UCL has launched an investigation into a lecturer accused of releasing hundreds of student records to a member of the public.
The college is looking into Dr Beatriz Armendariz, a senior lecturer in the Economics department, for the unauthorised dissemination of student transcripts, a Pi investigation has revealed.
In February 2008, Dr Armendariz is alleged to have released over 650 full undergraduate transcripts to a non-UCL party who has since tried to sell the databases on for marketing purposes.
The data concerns the 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 graduating classes of Economics students. Each document contains more information than a typical academic transcript, including the student’s full name, A level results, fee status, country of residence, individual module marks, and final degree classification.
Dr Armendariz, who has worked at UCL since 1996, was given access to the transcripts as part of an internal project she was commissioned to do by the Economics Department in 2008.
However, Dr Armendariz unofficially enlisted the help of her partner at the time, Al Lewis, to help create the report. Lewis resides in the US and has no affiliation with UCL.
In an email obtained by Pi dated the 27th of February 2008, Dr Armendariz writes to Lewis: ‘Here are the 2004 and the 2005 graduates. All we need to do with these is to produce exactly (please: exactly) the same slides we produced for the 2006 and 2005 graduates. And we will take it from there.’
Lewis said of his role in the report, ‘I did the lion’s share, the sorting, the analysis on Excel. I wrote it up in what I thought was a good way – hypothesis, tests done, conclusions – the way one would do a research project. She then rewrote it.’
In January 2011, Lewis contacted Professor Steffen Huck, head of the Economics department, with his plans to sell the transcripts on to recruiters.
‘I asked that professor to let me know if these were private materials, because if they weren’t private, I would like to make them available to recruiters,’ said Lewis.
On Lewis’s company website, he offers clients ‘databases of potential candidates with backgrounds in various aspects of health economics, health informatics, and administrative medicine.’
However, when Pi spoke to Professor Huck, who was unaware of the February 2008 email, he explained that Dr Armendariz ‘convinced me that [Lewis] had never worked for her and had obtained the data fraudulently.’
Subsequently ‘I contacted [Lewis] making clear that the data should be deleted.’
Professor Huck then contacted UCL Security, and the police were called in to investigate the issue as a case of what Professor Huck construed as Lewis’s ‘harassing and blackmailing’ of Dr Armendariz.
However, police determined that there was no foundation to these claims, and the matter was passed back to UCL Security for internal investigation.
Oliver Curran, Operations Manager of UCL Security, confirmed that they were investigating the issue of unauthorised release of student data.
Curran said that the case is ‘ongoing’ and is currently being dealt with in a range of internal departments from ‘HR to Data Protection’.
Colin Penman, the UCL data protection officer, did not comment on the specific case, but said on the wider issue of the confidentiality of student data that ‘access to personal data should always be on a need-to-know basis, i.e. it’s necessary for a work-related task.’
Penman added that in ‘extreme cases’, breaches of these data protection principles ‘might constitute gross misconduct and lead to dismissal.’
The UCL Information Security Policy, available online, also explicitly states that ‘Where a breach of security involving either computer or paper records relates to personal information, the UCL Data Protection Office must be informed, as there may be an infringement of the Data Protection Act 1998 which could lead to civil or criminal proceedings.’
However, Professor Huck maintained that ‘UCL has rigorous data protection procedures, and this is the first time such an issue has arisen within the Department of Economics.’
‘In light of the issues raised, we are continuing to review our internal processes and the background to this case to prevent, as far as possible, any such issue arising again.’
Lewis added, ‘I think this whole transcript incident is an excellent “teachable moment” for UCL and all other schools here. They need to be very careful about where their transcripts end up.’
Dr Armendariz has published prolifically in her field, working for various prestigious economics schools across Europe. She has also held posts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
One third-year Economics student commented on the investigation into Dr Armendariz’s actions: ‘She’s a renowned economist, it comes as quite a shock to hear that she’s being investigated for misconduct. I’d be surprised if there was any ill intent behind the actions. It is nonetheless unpleasant to hear of student papers being sold off to profit-seeking third parties, at least not with the students getting a slice of the dividends.’
Dr Armendariz did not respond to a request to comment on the allegations.