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FOI documents reveal close relationship between ANU and Golden Key organisation

A cache of documents released under freedom of information has revealed the close relationship shared by Golden Key and ANU, as Tom Joyner reports.

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A cache of emails, memos and other documents, including a formal contract agreement, has shed light on the close relationship shared by Australia’s top-ranked university and the Atlanta-based Golden Key International Honour Society over the past two decades.

The documents – the earliest dating back to 1995 – obtained by Honi Soit under freedom of information laws, indicate close dealings that include regular payments made from ANU to the private organisation, as well as the sharing of student records.

An Honi investigation in May suggested that Golden Key had been using personal student records, including mailing addresses, names, study enrolments and other contact information to target up to 2,500 new recruits annually at ANU.

Golden Key, an American-style honour society, charges $100 for new membership on an invite-only basis to students in the top 15 per cent of their academic cohort. Its website claims the organisation is active on hundreds of university campuses worldwide, including many in Australia, providing regular networking opportunities, workshops and events.

The documents obtained include a formal four-page contract agreement between Golden Key and ANU detailing how students’ shared personal information will be used. In May, then Asia-Pacific director of the organisation, Joshua Ang, who has since left Golden Key, denied it had any direct access to student records from ANU.

Although the agreement includes a clause requiring students’ personal information not be disclosed to or used “for the benefit of any third party for any reason whatsoever including direct marketing and on selling of mailing lists”, many members have reported receiving marketing emails from Golden Key’s corporate sponsors since joining.

Golden Key Vice-President Mark Herndon denied any personal information had been directly disclosed to sponsors, but despite given several opportunities to do so, did not deny the information had benefited the organisation’s sponsors by granting exposure to students on Golden Key mailing lists.

“There is no obligation on any member to respond to, accept or otherwise deal with any of the sponsors or partners with whom Golden Key engages on behalf of its members,” he said in an emailed statement.

Over more than a decade, emails exchanged between ANU economics lecturer Selwyn Cornish – who is also a member of Golden Key’s international board – and senior ANU management indicate a close relationship between the two bodies.

Herndon said Golden Key had shared a “longstanding partnership” with ANU since 1995, but denied the existence of a funding agreement, formal or informal.

Almost $30,000 from the University’s central accounts, much of it from the vice-chancellor’s discretionary budget, has been used to sponsor Golden Key events, both in Canberra and overseas in Atlanta and Chicago since 1999. An ANU spokesperson denied there was any financial relationship between the university and Golden Key.

Emails suggest funds were handed over with a loose understanding Golden Key would promote ANU to prospective students at its international conferences.

“I am pleased to advise that the Vice-Chancellor has agreed to $3,000 being paid as a contribution,” then Pro Vice-Chancellor Chris Burgess wrote in a November 1999 email. “The University would, as you have noted, receive suitable recognition as a result.”

In June, it was revealed ANU had responded to a privacy complaint lodged by fourth-year ANU student Benjamin Roberts by quietly asking Golden Key to “purge” personal student records it had shared with the organisation.

An ANU spokesperson did not respond directly to Honi’s questions regarding steps the University had taken in response to potential breaches of privacy legislation, instead saying privacy issues surrounding Golden Key had been reviewed.

Professor Barbara McDonald, an acclaimed expert in privacy law who teaches at Sydney Law School has previously said ANU could be in breach of confidence and the Australian Privacy Principles, and that she was “surprised” it wasn’t more careful with its handling of student information.

Golden Key has threatened legal action against Honi Soit for defamation in relation to the May article. At the time of publication, Golden Key had not withdrawn those threats.