Confidentiality Concerns


This case discusses dynamics of academic departments specifically the complexities of confidentiality, trust, responsibility of leaders and the student-mentor relationship.


In their second year of graduate school, Susie Schmidt and Bob Bernhard took the written portion of the Ph.D. preliminary exam. The students had started graduate school together and had planned to take the exam from the start of their graduate career. They spent the summer studying and grilling each other on the exam material. A week after taking the exam, Schmidt and Bernhard were comparing notes on how they had worked the problems and guessing whether they had passed or failed. While they were talking, Bernhard confided that Dr. Maxwell, his adviser and the Ph.D. committee head, had told him that Schmidt had done very poorly on one of the five exam problems. Bernhard had thought little about Maxwell 's comment since Maxwell often disclosed confidential departmental information and gossip as they played racquetball together. Schmidt became very upset in reaction to his news. Bernhard was surprised by her reaction. He asked her not to say anything about it, since Maxwell would know who had told her.

Aware of the departmental policy of disclosing results only to students who had taken the exam , Schmidt felt that Bernhard should not have been told about her results at all, and certainly not before she herself had heard her results. She broke her promise to Bernhard and told her adviser, Dr. Campbell, what Maxwell had confided to Bernhard, without revealing where she had heard the information. She asked Campbell to keep what she had told him confidential. Much to Schmidt's surprise, Campbell seemed to dismiss the whole incident, remarking, "Maxwell has always had a loose tongue, and always will. There's nothing we can do about that." Schmidt, feeling that she had been failed by two people she saw as her mentors, was reluctant to pursue the matter with the department head, for fear he would also dismiss her concerns with little thought. Several weeks later, both Schmidt and Bernhard were notified that they had passed the preliminary exam.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are Maxwell's responsibilities as a mentor to the graduate students in the department? Did he fulfill his obligations as a mentor to Schmidt? to Bernhard?
  2. Does Bernhard have an obligation to report Maxwell's comments about the exam? If so, whom should he tell? Was Maxwell wrong to put Bernhard in this situation? Does your answer change if Bernhard had not reported Maxwell's comment to Schmidt?
  3. Should Schmidt have notified her adviser? What moral issues should she have considered before doing so? Would it have been better for her to notify her adviser after the exam results were out to avoid putting her adviser in an uncomfortable situation?
  4. What should Campbell do after Schmidt has told him about the situation? Should Campbell tell the department head about Maxwell's breach of confidentiality? If he does, what should the department head do? What can Schmidt do if her adviser doesn't see anything wrong with Maxwell's behavior?

Used with permission of Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Case drawn from Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume Two, Brian Schrag, Ed., February 1998.

Information does not have to be shared. If there is no good reason for sharing information, and if sharing it would in fact cause damage, then one is obligated to keep the information to himself or herself.

Not volunteering information is not lying, and it is not deception. Suppose Schmidt had asked Bernhard whether Maxwell had said anything about her performance on the exam. If Bernhard had said (untruthfully) that Maxwell had not, he would have been lying. Saying nothing is not deception, which presumes some expected sharing of information. Suppose Schmidt knew that Bernhard had a meeting with his adviser, Maxwell, and asked Bernhard afterward if Maxwell had said anything interesting. Maxwell's comments on Schmidt's performance are obviously interesting to Schmidt, and a negative response from Bernhard would have been deceptive. Schmidt should not have been expected to ask specifically whether Maxwell had said anything about her (Schmidt's) exam.

But none of that occurred. Bernhard possessed information that would cause Schmidt great anxiety if he volunteered it to her. Why, then, should he tell her? For what good purpose? What he should have done is to keep quiet until the test results were in and the situation had stabilized. At that point, he had a difficult decision to make: whether to tell someone such as Campbell (Schmidt's adviser) or the departmental chair. Because Bernhard had no reason to tell Campbell, it seems that the logical alternative for him would be to tell the departmental chair and hope that Maxwell would be cautioned against sharing confidential information with students.

