It’s a Confidential Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand

I had a heated conversation a few years back with someone I know whose work for the U.S. government routinely involves classified information. We weren’t talking about the content of that work, because this person takes classification very very seriously. We were talking about WikiLeaks and the documents they had acquired from Bradley Manning.

I was arguing that there is legitimate public interest in much of what Manning’s archive revealed. I said I was more interested in the bulk of the files than videos of combat in Iraq. In fact, I claimed, the much more fine-grained information should have been accessible to public review all along, that the work of the U.S. government should be comprehensively more transparent. After all, I observed, the net effect if you read through those files is actually reassuring: the competency and expertise of officials at State and Defense and other offices is generally evident, though there were also some depressing exceptions. Even more importantly, I suggested, these files make what our diplomats and attaches and observers know available to a wider global public who often have few other reliable sources of information about what’s happening in the world, or in their own countries. Much as I find that U.S. documents about events in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s are often surprisingly insightful or useful sources despite some prevailing misconceptions or limitations.

At this point in my little speech, my conversation partner heatedly interrupted me and said that most of what I’d said was hypocritical bullshit of one kind or another. “Would you,” I was asked, “be willing to have all your emails for the last ten years and all your memos be posted indiscriminately on the Internet just so people could gain a better understanding of what it is professors do, or how higher education works? Don’t people deserve to know more about that? Could they really feel confident they were seeing the truth if you just selectively published the emails that didn’t involve ‘confidential’ questions? Why should you get to hide all your conversations about students and grades and tenure and peer review and curriculum policy and strategic planning and the mistakes you made in your work while every embassy officer and State Department analyst gets everything they ever said about the countries and regions they’ve served in spewed all over the web so that every asshole who knows how to read a Wikipedia entry can rant about them on some bulletin board?”

Which I have to say shut me up for a bit, hard as that might be to believe.

Would I be willing? What is confidentiality or classification for? Do I and my colleagues misuse or overuse it as much as I think my government does? Do most organizations overuse it similarly? Do I think that at the least someday the emails of myself and all my colleagues should be available for some kind of historical scrutiny if not immediate transparent review?


I’ve been thinking about this again while doing some archival work this summer. Reading back into the 1950s and 1960s, I feel confident that the labels “Confidential”, “Secret” and “Top Secret” were and still are seriously misused by the U.S. government and likely by most states that seriously aspire to be liberal democracies or republics of some kind or another. Quite aside from any philosophical argument about the relationship between openness and an informed citizenry, there are practical problems following from the overuse of classification and confidentiality that are often evident in older documents (and in the Manning archive): closed informational loops often leave out a participant with vital information to add to the discussion, participants in a decision-making process often themselves remark about how confused they are about what is and is not restricted or secret information and therefore often shut down a generative conversation just as it is producing useful insights, information piles up because there are far too few people with appropriate levels of access to handle it. And of course the legacy of such overuse creates weird processes and procedures after the fact, as anyone who has been forced to go get a special handwritten label for every box of documents that they want to take photographs from at the U.S. National Archives in College Park knows very well.

But the philosophical problem is important too. It’s common to trace the political cynicism and disengagement of the U.S. public to Watergate or more generally to a longer series of similar kinds of revelations about the gap between what government says and what government does. When you read through postwar documents once classed as Confidential or Secret, you tend to see that this gap was opened by a constant, incessant series of disjunctures between what officials said to each other, what they said to privileged clients and audiences, and what they said to a series of concentrically larger and wider publics. If you were an academic or a business leader or a local public official or really even just a generally educated or literate person, you had by the early 1960s already been witness to such disjunctures, potentially many of them, though most probably seemed inconsequential or even positive.

Positive in part because to be aware that there was a gap between what was said to the widest publics and what you knew was being said by those “in the know” was a sign of your advantage, that you were a beneficiary of information asymmetry.

Which, in the end, is the purpose of all confidentiality: to use institutional or structured power to create information inequality. That’s what privacy is: unequal access to information. Modern societies have defended privacy in various forms or ways out of a belief that such inequality is either the generative precondition of forms of individuality or sociality or that such inequality is a necessary constraint on state and civic power.

Which brings me back to my own uses of confidentiality. What is confidential in my professional world?

All of academia treats grading and other forms of assessment of students as highly confidential, which is reinforced by legal requirements. Though there are many contexts (employment, competitions, even candidacy for office) in which a student is expected to permit a review of a transcript.

Letters of recommendation are commonly regarded as highly confidential, though there are some subcultures in academia that follow practices in some other institutions where recommendees may be ask to write part or all of their own letters and there are other contexts in which recommenders are cautioned that a recommendee may have rights to view all or part of a dossier that contains letters.

Similarly assessments of candidates for hiring, tenure and promotion are almost always viewed as confidential, though with the same caveat that in some cases a candidate may have rights to review such assessments.

Judiciary hearings tend to be treated roughly as if they were assessment: both the conversations within such hearings and the outcomes are treated as confidential unless there is a circumstance in which someone is expected or required to disclose such outcomes as part of being reviewed or examined.

