University officials have begun looking into how personal academic data protected by federal law was leaked to the The Ann Arbor News for its recent four-part series on University academics and athletics, a University spokeswoman said yesterday.

“We’re now working to determine how this breach of University security may have occurred,” said University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham.

The first story in the series, titled “University of Michigan athletes steered to professor,” presented information on which courses certain student-athletes had taken and also included grade point averages for two student-athletes, both of which are academic data protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor does not list penalties for violating the act on its website. But University of Michigan-Dearborn’s site explains that a compliance office reviews FERPA complaints. If a university is found in violation of the act, its Department of Education funding can be cut.

The article suggested that academic advisers steered student-athletes toward independent study courses taught by Psychology Prof. John Hagen because he graded courses liberally and required students to complete little coursework to pass.

Jim Knight, managing editor of The Ann Arbor News, did not return repeated calls for comment last night.

Cunningham said the University is taking information leak “extremely seriously.” She also said University officials warned the newspaper not to use the leaked data on two occasions between October and the publication of the series first article on March 16.

Additionally, University Provost Teresa Sullivan sent an e-mail to all University student-athletes on March 26 that said “the University informed the paper that the information was confidential and was obtained in violation of federal law as well as University policy, which strictly forbids such disclosure, but to no avail.”

In the same e-mail, Sullivan wrote that she was “deeply disturbed by the decision of the Ann Arbor News to publish private and confidential information about individual students, such as grades and transcripts, without notifying them.”

Cunningham said University officials believed the release of student-athletes’ private academic information “has had a negative impact on students.”

She said University officials looking into the release of the data didn’t think any student-athlete had given the paper permission to publish their academic records in the series.

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