Should academics talk publicly about their former students?

Law lecturer’s unflattering account of Senate candidate Roy Moore triggers debate

December 18, 2017
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Sometimes lecturers have positive memories of students, and sometimes they don’t. They usually don’t share their memories publicly – at least with names – either way. Yet sometimes they’re asked to weigh in on the intellect or character of a former student, or feel the need to do so – particularly when those students become public figures.

Case in point: Guy V. Martin, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Alabama, wrote a deeply unflattering article for AL.com earlier this year about the Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. Much of the piece was about teaching Moore – or trying to, unsuccessfully.

“If Moore's analysis of a case was tantamount to thinking 1 + 1 = 3, and his classmates reasoned otherwise, there was no backing down by Moore,” Mr Martin wrote. “The class was willing to fight to the death against illogic that no legal mind but one in America would espouse.” Moore never won a single argument, “and the debates got ugly and personal. The result: gone was the fulfilment a teacher hopes for in the still peace of logic and learning.”

Mr Martin added: “I had no choice but to abandon the Socratic method of class participation in favour of the lecture mode because of one student: Roy Moore.”

The op-ed, published in September, didn’t stop Mr Moore from winning his state’s Republican primary. (Rather, it seems an entirely different kind of spectre from Moore’s past – his alleged predatory behaviour involving young teenage girls – was his undoing in last week’s general election.) Mr Martin’s impact aside, can and should professors talk publicly about their past students?

In the US, institutions guard their students’ privacy, and indeed, they’re required to under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA, as it’s known, prohibits the disclosure of personally identifiable information gleaned from education records. Records, according to the US Education Department, mean documents directly related to a student, maintained by an institution or agency.

Information obtained through personal knowledge or observation are not records under FERPA, however. So, 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 student’s grade, for example.

Brett Sokolow, an attorney and president of the campus safety consulting firm NCHERM Group, said that FERPA-protected information remains so “even many years after graduation”. But academics and even administrators can share what they know about someone based on talk or direct interaction. That includes what “might leave a perception of someone’s intelligence”, Mr Sokolow said.

Mr Martin is not the first professor to talk about a student. Robert George, McCormick chair in jurisprudence at Princeton University, talked to The Atlantic earlier this year about his former advisee, Republican senator Ted Cruz of Texas. But he did so glowingly, in a joint interview with Mr Cruz. The late William T. Kelley, former professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, also allegedly told a friend many times that a former student, one Donald Trump, was “dumbest goddamn student I ever had”. Yet Frank DiPrima, the friend, shared those comments in a piece for Daily Kos some six years after Kelley’s passing, after Mr Trump became President Trump.

Laurence Tribe, a professor of law at Harvard University, once discussed former student Barack Obama in a National Public Radio interview, but probably not in a way that Mr Obama would have minded. “He wanted to make a difference,” Professor Tribe said of Mr Obama. “He wanted to learn how the system worked.”

Mitt Romney also might have approved what Detlev Vagts, professor of business at Harvard, said about his time there in a parallel NPR interview, in 2012: “He had a very strong business school record, and a good but not outstanding law school record.”

Biographers and reporters love to delve into politicians’ pasts, but they almost always quote fellow students from the time, not professors – and probably not for a lack of trying. It was a fellow Baylor University swim team member who once told The New Yorker that Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky got high on laughing gas, via a scuba mask and nitrous oxide tanks procured from a dentistry classmate, for example. In any case, it remains the exception that professors publicly discuss their past students. But that appears to be a matter of ethics, not law or policy.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Mr Martin said he was within his rights in talking about Mr Moore and ethically clear, if not obligated, to do so – in the public interest.

“He’s a public figure,” Mr Martin said of Mr Moore. “If he’d stayed private, I would have strayed away from this. But several people asked me to speak out, and this is a matter of his fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution.” (Mr Moore, a Christian, has argued that “God’s law” supersedes state and federal law; he was removed from his position as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court twice, first for refusing a federal court’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument he’d installed in the Alabama Judicial Building, in 2003, and again in 2016 for telling state probate judges to ignore a US Supreme Court decision in favour of marriage equality.)

But to what extent does someone’s decades-old student performance inform their current abilities? In Mr Moore’s case, very much so, Mr Martin said, asserting that his former student has demonstrated time and again – including as former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court – that he hasn’t changed.

“He demonstrated the same inability to hear the other side, taking extreme positions and not listening to reason,” even when his court seat was at risk, Mr Martin said. “Had he been a changed person, that would have been different.”

The American Association of University Professors takes a somewhat different view in its Statement on Professional Ethics. The document says, in part, that professors “respect the confidential nature of the relationship between professor and student.”

Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance for the association, 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. (Mr Moore is 70.)

Mr 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.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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