses —  became aware of the potential violation after receiving an email from an employee of a machine learning startup. The employee identified himself as a CS 224N TA and invited the students to apply because they were “currently enrolled in CS224N at Stanford.”

In response, a student posted on Piazza, a platform used for discussions between students and instructors, that they did not consent to having their personal contact information made available to private companies, calling the incident a violation of Stanford privacy guidelines. 

In a Piazza comment, the instructors confirmed that the sender was a TA who had reached out to the students via his corporate email address, but they wrote that they are “most certainly not selling [students’] personal information to third parties.”

A follow-up note on Piazza from CS 224N professor Chris Manning, though, acknowledged that “something incorrect and improper happened here and we apologize for it.” Manning did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

Manning added on Piazza that the TA in question is a community TA employed through SCPD and has access to student information but “should not be using it for non-class purposes, especially commercial purposes.”

In a separate Piazza thread, Manning responded to an anonymous comment alleging that the TA’s actions violated FERPA.

“Agreed!” he wrote.

Contact Ujwal Srivastava at ujwal ‘at’

Ujwal Srivastava '23 is from Palo Alto, Calif. He is a Science & Technology Desk Editor interested in the intersection of healthcare and technology. He is majoring in Computer Science on the Biocomputation track. Contact him at usrivastava 'at'

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