Transparency and Discretion

I recently had the good fortune to attend a seminar for new presidents. The presidents came from a diverse set of institutions across the country. The discussions with fellow presidents enlightened and encouraged me. Presidents shared many funny or challenging stories of their early days at their institutions. The entire time I listened, I kept thinking what great material this would make for readers of Don’s Desk. We had a rule at the seminar, however, that what was said in the room stayed in the room.

I aspire to foster transparency in my leadership of the College. This often runs head long into the need to be discrete.

My wife and I have a similar challenge in our discussions. Given the nature of her past and current positions, she has information that would be highly inappropriate for me to share with anyone. We have solved this nicely by her not telling me anything, and me not listening to her. I don’t believe this solution transfers to my leadership of the College.

I admit that I was surprised by the level of transparency demanded by our faculty. In one of my early discussions with faculty council, I found my comments reported on the Harold Lounge shortly afterward. I don’t fault the faculty council for posting the remarks. I didn’t say anything I wouldn’t say openly. The context of some remarks, however, was important. It made me more mindful that I need to put my remarks into an proper context. What I intend to be ironic does not necessarily translate to the Lounge when reported verbatim. And while some have criticized my humor to be so dry it desiccates, it still comes off better in person than in print.

Similarly, the recent search process demanded a level of transparency on the process, but discretion about the candidates and our discussions of their strengths and weaknesses. Some faculty demanded greater transparency. With due respect to the candidates, I was not willing to share.

I am searching for the right balance. I am guided by a few principles. The first is the front page rule – am I comfortable with this comment appearing on the front page of the New York Times (or more likely, The Herald)? Second, what is my intent in sharing the information? Pure intentions support more information sharing. Reporting results of a high-level meeting to make myself look good is not pure. Sharing information that directly affects how someone can do their job is pure. Finally, would the information, if shared, hurt someone else? This includes both those great stories told in confidence at a seminar and open, honest discussions about a job interviewer’s performance in an interview.

I welcome suggestions from readers on where I ought to be more transparent, or on where more transparency would help the college.

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

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