A few weeks ago I was sitting looking out at my backyard.  A large semi-circle of trees encloses the yard.  Part of the amazing Monadnock Rail Trail sits just beyond a ravine. In the summer we can hear people walking, running, and biking.  We hear dogs enjoying a walk and horses out for stroll with their riders.  But we can’t see them.

This time of year, the trees are mostly bare and we can see all the activity including the occasional cross-country skier. But it’s harder to hear because the house is closed up against the New Hampshire cold. There are small intervals of time in early spring and autumn when we can see and hear what’s going on. For some reason, thinking about the trail in summer and winter brought me around to thinking about transparency or, more specifically, lack of transparency.

At both colleges where I have worked, requests for more transparency have been common. Faculty want senior administrators to be more transparent. Staff want supervisors to be more transparent. And we all want the Board of Trustees to be more transparent.  But what exactly is it that we are asking for? Does transparency imply broader participation? Is it primarily about communicating decisions or does it also include information about the process of decision-making? How do issues of privacy and confidentiality come into play?

I am a library dean.  I report to the college provost and meet regularly with the other deans and direct reports to the provost. Sometimes we are asked to keep the details of our decision-making conversations confidential.  Occasionally we must even keep a specific decision to ourselves until the administration is ready to make an announcement. My colleagues in the library are often interested, and anxious, to hear details, for me to be transparent with them.

Most of us in higher education are struggling with enrollment and budget challenges. Conversations about budget cuts, staffing levels, workload, and academic programs occupy much of our meeting time. I feel myself very much in a middle management position. I must advocate in good faith for the library and our staff, I must fully and honestly in conversations about changes, and I must communicate accurately and truthfully with my library colleagues.  These, I have come to believe, are the hallmarks of transparency and they apply to my contributions to conversations outside the library as well as to the faculty, staff, and students I work with every day.

In the past year my efforts at transparency have looked like this:

  • Say as much as is possible: “Yes, I am included in the conversations” (sometimes that is reassuring – people want to know I am in the room where decisions are being made).
  • If I know something and cannot share it, simply say that: “I have some information that I cannot share right now.”
  • If I don’t know just say that, too: “It’s likely a decision has been made but I don’t know anything more than that.”
  • Share as much as I can: “Let me know if you want to look at budget reports with me. Nothing here is confidential. Any suggestions you have are welcome.” Contrary to popular opinion, not many people are taking my offer on this one.

So I feel that sometimes I can see, but not hear, those making decisions at levels above me. And sometimes I can tell colleagues much of what I know but cannot really show them everything. I approach transparency in my role as library dean the way I do most things in librarianship. I push to the limits. I say as much as I can. I probably say more than I should sometimes.

Is lack of transparency a challenge where you work? Have you been involved in conversations about how to define transparency in a way that satisfies people? How do you practice transparency?

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One thought on “I’m Looking Through You: Transparency and Its Discontents”

  1. A big question about transparency in education is “what is it that we should be transparent about?” It would be nice if we could have real discussions among faculty, deans, provosts about what can and should we all be open about. It’s the surprises that surprise me.

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