Managing secrets in higher education

In this short essay, Morten Hansen uses secrecy as a prism to deconstruct dynamics and processes in higher education. The reflections spring from various research projects on topics ranging from the Freedom of Information Act 2000, public-private partnerships, and new education markets. The essay begins with experiences that Morten has had interviewing senior decision makers in the higher education sector as part of his ongoing PhD research.

I often find myself on the edge of my seat listening to CEOs and Pro-Vice-Chancellors who work with both public and private organizations in higher education. Their incisive but also deeply passionate accounts of the newest learning technologies and innovations transport me into worlds of heated board meetings, memorable student interactions, and copious cost-benefit analyses. As the conversation flows onto other topics, however, they clam up like oysters. Some things we mustn’t mention. Some things are secret.

This transformation from eloquent respondent to reticent sentinel is a way to manage the ‘who knows what’ about their institution. Properly managing such secrets requires considering context and power. As Professor Shoshana Zuboff argues, they must ask: who knows? who decides who knows? and who decides who decides who knows?

Secrets live between people and are a key ingredient in building relationships, organizations, and institutions. They can remind us of our human condition (e.g., friends sharing a quiet whisper), help us build more effective learning arenas (e.g., students disclosing their special needs), and structure the incentives that bring commercial urgency to basic research (e.g., firms transforming decades of painstaking R&D into commercially viable products through trade secrets and patents). Even when it comes to state building – to paraphrase Professor Eva Horn – secrets can create the discretionary space needed to enforce rule of law.

Newspapers burst with stories of leaders using and misusing the discretion awarded to their institutions. Though scandals ebb and flow, they must not distract us from the larger shift restructuring the management and production of secrets. It is caused by new economies of scale in sophisticated information capabilities that sprout with force in regulatory vacuum. While you read these words, this vacuum is being filled by actors appropriating the power to decide who knows what in our universities.

A 2006 research contract between the Virginia Commonwealth University and Phillip Morris is an early example. As reported by the New York Times, the contract forbade professors to discuss any research without the express permission of Phillip Morris. Downgrading public university research to a secret controlled by big tobacco is obviously indefensible. But, blaming this failure on a few rotten apples at the university is too easy: no scholar willingly signs away their academic freedom to a tobacco company. Who would? The capitulation was an act of desperation, enticed by the mirage that dwindling public funding can be offset by practice-based research without changing who controls the secrets.

Secrecy management and mismanagement is affecting students too. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 prompted a revealing debate in the House of Commons as to whether the sector’s independent regulator ought to share student data with global firms in general, and Pearson in particular: should students have control over when, why, and under which conditions their data is repackaged for distribution? Such debate breaks open our time’s biggest secrecy fallacy: conflating access to information and ownership. Facebook is a well-known example of a company asserting proprietary rights over all information touching its platform. Fewer people realize that some higher education companies are following Facebook’s example when they facilitate Massive Open Online Courses for universities, record students’ behavioral data online, or purchase such data in order to market or deliver education services.

The Silicon Valley fallacy is here doubly dubious because it dismantles the idea of higher education as a sanctuary for students to freely develop and explore themselves and society. Imagine, for example, a company claiming that their video technology can read students’ emotions, in real time, as they are learning new content. Which national intelligence apparatus could restrain themselves from searching such data for ‘irregular’ emotional responses? Was that a twinkle in the eye of an American student learning about the September 11 terror attacks? Did this Chinese student frown when reading about the Tiananmen Square protests? Students would be left defenseless against false positives if such invasive questions are answered outside their control or knowledge.

In conclusion, secrets have always been a part of higher education, and professionals have always run the risk of acting in harmful ways on flawed, unspoken knowledge. However, the impact secrets have on higher education today is at a tipping point because we are accepting business models that rely on producing, selling, and controlling them. As new cohorts of students and researchers join the ranks of higher learning, let their education experience not be our Facebook experience. Let us defend our institutions as learning sanctuaries for them, not about them.