Professors talk about their students. A lot. Not to each other, but in the many, many letters of recommendation that we are asked to write. Indeed, we are asked to write so many letters that one of the best academic novels of the past decade was crafted around this premise.
These letters of recommendation for jobs or fellowships or admission to another degree program are an important part of an academic’s job. There is an art to writing (and reading) them. An important quality of these letters, however, is that they are confidential.
I bring this up because sometimes, professors are asked to talk about their students on the record. For example, Jason Zengerle’s New York Times Magazine profile of Carter Page devoted a paragraph to Page’s dissertation experience, and included a quote from his dissertation adviser:
When Trump announced Page as one of his foreign-policy advisers during a meeting with The Washington Post editorial board in March 2016, he was eager to tout Page’s credentials, identifying him as “Carter Page, Ph.D.” Page’s doctoral adviser for his degree, received in 2011 from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, was Shirin Akiner, a controversial scholar who has been derided by fellow academics and human rights groups for trying to whitewash human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. But in an email, Akiner told me, “I am afraid I have no information about Carter Page — some 10 years ago, he was one of my many students.”
Read one way, that quote from Page’s adviser is not exactly glowing. Read another way, it might have been an attempt to be noncommittal.
The Guardian’s Luke Harding and Stephanie Kirchgaessner found Page’s external PhD examiners, who were more verbose in their recollections of Page:
Page first submitted his thesis on central Asia’s transition from communism to capitalism in 2008. Two respected academics, Professor Gregory Andrusz, and Dr. Peter Duncan, were asked to read his thesis and to examine him in a face-to-face interview known as a viva….
The viva, held at University College, London, went badly. “Page seemed to think that if he talked enough, people would think he was well-informed. In fact it was the reverse,” Andrusz said. He added that Page was “dumbfounded” when the examiners told him he had failed.
Their subsequent report was withering. It said Page’s thesis was “characterised by considerable repetition, verbosity and vagueness of expression,” failed to meet the criteria required for a PhD, and needed “substantial revision.”
Reading those comments about Page gave me flashbacks to the case of Paula Broadwell, in which the Boston Globe caught up with some of Broadwell’s Harvard professors and caught them saying rather indecorous things like, “She was not someone you would think of as a critical thinker. I don’t remember anything about her as a student. I remember her as a personality.”
There are other examples of professors praising their former students in public. Princeton professor Robert George spoke at length with the Atlantic’s Caroline Kitchener about his former student Ted Cruz, and how Cruz had changed since he was an undergraduate.
This all raises an interesting question: When is it appropriate for a professor to talk to the media about a former student? The American Association of University Professors, in its statement on professional ethics, urges professors to “respect the confidential nature of the relationship between professor and student.” Does that extend to making public comments about former students?
Legally speaking, professors are clear to talk about their students — past or present — as long as they’re not disclosing anything they’ve learned from official documents, written or recorded. They might say a student is bright (or not), but not disclose that students’ grade, for example….
Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance for the [American Association of University Professors], said it “seems obvious” that that obligation would “discourage” teachers from disclosing information about the classroom performance of their students. Yet it’s doubtful that such a responsibility applies 30 or 40 years after a student has graduated, he said.
Sokolow, of NCHERM, said he thought that professors and administrators each have to decide for themselves whether it’s appropriate to comment on a student who’s achieved some level of “notoriety.” Sometimes, he said, “doing so is providing a public service, and sometimes it is just gossip. It’s more ethical when it’s a public service.”
As a professor, let me suggest that the best way for professors to approach this question the exact same way we approach letters of recommendation. Most letters are filled with praise; indeed, it would be odd for a student to ask a professor to write such a letter without some expectation it will be good! If a professor is unenthusiastic about the student, s/he will usually decline to write one, rather than write a negative one. On a rare occasion, however, a professor might be put in an awkward situation in which they have no choice but to write an honest letter about a bad student.
This same logic applies to public comments about famous former students. Praising a great former student is fine. It is expected, a courtesy of sorts. For less-than-great former students, declining to comment seems like the best and most polite course of action. Yes, there can be unusual circumstances when outright criticism is warranted, but those should be exceedingly rare. The case of Roy Moore seems to fit this rare exception; Paula Broadwell, not so much.
For the foreign policy community, Carter Page has become a human punching bag. It is easy to mock him. I’ve had a student or three who remind me of Page. But if I was ever asked to comment on the record about these students, I would hope that I would keep my mouth shut.