I am aware of the philosophical argument that all information is to be shared and that this is the only way we can be assured of getting along with each other. We might argue that Bernhard's silence might cause him personal anxiety and might change his relationship with Schmidt, causing her to doubt his friendship. But these are minor concerns compared to the life-long relationship Bernhard would expect to have with Schmidt. There is nothing wrong with occasionally declining to volunteer information.

Author: P. Aarne Vesilind, Duke University.

This case raises important issues dealing primarily with confidentiality and the student-mentor relationship. Maxwell has obviously abused his position by breaking the code of confidentiality imposed both by the department's stated guidelines and by the unstated expectations of a mentor. In addition, Maxwell involved Bernhard in an ethical dilemma. Maxwell's position as faculty member and mentor gives him considerable power over Schmidt and Bernhard, power he has abused. Beyond Maxwell's obviously wrong actions, the course of action to be taken by Bernhard, Schmidt and Schmidt's adviser is not as clear. All three are faced with the competing demands of loyalty and the need to stop Maxwell's inappropriate behavior.

Question 1 addresses a faculty member's responsibility to mentor graduate students. In this case, Maxwell breaches the responsibility of trust and respect for Schmidt. Maxwell's history of passing along confidential information is setting a bad example for Bernhard and the other graduate students in the department.

Question 2 investigates Bernhard's responsibilities in this case. Bernhard is pulled between his loyalty for Maxwell and his friendship with Schmidt. If Maxwell often tells Bernhard confidential departmental information, Bernhard has three reasonable choices: 1) He can keep the information to himself. 2) He can tell Maxwell that he isn't comfortable hearing the information and ask him to quit confiding in him. 3) He can report Maxwell's behavior to the department head or someone else in the department. Because of the power disparity and the control that Maxwell has over Bernhard's passing or failing the exam, Bernhard is placed in a difficult situation. Choices 2 and 3 may hurt his standing as a graduate student in the department; however, if Bernhard keeps quiet, Maxwell could go on mistreating other graduate students. Based on principle alone, Bernhard should choose either Choice 2 or 3. The potential of the information to cause harm would have to be the deciding factor between Choices 2 and 3. Had Bernhard chosen Choice 1 and refrained from passing on any information that he heard from Maxwell, he could have avoided putting himself into this dilemma, but he would not have been fulfilling his responsibilities to future graduate students. However, Bernhard didn't make any of these choices; therefore, he made a bad decision.

Question 3 focuses on Schmidt's conflict between her promise to Bernhard and her feeling of anger about the confidentiality breach. Schmidt must worry not only about possible consequences to her own graduate career but to Bernhard's career as well. She could be putting Bernhard into a bad situation with Maxwell, as Question 2 explores. She faces the same choices as Bernhard in that she has the ability to prevent further breaches of confidentiality. An interesting question here is whether Schmidt should tell her adviser before or after the exam results are announced. If Schmidt tells him before the announcement, she could potentially place the adviser in a situation where the appearance of conflict of interest occurs. Obviously, the adviser would like Schmidt to pass the exam; any interference on his part with Maxwell could be construed as trying to influence the exam results.

Once Schmidt has told Campbell, he must decide what to do. In the case, he chooses to dismiss the incident entirely. He might choose this course of action for several reasons: He may not see anything wrong with what Maxwell has done, or he may be worried about stirring up animosity before Maxwell decides to pass Schmidt. If the latter is the case, then he should explain his reasoning to Schmidt, and they should decide together whether they should take action after the exam results are announced. If Schmidt has asked him not to tell anyone, he will need to be creative to come up with a solution. He might bring up the issue of confidentiality in general at a faculty meeting or during the next year's exams. Or he may wait until both Schmidt and Bernhard have graduated to mention the issue to Maxwell. If he confronts Maxwell, Maxwell may deny the incident.

While it may be in the best interests of Bernhard and Schmidt to let the whole incident blow over, the integrity of the departmental exam process is at stake. Schmidt's adviser must try to find a way to address this issue without hurting the graduate students' interests if they choose to remain anonymous.