By Andrew Jenner
As the General Assembly gets down to business, Del. Tony Wilt has introduced a bill to undo an inadvertent hassle that one of his bills from 2018 has imposed on Virginia public college campuses.
Wilt, a Republican who represents Harrisonburg and part of Rockingham County, carried legislation last year to bar disclosure of student contact information to off-campus people or groups. One of its unintended consequences – which he acknowledges as “a real pain” for some – was the law being written such that it prohibits disclosure of student contact information even to other students. As a result, simply copying two classmates on the same email now puts a professor on the wrong side of this new bit of state code.
Days before the new law took effect last July, JMU sent an email informing faculty of changes required by the new law. It said that group emails could only be sent with student emails entered in the “BCC,” or blind carbon copy, field, and that student email addresses were being removed from the on-campus email system – a change that inconveniences faculty and staff when trying to contact individual students.
“It was cumbersome,” said Wilt, who soon began hearing complaints about those effects of the law.
The legislation he’s introduced this year would loosen on-campus restrictions on sharing student contact information. Should the bill pass, old-fashioned group emails to students will be re-legalized.
“My intent was never to do harm inside the campus,” Wilt said. “This amendment allows that exchange of information in-house but it still protects the students’ information being released off the campus.”
Wilt’s original bill has its roots in his 2017 reelection campaign, when volunteers supporting his Democratic opponent, Brent Finnegan, sent text messages to JMU students encouraging them to register to vote. Finnegan’s campaign was provided with the phone numbers by NextGen America, a PAC that obtained contact information from numerous Virginia colleges through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Days later, Wilt’s campaign issued a press release criticizing the use of students’ then-publicly available contact information by political campaigns. After defeating Finnegan that November, Wilt introduced his original bill in last year’s General Assembly session to prevent such disclosure of student information.
“It came to light through the political campaign, but the issue to me is a lot larger than that,” said Wilt, who is also concerned that businesses might use the information for marketing purposes.
“I just don’t think that’s an appropriate use of students’ information,” he said.
One of the groups that encouraged Wilt to address the on-campus effects of that bill was the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), the coordinating body for public higher education in Virginia.
“It seemed to be impeding some of the academic missions surrounding higher ed, so we were a little concerned,” said Beverly Rebar, SCHEV’s senior associate for academic and legislative affairs.
Rebar said SCHEV did not take a position on Wilt’s bill last year, not anticipating the problems that its implementation would cause.
Those problems weren’t necessarily felt universally, however. Rob Alexander, an associate professor in JMU’s political science department, told The Citizen by email that the new restrictions on group emails didn’t affect his teaching because he uses Canvas, the university’s learning management system, to contact groups of students.
“The largest inconvenience has been the loss of the ability to look specific student emails up in the directory,” wrote Alexander. “For example, if I have a past student that I want to forward internship or employment information to, I need to pull up a past roster from my files to find the email vs. simply typing their name into the ‘To:’ box and having their name pop up.”
Wilt stands behind the intent of his original bill to prevent the release of student emails to off-campus people and groups. The fact that that original bill is now up for some subsequent tinkering, he said, is part of the legislative process.
“You discover [a law] is not working quite the way you wanted it to, so you go in and amend it,” he said.
As of Jan. 15, this year’s bill to amend last year’s awaits a hearing before the House Committee on Education.