Harvard Faculty Is Not Happy with Snooping Harvard Administration

Does the "email scandal" outrank the "cheating scandal" that prompted it?


Image via “First Daffodils” on Flickr

When the Boston Globe reported that the Harvard administration had secretly accessed the emails of its residential deans last fall, the reporter speculated that the news “could … anger the Harvard faculty members.” This was, as it turns out, a good bet. Since the report, a range of faculty members have expressed outrage at administration’s actions in blog posts and (fittingly, given the cause) in anonymous quotes to newspapers. 
Harvard accessed the 16 residential deans’ e-mails last fall after a message advising them on how to counsel students implicated in a wide-ranging cheating scandal made its way to the press. According to the Crimson, the administration only notified one dean of the search in its immediate aftermath.

The faculty seems to be protesting on two counts. First, Harvard’s policies (explored at length here) only allow such access to staff email, affording the faculty greater privacy. The resident deans serve as lecturers, but for the purposes of identifying who forwarded an email related to the deans’ administrative duties, Harvard seems to be treating them as staff. Harry Lewis, a computer science professor and former dean of Harvard College, complained in a blog post that any professor with administrative duties should be concerned at Harvard’s reading of its own rules:

An ordinary lecturer is certainly a faculty member when she teaches a course–I am sure we include courses taught by Lecturers when we report to US News the number of courses taught by faculty. Could she really lose her faculty status by virtue of representing the faculty on the Board to which it has delegated authority to administer its rules? If so, that would also be true for faculty who become other kinds of deans. Can Harvard read all of Michael Mitzenmacher’s email (he is area dean for CS at Harvard)? Or mine, when I resume my role as Director of Undergraduate Studies in Computer Science? … If I understand the logic, all these folks lost the protections of the faculty email privacy policy when they agreed to accept their positions

More broadly, faculty seem to be complaining that regardless of whether Harvard had the right to search the emails, it was a pretty silly use of power. The email that got leaked didn’t name any students or relate to any criminal investigations. Lewis, for instance, complains:

Whichever policy is applicable, this way of handling the situation seems to me—well, dishonorable, to mention a concept that has been in the air a lot this year because of allegations that Gov 1310 students (but not their professor) have behaved less than honorably. Why not tell people you are reading their email? Would it not be the honorable thing to do? What is to be gained by not doing that? Other than avoiding, perhaps, the embarrassment of acknowledging that you are doing something to which the targets would reasonably object if they knew it.

Another Harvard computer science professor Michael Mitzenmacher echoed this on his own blog:

… it just seems silly.  They could have/should have first asked the Resident Deans if any of them had messed up, and let them know that Harvard considered the leak of Ad Board related confidential information a sufficiently big issue that they planned to search their e-mail if necessary.  My reading is the FAS policy would have allowed for that.

Evidently, the administration’s little faculty-relations issue is turning into yet another public relations issue, with several professors suggesting that the university’s privacy violations actually outrank the behavior of the students whose take-home exams too closely resembled each other in the first place. History and Literature lecturer Timothy McCarthy wrote in a Facebook post quoted by the Crimson, “This is disgraceful, even more so than the original cheating scandal, because it involves adults who should know better—really smart, powerful adults, with complete job security.”

Summing up those complaints, Harvard’s alumni magazine editor Richard Bradley perhaps puts today’s firestorm best on his blog, writing, “Perhaps Dean Smith never heard the old Washington adage, ‘The cover-up is worse than the crime.'”

Update: The Harvard administration released a long statement responding to the criticisms. In it, Deans Michael Smith and Evelynn Hammonds justify their decision to look into the origin of the leaked email by stressing the narrowness of the search. (They accessed the deans’ administrative accounts, and searched only for subject lines.) They offered a bit more mea culpa for not notifying the deans in the wake of the search, saying they wanted to protect the privacy of the dean who did forward the email. (That dean wasn’t punished.) “We understand that others may see the situation differently, and we apologize if any Resident Deans feel our communication at the conclusion of the investigation was insufficient,” the statement reads.