Past that point things get more variable.

At Swarthmore, many committees treat their deliberations as at least partially confidential in order to encourage members to discuss the issues at hand openly and to prevent the community at large from confusing proposals and drafts with final recommendations. I think that’s fairly typical, but this is a different kind of confidentiality than the protection of private information tied to individuals.

Swarthmore in its recent history has tended to treat institution-level enrollment data (numbers of majors or students taking courses in various departments, for example) and other curricular information as fairly confidential, disclosing it only in protected settings. I know this varies quite a bit: there are some universities and colleges where the faculty or even outsiders have much more access to this kind of information.

Most other institutional data (budget, admissions, investments, salaries etc.) is disclosed largely in highly standardized forms used by various ratings systems or consumers of information about higher education (including prospective students and their parents); the more complete or raw forms of such data is generally only available inside protected or privileged environments.


Let’s work this distinction. Would it be better if more institutional data was available in a less mediated, prepared or standardized form and minimally restricted by confidentiality or privileged access? I’m on the record as saying unambiguously yes: it would be better for us, better for higher education, and better for wider publics. It’s true that some of that data requires a lot of knowledge if you want to interpret it well. In a college the size of Swarthmore, there are so many quirks and variables involved in enrollment patterns and such small populations as well that it would be hard to say much of anything confidently if you were just let loose with the raw numbers of the last thirty years. Or so it seems on first thought. I don’t know that we’ve really put such a proposition to the test. One of the good things about the era of “big data” and open-source approaches is that there’s often some outsider who looks at a body of data and sees some tool or interpretation that wouldn’t ever occur to the people responsible for generating the data.

But what about assessments of individuals? Would I want everything I’ve ever said about students and colleagues to be public, much as Bradley Manning’s files made fairly personal assessments by some American officials public?

On one hand, yes, there are things I’ve said that I think needed to be said about the suitability of a person for a task or job or the qualifications of a student for a grant or a course that I would not like to say with the same candor or clarity to that person’s face. (In any professional context, there are things you say that no one should quote or repeat because they’re not said as purposeful contributions to a deliberation or process. Emergency medical technicians and doctors should have their gallows humor; professors should be able to vent about a student who is just not getting it.) But even when I do say such things to meaningfully influence what the institution is going to choose to do, I feel the need to be able to say them vividly, urgently, clearly rather than the softer, kinder, more indirect ways I’d express my reasoning if I had to tell the individual directly.

In a deliberation, in fact, I feel that obscured and indirect ways of speaking about judgments often help to disguise or enable discriminatory or unfair thinking. If you can’t say clearly what your criteria for assessment are and can’t speak with some urgency and clarity about how you make your judgments, then you also can’t call someone else out for their assessment even if you think it goes against the larger values of the institution.

Just as American diplomats and officials would lose clarity and decisiveness if they had to speak to each other privately in the polite or evasive diplomatic or political languages they are forced to use in public statements.


What strikes me in both kinds of judgment is that this kind of confidentiality is also a system for the preservation of cultural capital. It makes decisive, vividly observed assessments of individuals possible by creating a space that is set aside from everyday rituals of social respect and consideration. But if you’re a person who has never been inside such a space and has no intuition or knowledge about how they operate, about what gets said or how decisions get made, then you’re almost certainly also a person who is at a big disadvantage in such assessments.

Which, in something of a vicious cycle, is another thing that makes confidentiality that protects individual-level assessments so appealing.

If those assessments are about competition or selection, the people who know the least about the process of selection and the characteristic rhetoric of judgment are the quickest or easiest people to eliminate from consideration. If those assessments are about seeking manipulable clients in foreign and military affairs, the people who know the least about the ways they’re being judged are often marking themselves as targets and pawns.

Any time I’ve participated in a grant process, a hiring decision, a comparative assessment of student performance, I think to myself, “There is so much I could tell the people who were totally uncompetitive in this process if only I were allowed to share some really frank or direct observations about what they did wrong”. But you can’t ever do that for all sorts of reasons: the people applying or being assessed didn’t sign up for advice and might not welcome it (frank or otherwise) and the time involved would be staggering. Moreover, the more that the issues involve social capital and basic competencies (an applicant who doesn’t understand the nature of a job or grant, a student with fundamental issues at the level of basic skills, a person who doesn’t know anything about the institution or people to whom he or she is speaking), the more you can’t just settle for a couple of sentences or a quick comment if you want to open a dialogue. You’re talking about almost everything at that point. And you have to grapple with the Henry Higgins problem: developing the cultural capital that lets someone work towards the inside of a system of selection or merit isn’t a value-neutral act of empowerment.

So at best we settle for generalized, abstracted advice: make eye contact! Run a spell-check! Don’t use an ugly font on your cover letter! Do a bit of research about what you’re applying for! Which rarely addresses the meaningful, decisive, systematic weaknesses that quickly separate uncompetitive students or applicants from the competitive in-group, because those problems are much more intricate and yet much more comprehensive than these simple kinds of mechanical rules.

