Between You and Me...

October 29, 2007

No one trains academics to deal with the etiquette and ethics of the campus secret and the challenges that arise when you tell or hear one. Yet it is a facet of the tenure and promotion process -- one that does not fall neatly into the categories of teaching, research, or service.

Newcomers to the tenure track must learn their institution's rules for safeguarding all sorts of information—not just gossip. Thanks to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (Ferpa), you need to know what you can and can't say about students. You also need to know when it's OK to circulate news of a job opening in your department. Even information that is "secret" in one setting is not in another: outside letters of review for promotion and tenure are kept confidential at many institutions but can be disclosed in lawsuits. If all that seems complicated, the rules for dealing with private confidences -- i.e., dirt, rumors, and innuendo -- are even more so.

Let's start by considering a lesson best understood by good historians and able spies: Secret information is not necessarily more accurate than common knowledge.

We all have been dupes, willing and otherwise, of some self-described insider who informs us with great portent, "I know what really happened." Later we may discover multiple alternative realities of the "true story."

While there is a romantic aura to tidbits transmitted in a whispered confidence rather than via a public document on a university Web site, secrets rarely get more accurate with repetition. On the other hand, as a student of wartime propaganda, I know that disinformation is a common strategy, whether among nations in armed conflict or professors trying to backstab each other.

The obvious lesson for academics, living in our professional small towns and dependent on the good will of our neighbors, is one of prudence. Don't believe everything you are told, whether it is printed on official university letterhead or muttered behind an oak tree in the quad. Certainly, don't act on gossip-borne information unless you verify that it's true.

More important, realize that we all possess a finite amount of credibility. Indeed, the extensive research literature on "source credibility" shows that loss of status as a holder of reliable knowledge on one subject can affect other people's overall assessment of us.

Long ago, as a first-year faculty member, I met a fellow I will call Professor Gloom. He regularly made dire predictions based on what he claimed was insider knowledge about the future of our program. At first he frightened me enough to make me wonder if I had made a mistake in accepting the job. Gradually, I caught on that his "sky is falling" prognostications (a) never panned out and (b) were probably motivated by his own unhappiness.

My reaction then was to politely pretend to listen to him while actually daydreaming about my pet hamster. I found myself automatically, and perhaps unfairly, discounting his opinions on all subjects.

The point: Among the many reasons why you should not share a secret in academe, the most important is that you might be wrong about the facts.

For new faculty members, moreover, knowing how and when to share a secret or keep one is particularly perplexing. In this era of cell-phone video, YouTube, and blogging, it seems like people are exposing information about themselves and others at an unprecedented rate. A whole generation of young academics was raised on the belief that a diary is a public document.

I know that is a crass and unfair generational stereotype, but it affects the 30-something academic particularly because we late 40- to 60-somethings assume it's true. As one older professor told me, "Junior faculty today have no sense of boundaries between their personal life and their work." His implication, in part, was that young assistant professors nowadays are more likely to blurt out personal details -- no matter how embarrassing -- than senior scholars.

Almost everyone finds privileged information enthralling, particularly if you are new to a profession and if the gossip involves someone who has nominal authority over you. Sharing a secret about your supervisor makes you feel you have some degree of control over the more powerful, but it's ephemeral.

In academe, remember, secrets flow uphill faster than they trickle downhill. A department head or director is much more apt to be tipped off to a rumor that is becoming commonly known than, say, the newest tenure-track hire. And the higher up you are in our trade, the more probable the secrets you tell will be kept quiet, out of loyalty as well as prudence. Betraying the confidence of a vice-provost is much more likely to have negative consequences for the tattletale than passing on the secret of a postdoc.

Even so, there is no guarantee that any secret will remain unrevealed. I once got into a dispute with another professor during which he let slip some information about me (incorrect, as it turned out) that he had heard from a colleague of ours. I had to ask him, "Did she mean for you to tell me this?" He shrugged and said something to the effect that it was hard to keep a secret in the heat of battle.

Indeed, when personal relations clash with institutional responsibilities, things gets complicated, especially if you are lower on the academic food chain.

A professor friend cited the predicament of a newly hired young colleague who confided that he hated his job, disliked living in the area, was applying for positions elsewhere, wanted a letter of reference, and would like his exit activities "kept quiet." But the professor hardly knew the fellow. Furthermore, the senior professor was part of the department's technology committee, so when a request came in from the young scholar for a great deal of new equipment, the senior member recommended it be denied.

I heard a variation of that story from another professor. A young colleague told her that his wife "would never be happy in this town, and we just want to get out" but, of course, "this is just between you and me." The problem: Shortly afterward, he asked for a large raise to match an outside job offer. The senior professor decided to inform the dean about what the young man had said, because it was clear that an extra payout would only delay the inevitable exit of the junior scholar.

Information you share "in confidence" has a way of getting out. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling academic secrets, three caveats are worth keeping in mind.

First, some moral dilemmas about secrets have no obvious answer or quick fix, especially for the junior academic.

An assistant professor once told me that she was "at a complete loss as to what to do" about a terrible quandary she faced in her department. A well-known senior male professor was next in line for the chairmanship, but quite a few female students had approached her over the years complaining about his inappropriate behavior. Should she stay silent, reveal the information herself, or urge the students to report their complaints to higher authorities?

Careers and lives would be affected -- including, maybe, her own. I couldn't tell her what to do, then or now. It was her call, her choice, and she needed to make it with full knowledge of the possible consequences.

Second, the best way to avoid the complications of gossip is not to trade in it. Before you confide personal information to a colleague, ask yourself: Do I really need to reveal this? Would I be happy if that confidence were transmitted to, well, the world? Who is hurt, who is helped, what is the price of this "private" matter being relayed to someone else, especially to a supervisor?

Alternately, when you're about to be on the receiving end of a secret, practice saying, "I think I know what you are going to tell me, and it's really none of my business. Gotta run." The amount of time and grief that phrase can save you is inestimable.

Finally, although outing a secret can be both ethically and legally correct, the ability to keep personal confidences is an admirable trait, no matter where you are on your career track.

I was once at a retirement party for a colleague, where a dean said of him (and I paraphrase): "He always kept to himself everything that I asked him to keep in confidence. I could trust his discretion." That was high praise befitting a principled professor who retained the respect of his colleagues as much for what he did not tell us as for what he did.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.