Rumor and Innuendo
Springtime in higher education heralds the faculty search extravaganza. As a newly minted Ph.D., I dove head first into the overflowing candidate pool. I was engaged with some short-term work at my graduate institution and had a strong desire to remain there. It is located in my home state, close to family and friends, and is a highly regarded national university. I also had a strong personal affinity for the institution and had developed strong personal and professional relationships, which I valued a great deal. I navigated my way through the process of creating a dissertation-length CV, the nerve-racking experience of being interviewed by my speakerphone (i.e. the dreaded first-round phone interview) and the endurance test of 8 to 10 hours of interviews and meals with people in positions I never knew existed.
I was fortunate to have reached the “I can taste the job it’s so close,” campus-visit stage in two searches at my institution. I felt fairly confident that I would emerge from this process with at least one offer. What I did not foresee was that my experience would force me to reflect on the role of trust in higher education. My first foray, as a “full member,” into the academic universe would be a “teachable moment.”
During one of my campus visits, I knew that an intimate knowledge of and appreciation for diversity would be a trait required of the position. So in 3 different sessions with 12 different individuals, I chose to share that I am gay as a means to illustrate my ability to empathize with students, professors, and staff of diverse backgrounds. It was a strategic decision, which, after researching institutional policy, I believed would unfold in the context of a confidential faculty search.
Heretofore, I had not been open about my sexual orientation in my professional or educational life (while being so to family and close friends). My reasons are many and my own; yet, in my view, not terribly relevant to this particular situation. The decision to “be out,” in this part of my life, was mine alone to make.
Nineteen days after my interview, a colleague and personal friend, unaware of my sexual preference, called me at home that evening. She wanted to let me know that late in the day she had been approached by a colleague, uninvolved with the search, who stated “There is a rumor going around that Jim ‘came out’ during his interview.” My friend, never a gossip, asked the colleague how he had heard information revealed during a confidential search. My friend, feeling duty bound, contacted the chair of the search committee, 1 of the 12, to inform him that information from a candidate interview was being shared outside the search process.
It has been five weeks since that evening telephone call and I have not heard anymore of it. I am not quite sure what, if anything, I should expect to hear. As I reflect on my experience, I circuitously analyze the issues it raises. It undoubtedly raises issues of professionalism. A case can be made that it raises ethical considerations. Perhaps, it crosses into the legal realm, but I leave that to the lawyers among you. That is of little interest to me.
It is the ethical implications that keep my mind stirring late past my bedtime. They are what keep sending me back to my computer to read, over and over, the institution’s policy on confidentiality in the search process. As I have already said, there were many reasons I chose not to “be out” in my professional life. However, after completing my Ph.D. and embarking on a new chapter in life, I was now prepared to travel down that road. Revealing my identity during a confidential search process, to a limited audience, was the first of many destinations on that journey.
I keep returning to two primary considerations. The first relates to diversity. My institution professes a strong commitment to and appreciation for diversity, almost to the point of overkill. Perhaps that is why it was that much more difficult to swallow that the information I shared was deemed, by an individual involved with the search, fodder for the rumor mill.
The far more salient issue to me is that of confidentiality, and more specifically trust. Institutional policy dictates confidentiality in the search process. Common decency demands it. The search process is an opportunity for the committee and potential colleagues to gain an intimate understanding of the candidate in a relatively brief period of time. To effectively evaluate what strengths and challenges a candidate would bring to the institution, he/she must be willing and permitted to be utterly candid and acutely honest.
At the same time, candidates should be able to have confidence that information shared during the interview process is privileged and confidential. Whether such information be a medical condition, unique family situation, special accommodation, or sexual orientation, it should be treated as internal knowledge to those involved in the search. When speaking of confidentiality in the selection process, Joan Rennekamp, a national commentator on personnel issues, states: "It is sometimes helpful to think of information as you would think of a material object that has an owner.... No other employee has the right to communicate it to someone else unless some overriding concern arises, or unless the owner gives permission to do so."
Yes, Rennekamp is a lawyer (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but even lawyers have sage advice at times.
Trust, leadership, and moral conduct are professed institutional values at my college. Of course, as an educational institution, those values are most strongly inculcated in students. However, as educators, we have a responsibility to model proper, responsible, and ethical behavior to our students. If we fail to lead by example, then we fail to lead at all. If we are unable to maintain trust among colleagues, how can we develop trust with students, or teach them to develop trust in each other.
Lest I seem to be presenting myself as some type of moral elite, I must admit that I am all too experienced in losing the trust of those close to me. I will never forget the utter look of devastation on my mother’s face when she discovered I had lied to her as a teenager. More recently, I lost the trust of a supervisor who felt I had betrayed our professional relationship. Yet, in each of those instances I was able to make an honest, open, and sincere apology to the wronged individual. I have a strange feeling that no such apology will be forthcoming in my situation.
I suppose I never realized how important those three simple words -- I am sorry -- are to my value system. The fact that my sexual orientation is now part of the public domain is not what makes me continue to brood over my experience. The issue that forces my mind to wander is that one or more of those 12 individuals felt it their prerogative to decide how I “rolled out” my sexual identity to my professional colleagues. There were unique aspects of my own experience that I felt could be educational to faculty, staff, and students. For better or for worse, I am an educator. I had a “lesson plan” for sharing my experience with members of the campus community. That “lesson plan” was my own to execute.
