Zenith Confidential

April 6, 2007, 12:35 am

Well, I have my nerve, don’t I? Spreading Zenith’s secrets all over the internet?

No, no, no. I am not telling more tales today. What I do want to discuss is Confidentiality. This is a talismanic phrase at Zenith, and it is part of what is at stake in unexpected publicity (internal to Zenith) about this blog, publicity that has led to recent reflections, retrenching and readjustment. Central questions have been: Do students in class have the right to think that the classroom is a confidential space, thus allowing them to speak at will without the fear that they might be misperceived? And — my topic today — Are the workings of a university better kept confidential, to the point where critiques of the tenure system immediately create the impression of spilling the beans, regardless of whether specific beans about specific meetings have actually been spilt?

The primal scene looks like this: there are certain kinds of meetings that you are in as an academic – usually, but not always, involving personnel cases — where the practice is to warn everyone at the beginning that nothing said in the room will be repeated to anyone who is not already at the meeting. Usually rank serves as a boundary for confidentiality, but not always. Hiring meetings, which include the untenured, are usually presumed to be confidential as well. The logic for this is that it could cause emotional harm to the candidate to hear negative things about hirself, and that people ought to be able to express themselves freely in a personnel meeting without being concerned that their relationship with the candidate and other untenured people will be compromised. The relationships of the people in the room, of course, are fair game, but that is another matter. What is also left ambiguous is this: when there is a tenure case during a semester when a tenured person is on leave, is that person entitled to information about the case anyway because of rank, and because they are part of the ongoing work of the department?

Interestingly, concerns about confidentiality are also reflected in the political sphere. If you go to a modern Presidential archive, you will see that all kinds of memos to the Commander in Chief have been prudently removed, so that future Presidential advisors will feel free to give honest, open advice. To wit:

“From: Nanny Dick

Those federal prosecutors not doing our bidding have got to go. Pronto. Don’t tell that I said this or I will never give you advice again.”

You get the picture?

This degree of confidentiality is impossible to achieve in the academy, in part because there is no threat of being hauled in front of a grand jury and in part because *most* academics are constitutionally unable to keep their mouths shut, particularly when they are angry about something or feel that an injustice has been done. Some people would say, “Oh Radical, it’s just your sleazy friends.” But that isn’t true. There is one central location at Zenith that is a hotbed of faculty gossip, to the point that if you want a secret “leaked,” most people know the go-to guys and gals who will get it out. And there are people who deliberately leak information who are also among the most censorious when others leak information. Again, the comparison to the political sphere is relevant.

Nanny Dick to Scooter: “Boy, if everyone knew Valerie Plame was a CIA agent, Joseph Wilson wouldn’t look like such a big deal. I HOPE THE PRESS DOESN’T FIND OUT.”

Later, Scooter to Judith Miller, New York Times: “Valerie Plame is a CIA agent.”

Judith: “Really? Valerie Plame is a CIA agent?”

Scooter (shocked): “Gee, I didn’t know that. That’s classified information, and you probably shouldn’t use it in a story. Keep the WMD’s in Baghdad under your hat too.”

Judith: “Really? There are WMD’s in Baghdad?”

Now I will tell you right off the bat that one of the concerns expressed to me about this here blog was that I had let slip things about tenure cases that I not oughta hadda done. This is not the case, in fact, for reasons explained in the previous post, although I did write about my responses to certain outcomes in certain cases, that is true. And I apologize to anyone who thought sie was reading about hirself. I won’t pursue this for fear of rubbing salt in it, but actually — if everyone had the information about their own tenure cases that I would argue they are entitled to, this would not have been an issue, since it would have been clear who and what was actually being written about (me.) But this did get me to thinking about who confidentiality actually serves, in tenure and promotion cases in particular.

Guess who? You can’t? It serves the institution and the people who are already tenured, not the tenure candidate at all. “I am shocked — shocked! that there is gambling in this establishment,” you cry in surprise and pain. Let me explain.

As I noted above, it is an established protocol that nothing said in the meeting should be repeated outside the meeting (this is true at all levels, from the department to the T & P) and that “breaking confidentiality” is considered to be one of the more serious breaches of the rules one can commit at any institution of higher learning. In fact, it is not a rule at all at Zenith, although people say it is; it is nothing but a gentleman’s agreement, and there is nothing in the faculty handbook that mandates confidentiality — I know because I *just checked.* Of course, since our university governance documents are on the internet and can be altered without telling anyone, I’m sure such a rule will magically appear minutes after this post goes up, but whatever.

At my institution at least, tenure regulations guarantee anonymity to referees, which means they are the only players entitled to confidentiality. But this anonymity is immediately breached by the review process. Everyone in the department knows their names (they picked them, after all); everyone on the T & P knows them; at least half a dozen administrators can identify them; and they are revealed to everyone attending the Big Meeting, where personnel decisions are reviewed and ratified. So right away, depending on the size of the department, we are talking about between 30 and 50 people (roughly 12% to 20% of the whole faculty, and 25% to 40% of the tenured faculty) who know who they are. Even the candidate knows a couple of them, because sie has the chance to name up to three.

