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Essay on the need for faculty members to learn when to respect privacy

Tyro Tracts

Professorial Discretion

April 23, 2012

Recently I served on an important committee at my university. Frankly, I’m not sure how a faculty member as junior as I am landed on the committee. Without going into too much detail, it was a committee that decides a prestigious award at my university, an award that is only given out to an outstanding academic unit every two years. And, despite the griping and moaning that we frequently hear about service work like serving on an awards committee, it was a great experience.

While many faculty members will complain about the time that service on university-level committees soaks up (and it can be a vast amount of time, on certain committees), the pleasure of committee work for me as a junior faculty member is that it is one of the rare occasions when I am able to meet faculty members from other departments, and it is one of the even rarer occasions when I have had the opportunity (or, in this case, happy obligation) to learn about the excellent work being conducted in other departments at my university.

Toward the end of the deliberations on this particular committee, and as those deliberations grew more difficult, one committee member spoke up and said, "I hope we can all agree that this conversation stays in this room." I was a little taken aback. Of course, I thought to myself, the conversation about various programs’ merits will stay in this room. How could it not? 

But later on, after a little more thought, I realized how warranted my fellow committee member's caution had been. Not everyone, and certainly not every faculty member, always has the good sense to know when and how to exercise discretion. Sometimes we have to be reminded. And if there is a direction to err in on such matters, it is that of discretion. 

Discretion, knowing what can be said and to whom and when, is an important component of an academic career. Perhaps even a critical component. In some cases, information regarding students or personnel decisions is actually protected by law, the sort of very serious law one never wants to risk running afoul of. Most of the situations we encounter where discretion is required are not so clearly defined though. 

Knowing when to be transparent, and when to be discreet, is a learned skill, one of those skills that most of us are not, and from a practical standpoint could not, be trained to master. Discretion, for better or worse, is a skill or savvy that is learned through trial and error. Many people lament how “political” life in the academy is, and it can be very, very political. But there is nothing political, nor Machiavellian, about exercising discretion and prudence when it comes to some types of decision-making.  Unfortunately, I cannot offer a list of which situations require discretion and which are better treated with transparency — that is the learned part. 

One problem with academic training in our country — no matter the discipline — is that students are trained to succeed in the discipline, but never really taught how to be professionals in the community of the university. Even graduate programs savvy enough to offer things like "professionalization" workshops tend to focus on concerns particular to the discipline, such as interviewing, or getting published, but not on how to participate in the cooperative life of the university.  Much of the routine life of the university requires us to exercise considerable discretion, to tread simultaneously delicately and respectfully. 

Then there's the antithesis of discretion, gossip. And there’s no gossip like grad student gossip. I probably don’t need to say much more.  If you ever were or are in graduate school, you’re already two steps ahead of me.  I wish that I could claim that when one reaches the professorial ranks gossip ceases to be part of life.  It doesn’t. I can at least claim, though, that it moderates.

In my experience, the sorts of people who make it into the professorial ranks and thrive there are more prudent than the typical grad school cohort. But gossip still occurs, and is inevitable in the types of small, insular professional communities like the ones that most academics inhabit. There will always be gossip, and we will all be guilty of it at times. So, if gossip is unavoidable, we can try to keep it discreet. At the very least, we can keep it in check. But some gossip is outright toxic -- those times when, for example, a faculty member overshares about another faculty member to a grad student.  Such situations put everyone in an awkward (or worse) situation, and are relatively easily avoided.

There is a lot in the course of a career that a faculty member will need to hold confidential. Some information requiring protection is, hopefully, obvious. Information relating to students’ academics and disabilities is protected by law, and personal information that students may need to share with you at some point should be protected by decorum.

The two large, state universities that I’ve been affiliated with as a teacher have both handled FERPA training in a similar manner, with an online tutorial and quiz. And I suspect that many faculty and staff members handle that training the same way I did. I blazed through the online PowerPoint tutorial, and then took my chances with the quiz. FERPA training conquered. Total time invested, about 15 minutes. The problem here is that the protections that FERPA provides to students (and less directly, to faculty) are quite important, and yet most of our training in the law is superficial, at best. 

Confidentiality can also quite conveniently simplify one’s life in the academy. Increasingly, I hear tales from friends about helicopter parents calling university instructors to complain on behalf of their son or daughter. Or, less aggressive but equally meddlesome, they may simply call or e-mail to inquire about their child’s status in a class or university program. FERPA allows us to disengage from these intrusive (for us) and infantilizing (for students) requests. In such cases instructors can and should point out that, because they are adults and their academic records are protected by federal law, students’ academic records or progress cannot be discussed with third parties, not even with tuition-paying parents.

Discretion is one means by which we inspire trust. Students who know that you will handle sensitive or potentially embarrassing issues discreetly will trust you, and will let other students know that you are a faculty member who can be trusted. Colleagues who are assured that you will privilege sensitive information will be more likely to confide in you and eventually to trust you with increasingly important responsibilities.

 

 

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