In international policy, what would happen if every official or leader knew how they were really viewed by foreign diplomats, spies, and colleagues? The least savvy or self-aware officials would either wise up (leading to a loss of cannon fodder, pawns and patsies) or they’d drop deeper into delusional egotism (which might make them more dangerous or harder to manipulate). Nobody wants the latter but losing the former is just about one group of people losing their perceived edge or advantage. What if every leader or official knew what was said in private assessments about why someone succeeded in their goals or was given what they were asking for?

What would happen if every student and applicant knew exactly how they were being assessed, in the actual language of assessment? What if they saw the detailed language used to assess highly successful applicants or candidates? They might either acquire the cultural capital to speak effectively “in” to the social and professional world of their aspirations or they might suffer enormous humiliation to no good or productive end, or discover that their exclusion is beyond plausible remedy. The former is something that most people in education claim they’d like to see, and the latter something that no one seems to want. But if we succeeded in cutting down on the numbers of people who could easily be excluded from meritocratic processes of selection, we might also have to confront the absurdity of highly pyramidal, exclusionary structures of selection in the first place.

The way I process this whole issue is that transparency and disclosure can’t be an ideology in and of themselves. But neither is privacy. Both ends of that characteristically modern spectrum demand to be re-examined for the instrumental and imaginative propositions embedded inside of them.

Maybe we could find ways to more effectively translate or reveal the interior of processes and conversations that we reflexively see as confidential or classified–or more imaginatively describe the subjectivities and ways of speaking that we think need the kind of intimacy and nurture that confidentiality offers.

This entry was posted in Academia, Politics, Swarthmore. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to It’s a Confidential Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand

  1. Laura says:

    Oddly, I’ve often wanted to know details about how I’m perceived or assessed. Maybe I’m a sadist.

    I do like the idea of transparency. I’ve been privy to confidential conversations about various decisions. And then have had colleagues assume some kind of conspiracy when actually it was nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s usually completely innocuous. I think when organizations aren’t transparent, that’s what happens. People assume bad things are going on and/or the organization decides it can do bad things because “no one will find out.”

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Broadly speaking, this is what I keep trying to sell folks on. That:

    a) More transparency is reassuring because it reveals that many professional conversations would withstand the scrutiny of everyone except cranks and assholes, who would be cranks and assholes whether they see the real deal or not. This was something I was noting on social media this summer about MI5 files in the UK archives–the MI5 people come off really pretty well a lot of the time, especially compared to the little tinpot bureaucratic assholes who keep reporting people to them. Same in a few State Department files I was looking at in July–at the height of the Cold War a lot of their staffers are keeping a pretty cool head when ordinary folks write to them to try and fink out a neighbor because he was modestly interested in Russia or some such.

    b) I think the dilemma is not whether we’d like to see what people say about us in confidential files but whether we’d be willing to say what we need to say if we had to say it straight to someone in a professional context. Academics may have more reluctance to do this for both good reasons and bad reasons. The good reasons stem from teaching, which is not a supervisory or straightforwardly hierarchical relation–we recognize that as in a therapeutic relationship, you may not be entitled to tell all students exactly what you think of them. But there is a big ethical and emotional range in that relationship–some faculty do brilliant, beautiful jobs as teachers by delivering the hard news without apologies or reservations. The bad reasons may be that we like to act like our professional world is flat and lacking in hierarchy, which in some ways it is and some ways it isn’t at all. Being unpracticed in face-to-face assessment is a way to efface the ways that it isn’t.

  3. yie says:

    hi Professor Burke,

    Would you mind elaborating on why the standards for government and academia (or other non-government entities) would need to be similar? Governments already have special powers–why isn’t that enough to justify more accountability (and the additional transparency needed to demonstrate that accountability)?

  4. Joey Headset says:

    I only wish that Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange had been around during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These brave whistleblowers could have shut down the filthy, secret backroom dealings that ultimately prevented World War III. Because, as a person who is on the internet, white and not gay, I understand that the greatest atrocity that as ever been perpetrated against humankind is the offhand possibility that somebody has access to my cellphone records.

  5. DCA says:

    From my own experience, the confidentiality of grades was not at all an academic value until it was legally required — lots of people would put the list of class grades on their office doors. As a piece of rank speculation, perhaps some of the pressure to inflate grades comes from knowing only your own–which is usually below what you think it should be.

    And I see no parallel between what privacy I should expect as an individual and what my government should claim.

  6. Barry says:

    “Which I have to say shut me up for a bit, hard as that might be to believe. ”

    You never brought up the fact that you don’t have *quite* as much power as the government?

    Joey Headset: “Because, as a person who is on the internet, white and not gay, I understand that the greatest atrocity that as ever been perpetrated against humankind is the offhand possibility that somebody has access to my cellphone records.”

Comments are closed.