OK, now that we have established that confidentiality is not a rule at all, it is a practice, and that referees are not anonymous, what next? Well, let’s start with whether it means that if guaranteed that their identities will not be revealed to the tenure candidate, will referees really give you an unvarnished opinion of the publications in question?

The answer is yes and no, depending on the person. And having seen many tenure letters (OK — I’m not saying in whose case, or when — hell, maybe I found ‘em in the trash at Potemkin U. when only a wee Radical) I can say firmly and truly that there are very few of our colleagues anywhere in the English-speaking world (not to mention several other languages) who are willing to write candidly critical letters. Perhaps
this is for fear of law suits, and perhaps it stems from a genuine concern for the candidate, and not wanting to play a definitive role in the life of someone they don’t know. Perhaps it is that slightly sleazy feeling writing a bad tenure letter must give a soul, much like the one that you get when you realize that you just spilled the beans to someone who Doesn’t Want To Know That Thing, e.g. that someone’s second wife is his former student, or that so-and-so is a lesbian.

Decent people cloud negative critiques in obfuscation, so that departments can have the ammo if they need it as part of a more pervasive critique of the candidate, or choose to ignore the critique if they want to make an argument to retain hir. And many referees who write positive letters out themselves in the next year or so at a conference (“Congratulations! You *know* I wrote for you!”), or are outed accidentally-on-purpose by someone who sat on the case, so that a letter for a grant can be obtained from a Famous Person. To wit:

Senior colleague: “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dr. Fabulous could produce a good letter for you pretty fast.” (wink, wink.)

Newly promoted colleague: (thought bubble appears) “Aha.”

OK. So we have established that referees are not really the beneficiaries of confidentiality either. So what is confidential? How the tenure decision is actually made.

That’s right, fans of the Radical. Go back to this post and ask yourself: why are untenured people always asking us how many of this and that they need to have in a tenure dossier? Because it is the only information that is available to them, outside of two or three pages of rules in the faculty and/or department handbook. Because of confidentiality, why people do or do not get tenure is not public knowledge. And what outsiders to the process suspect is true — decision-making in tenure cases is incredibly erratic, between departments, within departments and from year to year. I will not pursue this, for obvious reasons, but people who have sat on tenure cases will — if they are being honest — recognize this as A Fact. So by not allowing the untenured to see tenure cases — heck, we could let them see the successful ones — we reinforce their paranoia by mystifying the process. We also protect ourselves, and the institution, from litigation, by obfuscating how and why decisions are made. Thus making no “standard” for tenure apparent to anyone, much less ourselves.

Try this: ask anyone at your institution what their standard for tenure is, and see if they give a thoughtful answer. See if you can give a thoughtful answer that is not limited to empty words and phrases like “excellence” and “high standards” (how excellent? How high?) If you can, leave a comment.

In short, the problems attendant to confidentiality:

1. People can cast a vote in either direction for any reason they choose, including ignorance, fear, lack of preparation, disinterest, friendship, animus, a prejudice against the field– and there is no accountability. And they can walk right in the next week and do it again. Why? Because they are tenured, no one can tell them not to, and anyone in the room who might believe that justice was not done is not allowed to say so in any venue that is not already part of the system.

2. The idea that tenure is a conspiracy easily takes hold among untenured faculty because — well, an entirely secret procedure that no one explains and the practices of which are defended fanatically but are also impossible to articulate except to a group of elite insiders looks like, um, a conspiracy.

3. Even when you think the outcome is just, if it is an unhappy one, there is no explaining it to other untenured people, either for their edification in making their own professional decisions or just helping them feel better. Conversely, you can’t take a great tenure case and show untenured people why it is great and how they might prepare a similar case.

4. Newly tenured people vote on tenure cases without knowing anything about process, custom or previous standards because they have no experience except the trauma of having been the object of scrutiny and secrecy in a tenure case. And if any reader comes from a university where newly tenured people are instructed in these practices, please comment about them below.

5. Confidentiality makes it impossible to counteract gossip. Gossip becomes the dominant form of information because, in reality, tenure meetings leak like a sieve. People do leave the meeting and talk, and they do it out of anger, out of self-protection, out of self-congratulation, and out of (sometimes) misplaced loyalty to and affection for the tenure candidate. I have often had conversations with people, at Zenith and elsewhere, who seem to know a great deal more about their own tenure cases than a brief update from the chair would have conveyed. And sometimes — this is the worst — they have wrong information, because when votes are taken, they are taken by secret ballot, so if there is a mixed vote, anyone who claims to know who voted which way is talking out of their hat. But they leave the meeting and repeat their beliefs about how people voted based on their reading of the conversation that preceded the vote. I, for example, have had the experience of hearing through the grapevine that I cast a vote that I had not cast in a particular (confidential) matter. And to correct that information would be — well, breaking confidentiality.

What confidentiality does, then, is make sure that all untenured people are as off balance as they can possibly be for seven years, and that the tenure process itself is sufficiently mysterious that tenured people can make up their minds on a case-by-case basis without telling younger people why they do what they do. And if we were to reform — rather than eliminate tenure, as some of my past posts have suggested — this is where we would need to start: restoring the confidence of the untenured people in the system by making the system itself knowable.

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