Today, I need to talk with you about a serious
concern. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
In 1517 the Catholic priest
Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of
All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Those theses
summarized Luther's thinking about theology. Some
items were assertive. Some were only speculative.
But the important point is, he made all 95 items
Luther sent copies to his ecclesiastical superiors.
Then the new medium of printing spread his theses
far and wide. Out of that act the Protestant
Reformation emerged, full-blown.
The word thesis has, ever since, held a special
place in our vocabulary. Before Luther, the word
thesis usually meant a stress in music or poetry.
Now, in the late 1500s, it came to mean a public
assertion. By the 1600s the word thesis meant a
document in which a scholar made, and proved, an
The culmination of an education became that moment
when a student quit being a student and entered the
community with his own ideas. The last act of an
education is the public statement of a thesis or
dissertation. Anyone is welcome to attend a thesis
defense at a university. It is a public event.
Now the U.S. Department of Education has made a
shocking ruling. They've said theses are student
"education records" -- just like their grades.
Theses are subject to the Family Educational Rights
and Privacy Act. Scholars can no longer go to the
library to read a thesis without the student's
And so the thesis is no longer a thesis. It's been
declared a student exercise -- just like homework
and quizzes. Maybe it's unfinished work to be kept
on ice until it can, one day, be reworked into a
respectable book or paper.
In the '50s we expected students to propose their
own thesis questions and create their own answers.
That's changed as university research has grown
dependent on outside support and on
graduate-student help. Student theses become, more
and more, fragments of faculty agendas -- or, worse
yet, of sponsor agendas.
But the old tradition of full public disclosure has
kept up the pressure for intellectual independence.
Now the Department of Education is writing a soggy
vision of education into law. They're certifying it
-- making it official. They're erasing the old
This is a very disturbing ruling. It's so grotesque
we cannot miss the warning in it. For Heaven's
sake, let's let our students finish their education
with an act of intellectual responsibility. Which
one of us doesn't need a point of departure from
childhood -- a moment when, at last, we proudly
nail our theses on some very public door?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For a history of the use of the word
thesis, see the Oxford English
I obtained the following electronic news release on
the ExLibris Bulletin Board:
ALA Washington Office Newsline (ALAWON) An
electronic publication of the American Library
Association Washington Office Volume 2, Number 35,
August 26, 1993
DISTRESSING DISSERTATION DEVELOPMENT
A recent AP news release reports that the U.S.
Department of Education has ruled that masters and
doctoral theses are considered to be student
"education records," similar to grade records, and
are therefore subject to the Family Educational
Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Accordingly,
students' theses may not be accessed by academic
researchers without the permission of the student
authors. An opinion issued by LeRoy S. Rooker,
Director of the Family Policy Compliance Office,
U.S. Department of Education, stated:
As you know, FERPA generally protects a student's
privacy interests with regard to "education
records." "Education records" are defined as those
records that are 1) directly related to a student
and 2) maintained by an educational agency or
institution or a party acting for the agency or
institution (34 CFR 99.3). Accordingly, any records
which are directly related to a student and are
maintained by the University are education records
subject to the provisions of FERPA.
Thus, there are no distinctions between
undergraduate and graduate theses. FERPA prevents
subject educational agencies and institutions from
disclosing education records without prior written
consent, with specified exceptions 34 CFR 99.30 and
99.31. None of the exceptions would permit making
student theses available to the public, such as in
the University Library, without first obtaining
written consent from the student. Further, the
written consent must specify the records that may
be disclosed; state the purpose of the disclosure;
and identify the party or class of parties to whom
the disclosure may be made (34 CFR 99.30). This
Office recognizes that undergraduate honors theses
and graduate theses differ in nature from typical
student research papers and other education records
in that theses often become research sources
themselves and are on occasion published. As such,
this Office would consider any written statement by
a student permitting publication of a thesis
sufficient consent under FERPA because such
statement shows that the student intended the work
to become publicly available.
Rooker told the ALA Washington Office that his
office would not take any action on this issue
unless they receive a complaint.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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