I have been a faculty member and an administrator on several campuses, and each one has its own versions of the “information broker.” These brokers are the people in the know, the ones who are privy to upcoming decisions before anyone else. They usually have a position that puts them into contact with people from across the university, and they have built relationships that sustain the information gathering process. Some brokers are administrative types, some are longtime faculty, and some are support staff. Some brokers pick up information haphazardly, through their many professional and personal relationships, while others are more purposive in their pursuit of inside information. The best information brokers know the institutional history and can help put the current trials and tribulations into perspective. The worst hoard information as a way to amass power, gossip with friends about everyone they don’t like, and use their inside info to sow seeds of dissension.
It is helpful to be friends with information brokers. I have had broker-friends share insights and information about people and processes, helping me to better manage my own interactions within the university. Once, when serving on a university committee, I was clueless about the root of tensions between the chair and one of the members, tensions that were inhibiting our progress. My broker-friend gave me the scoop, helping me to navigate what were treacherous waters for a junior faculty member.
The problems with becoming friends with an information broker is that you can’t necessarily trust that information you share in confidence will stay that way. Brokers derive their power from gathering and sharing information, so there isn’t much incentive to keep your information confidential. Therefore, I am careful with colleagues who are brokers… I share what I am willing to have others know, at least until I get to know how they manage sensitive information. If a broker talks about someone else’s very private information publicly, that tells me something about their judgement, and I won’t share much with them. That said, I try to keep up good relationships with brokers, because that resource can be invaluable to anyone trying to serve as an academic administrator in a large university. Upcoming changes in central administration, fights brewing in the faculty senate, and projects being developed across campus all affect my department and my own decision making processes.
I have been an information broker in my professional field, if not in my university, mostly as a result of my connections in the discipline. Like all other brokers I know, I admit to enjoying feeling like an insider. Experience has helped me recognize that there are many different crowds, though, and I always only have partial insights into what is going on.
As a sometime broker, I have made some personal decisions about how I handle sensitive information. I won’t share anything that is explicitly shared with a “don’t tell anyone” introduction, although I don’t always enjoy this particular burden. Honestly, I don’t have the best memory, and I cannot always remember whether information was shared in confidence or not. After time goes by, it all sort of runs together. Also, I get annoyed when I am asked to keep a confidence that someone shares with breathless seriousness, just to run into 3-4 other people who also have the same information and are sharing it freely. That said, I will always maintain confidences for my closest friends, and I will usually share information to help them, so long as it won’t put me or anyone else in a bad spot. And to any mean-spirited brokers I meet in the future, I can promise you one thing: You won’t gain much inside info from me.