When Faculty Aren't Supposed to Talk

July 22, 2010

Many colleges have rules declaring that faculty meetings where job candidates are reviewed are supposed to be confidential. A Stanford University faculty handbook, for example, states: "The entire reappointment proceedings during which specific individuals are discussed are to be held in strict confidence by all participants.... The opinions expressed by the school or department faculty or by internal or external referees shall not be discussed with the candidate or with other parties. The chair of the department or his/her designee shall convey whatever information needs to be transmitted to the candidate. A breach of confidence by a participant in an appointment and promotion matter may be considered to be a serious violation of professional ethics."

But what is a breach and can a breach be punished?

A case at Hamilton College may illustrate the complexities of the issue. The college has banned Robert Paquette, professor of history, from participating in job searches until he can convince the dean's office that he will follow college policies on confidentiality. The college has also asked Paquette to seek to remove from the Internet an article in which he wrote about a search whose results displeased him. (The article remains unmoved.)

Paquette declined to provide documents about the case, but confirmed the outlines of the situation as described by Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University professor, who wrote a sympathetic blog post about the case for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

According to the post, Paquette found himself in trouble because he wrote an article, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," on the Web site of the National Association of Scholars. In that article, which appeared in April, Paquette criticizes what he sees as political correctness in academe generally and at Hamilton in particular. In his own department, he recounted the case of Christopher Hill, whom Paquette described as libertarian, who had a non-tenure track position and applied without success for a tenure-track position in his field of medieval history.

Paquette's article says of the search: "A majority faction, similar in composition and outlook, to the one responsible for the abolition of the Western civilization requirement [an issue the article also discusses], determined, despite the dissenting voices of four senior members of the department, that Professor Hill was largely unworthy of serious consideration for the tenure-track position.... [H]e didn’t make it out of the blocks past the first lap of consideration. To be sure, his vita in a buyers market lacked the publication record of some of the scholars short-listed, although he did have to his credit as a freshly-minted Ph.D. several book reviews for the Wall Street Journal, which, undoubtedly, to most progressive faculty, probably counted as strikes against him."

Joseph Urgo, then dean of the faculty at Hamilton, who recently became president of St. Mary's College of Maryland, then wrote to Paquette that it "is understood throughout the academy that when department members discuss job candidates, those discussions are held in confidence among the participants.... All discussions, conversations and exchanges among search committee members should be considered strictly confidential, unless indicated otherwise, and colleagues should comport themselves appropriately.”

Then Urgo banned the professor from participating in searches. As Bauerlein described the situation, this was unfair because Urgo "seems to operate under the assumption that Paquette served on the search committee and attended the meeting during which Hill’s candidacy was reviewed. He did neither."

The blog post does not quote Hamilton officials, and they said that they couldn't respond to specific questions about any personnel matters. But Hamilton's rules extend confidentiality beyond search committee members or those present at the time of a specific discussion, and appear to apply to everyone in a department, and without regard to whether the communications take place at a specific meeting or not. "Along with the chair, the members of the department or the search committee are expected to maintain the highest level of professionalism in ensuring the integrity of the search. All discussions, conversations and exchanges among search committee members should be considered strictly confidential, unless indicated otherwise, and colleagues should comport themselves appropriately," says the faculty handbook.

Via e-mail, Paquette did not dispute that Hamilton's rules cover him even as someone not on the committee or attending the meeting in question. But he said that he still shouldn't have been found in violation of the confidentiality rules because the "information in my NAS piece was either obvious or a matter of public record long before I wrote the piece." He cited an article in the college's student paper, which shared the news that Hill applied for and didn't get very far in the search for the tenure-track job (but lacked the detail of Paquette's article).

Paquette is no stranger to conflict with Hamilton administrators -- having clashed over a research institute that now functions independently of the college after faculty members complained that its originally proposed format did not provide appropriate academic oversight. (Defenders of the center viewed that argument with skepticism, saying that the center was rejected for being a home to those who might challenge conventional, liberal academic thinking.)

Is Confidentiality Needed?

Patrick Reynolds, interim dean of the faculty and professor of biology at Hamilton, said that "confidentiality is essential to support thorough consideration of candidates," and that faculty committees can't work effectively or be sufficiently frank if their deliberations are shared with others. He said that this is important not only for the faculty members doing the selecting, but for the candidates being considered. "Faculty members have to be able to discuss the relevant strengths of the applicants and see how they line up," he said.

The key goal in a search, he said, isn't communicating the reasons why someone was selected but "the hiring of the most qualified applicant available," and that means that the college wants a department's members talking freely among themselves.

The American Association of University Professors' ethics statement about faculty searches states that "institutions should respect the confidentiality of candidates for faculty positions."

Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, said that he generally supports the idea of confidentiality, but that rules that are too strict on the matter may not be realistic. "Search committees certainly need to be able to hold closed meetings, but it is unrealistic -- and sometimes counterproductive -- to treat members' basic views as altogether confidential." He said he would never reveal what "a particular person" said about a given search. But he has written in detail in his book No University Is an Island about his views on one search in his own department (without naming names) and about another search at another institution, which is not named.

Nelson said that the issue of enforcing confidentiality is one where "careful judgments are in order, not inflexible rules."

Ann H. Franke, a lawyer who consults with many colleges on legal issues, said that "if a private college makes clear that certain information should be kept confidential and if someone discloses the information, then visiting consequences on the individual can be appropriate." But she said it would be important that such a confidentiality requirement "be clear, preferably in the form of a written policy," and she said that such rules would have stronger support if faculty members played a role in developing them.

Based on what has been reported on the Hamilton situation, she said she was uncertain about a punishment in which someone accused of violating confidentiality would have to demonstrate commitment to following the rules. "What counts as proof?" she asked. "An alternative could be suspension from search committees for a set period of time, perhaps coupled with a requirement to sign a statement on the importance of the confidentiality policy and agreeing to abide by it."

Generally, Franke said that "public controversies over violations of confidentiality policies are rare," but she said she guessed that "enforcement occurs regularly in a more quiet fashion."

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