Sunday, December 15, 2019
The importance of protecting student privacy
While what happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas, in spite of creative marketing, typically what happens academically between college students and their instructors is or should be.
There are some regulations that support a student's right to privacy, but there is also a general assumption that a professor will not go around willy-nilly announcing far and wide how a student performed academically in a particular class to anyone other than the student and the college's registrar. When a professor does discuss a student's academic performance with others, it is typically with the student's permission.
What happens then when a professor hears a student talk about class performance to others but knows it bears very little resemblance to the truth?
Several times a year, small groups of students at the college where a reader we're calling Maxine teaches invite a professor to join them for lunch. It's a chance for students to have a relaxed conversation among themselves with one of their teachers. Sometimes students in the group are currently enrolled in a class with the professor, but often the group is made up of students who have completed a course or have yet to take a course with her. Maxine enjoys going to these luncheons, not so much for the food, but mostly for the opportunity to get to know students and their interests more casually.
At one such luncheon, Maxine found herself among a half dozen former students. Discussion ranged from topics they had covered in her class to what their plans were during summer break to the level of academic rigor at the college.
"You need to get at least a C for any courses taken in your major," one student said.
Another chimed in: "It's hard to get below a C in anything here."
"No one ever gets below a C in anything," a third student added.
It was the third student's comment that took Maxine aback. She was concerned that the student noticed her look of surprise, but tried her best to conceal it. She had had the student in class and knew that because of the quality of work submitted and frequent absences, the student had indeed earned lower than a C in her class.
Typically, she wouldn't say anything about a student's grades and certainly not in front of other students. But Maxine wondered if this situation was different. After all, it was the student who brought up the grade earned in her class which Maxine knew to be a lie.
"Students do earn lower than a C from time to time," Maxine recalls having said during the discussion and the group moved on to another topic.
Now, she wonders if she should have said something more specific in response to the student's claim.
She shouldn't have. She did the right thing by keeping her response general. If the opportunity arose in the future to discuss the issue with the student one-on-one, that would be perfectly fine. It would give the student the opportunity to talk about the grade and why the choice was made to misrepresent it to the lunch group.
In this case, however, respecting the student's privacy outweighs the need to call out the error. By making clear that what the student said did not accurately represent the truth, Maxine protected the student's privacy without letting the misrepresentation sit without being challenged.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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