Yet beyond my own experience, what do such actions say about trust among members of the campus community. Higher education is, admittedly, a gossip factory on overdrive. How often have each of us heard information that was not intended for anyone but those involved with the search process? How often have the personal issues or misfortunes of our colleagues been whispered throughout the classrooms, laboratories, and conference rooms of academe? How desensitized have we become to the whirlwind of rumor and innuendo? Knowing the character of the collegiate workplace, I perhaps should have known better. Yet, based on an explicit, written statement of confidentiality, I chose to begin this particular personal journey during the search process. In hindsight, it was a poor choice.
As in any situation, I look for the lessons learned. For good to emerge from a bad experience, I always look for the “take away.” In no particular order, and limited to the clarity of my thinking on this issue, are some thoughts for institutions, candidates, and myself.
For the institution:
- What is the institutional policy on confidentiality? Is it a policy that is iterated not only to search committee members, but also to other faculty, staff, and students whothat may interview a candidate? Does the institution also communicate the seriousness of the policy and that it exists for reasons other than mere formality? Are processes in place to handle a breach of confidentiality?
- Do attempts to include a breadth of constituencies in the selection process sacrifice the integrity of the process? I wrote 26 “Thank You” notes for the campus visit alone. Can confidentiality be maintained in such an open and inclusive environment? Should only the search committee interview be subject to confidentiality? Should an explicit notice of when confidentiality applies be provided to candidates?
- Are there implications for student confidentiality when candidate confidentiality cannot be maintained? Do professionals with access to student records have a sufficient understanding of federal and state privacy laws? Are professionals required to undergo training on legally protected data and information? Are we modeling professional, ethical, and legal behavior for our students when it comes to matters of trust and proper conduct?
For the candidate:
- Be clear about institutional policy concerning confidentiality. Research the policy with human resources and/or the equal opportunity office. At a minimum, be aware of the written policy. Be confident that information shared is privileged information. As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”
- Be even clearer about your expectations should you choose to share a personal or private experience. For example, during the interview process, you may choose to share information about a current or former supervisor, co-worker, or subordinate. If such information reflects a negative experience, you should preface the information by asking that such information remain internal to the search process. Some candidates may want to share information about a medical condition -- and should be very clear about expectations.
- For internal candidates, be aware that professional responsibility and personal friendship make strange bedfellows. Knowing the actors in a particular search makes the issue of trust and confidentiality that much more critical. Should irregularities arise in the search process, the actors have a professional responsibility to the institution. That responsibility will, more often than not, take precedence over duty to personal friends.
I do my best to approach my experience as a professional, letting reason guide my analysis. But, emotions do enter the scene. Hurt, anger, and disappointment inevitably play a role. While it is difficult to lose respect for and trust in the colleague who divulged the information, it has been far more difficult to question the status of personal friendships I have developed with others involved in the search process and hiring department. Their lack of communication leaves me to assume indifference to the issue.
I would like to say I have not become a less trusting person. But, I would be lying. However, with no one from whom to hear those three magic words, I am left to lose a little bit of trust in the institution as a whole. That is a very hard pill to swallow when you have a passion for your institutionschool. I am still processing that aspect of this whole experience.
And for those interested, I was not offered this particular position. I accepted another position at the same institution, which has greater responsibility, offers a higher salary, and is a new field for me within higher education. Had I been offered the position in question, my adverse experience during the search process and the subsequent administrative silence would have been a rocky start, to say the least. So, I am optimistic about what lies ahead, yet uncertain as to how I feel about the personal and professional relationships I leave not so far behind.
As for my “lesson plan,” I guess that is on hold for now. I need to retool it given new realities on the ground. Of more immediate concern is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. More specifically, the great majority of individuals who are aware of my sexual orientation are also aware of how the information came to be shared (and most of them did not learn of it during the search process). It is a uniquely interesting experience to be meeting or dining with a colleague and have the proverbial “family secret” lurking under the table. In two days, I have a meeting with the individual who mistakenly gossiped to my friend and started this chain of events. We have not seen each other since this whole episode started. For some odd reason, I chuckle to myself when I think about the encounter.
My hope is that after writing this piece, I will feel a sense of closure. Since I am not privy as to whether there has been any administrative action on the issue, I cannot gain the satisfaction that some good or value came out of my experience. For myself, I suppose the good comes in that I think far more about what is and what is not appropriate information to share. I think far more about trust. I am more cognizant of my own behavior and how it positively and/or negatively affects others.
We all receive an enormous amount of information each and every day. Being able to differentiate between routine, need-to-know, and confidential information is a critical skill, and more importantly personal and professional value, for administrators, faculty, staff, and students. Trust is the foundation on which any vibrant community, academic or otherwise, is built. No community can survive without it.
Democritus said, “Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence.” I honestly do not know how I feel about that statement. I have always been an openly trusting person. What I do know is that I have a newfound appreciation for those individuals who I trust implicitly and who have not given me reason to doubt that trust after many years of friendship. I have a new respect for those closest to me who are “men [and women] of worth.”
James Pierpont is the pseudonym an administrator at a research university.