At a college meeting I once attended, one of the department chairs accused the dean of not being transparent enough in the way she made decisions. The dean answered that it wasn’t that simple. Confidential matters were sometimes involved. She couldn’t violate the trust of people who had shared certain information with her. She needed to be discreet about personnel issues, and so on. There was a pause, and then the chair asked, “Well, if you can’t be transparent, can you at least be a little more translucent?”
Translucent academic leadership is a worthy goal in college administration today. On the one hand, open records laws and the requirement that certain types of meetings be made public mean that academic leaders are increasingly being held accountable for explaining how they made decisions, why they chose a certain outcome, and whether they explored other outcomes. On the other hand, revealing why you granted an exception to a policy for a certain faculty member or student can sometimes violate that person’s rights under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA or the Buckley Amendment), state law, or an institutional policy. As academic leaders, we operate in an environment where the right to know and the right to privacy sometimes collide.
The demand for complete transparency ultimately results from a lack of trust. When we don’t trust that our elected officials or college administrators will act in our own best interest, we demand that decisions not be made behind closed doors and that we be either consulted or at least informed about possible changes that may affect our welfare. At the same time, we expect that others will grant us a great deal of trust. Our medical history, transcript information, and (in some environments) salary and disciplinary record are, we believe, no one’s business but our own. A key factor in developing translucent academic leadership is thus establishing lines of trust. If people trust our processes, they are far less likely to mistrust our results.
But how do you do that? Trust isn’t something you can simply demand. Telling a faculty member “just trust me on this one” smacks more of a shady car dealer than a university administrator. The first step in cultivating this environment of trust is, therefore, to be completely open about whatever you can possibly reveal. Administrators sometimes hoard information because it gives them power or because they haven’t yet made a final decision. They believe they are in a better position than the faculty, staff, and students to understand how that information fits into the big picture. That strategy is almost always doomed to failure. The appearance of secrecy only breeds the suspicion that things are even worse than they are. Rather than making the administrator more powerful, it undermines his or her authority. When the decision is finally made, people feel blindsided and their lack of confidence in the administrative process grows.
Even in cases where it is not yet possible to know exactly what the result will be, it’s preferable to say something such as, “Here’s where my thinking is right now…” or “At the moment, here’s what we’re considering…” than to seem to be hiding something. The vast majority of actions taken by an academic leader don’t call for any degree of secrecy. It’s best to be as open as possible.
The second step in practicing translucent academic leadership is then to develop procedures that both protect truly confidential information and provide assurances that nothing improper has occurred. In environments where department chairs are elected or in which the faculty of the department recommend a potential chair to the dean, people may feel that it’s undesirable for the results of the balloting to be made public. It may discourage people from expressing a willingness to serve as chair if they discover that no one voted for them besides themselves. At the same time, members of the department may feel uneasy if the dean is the only person who sees the ballots. “How do we know,” someone may ask, “whether the dean isn’t just appointing whomever he or she wants?” A procedure in which the faculty choose someone they trust from outside the department to count the votes with the dean can then be a beneficial compromise. The observer can confirm that the chair selected did indeed represent the will of the faculty, and this both protects people’s privacy and builds confidence in the fairness of the process.
The third step in translucent academic leadership is to make it a practice, whenever you can’t reveal information that went into the making of a decision, to reveal the reason that information must be protected. For example, a student may miss an exam because he or she had to attend counseling related to depression following a personal tragedy. The dilemma is that the student has a right under the school’s excused absence policy to make up the exam but also has a competing right, under HIPAA, not to have personal medical information disclosed. The chair or dean might send the faculty member a statement that says, “I have examined the reason why this student was absent from your exam last week. Although I am not at liberty to reveal that reason under the terms of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, I can confirm that those reasons fall under the institution’s excused absence policy and that the student is thus entitled to a make-up exam.” That statement indicates that the decision is being made for valid reasons while still protecting the student’s privacy in a very sensitive matter.
The keys to translucent academic leadership are thus revealing as much information as you can, establishing policies that build trust where some degree of discretion is advisable, and explaining the process that was used to reach a decision whenever certain information must remain confidential. Translucent academic leadership doesn’t build trust overnight, particularly in cases where the action of an administrator or one of his or her predecessors has destroyed that trust. Nevertheless, practiced consistently and with full integrity, it helps bridge the gap between the faculty’s need to know and their expectation for privacy.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.