Harvard Administration Searched Dean’s Emails in Cheating Scandal Investigation
The troubles of Harvard University have deepened with the discovery that central administration officials had searched through the email accounts of 16 of the university’s deans during the fall of last year in hopes of uncovering who had been leaking information about Harvard’s cheating scandal, eliciting widespread “shock” and “dismay” from Harvard faculty members and students alike.
After news of the email search first broke over the weekend, Harvard issued a statement that said finding the dean responsible for leaking the confidential email last fall, as well as information recorded at an Administrative Board meeting, was necessary, alleging that the email “threatened the privacy and due process afforded students.”
“While the specific document made public may be deemed by some as not particularly consequential, the disclosure of the document and nearly word-for-word disclosure of a confidential board conversation led to concerns that other information – especially student information we have a duty to protect as private – was at risk,” the statement said.
The statement, written jointly by Dean Evelynn Hammonds and Dean Michael Smith, said that the decision to read search the 16 email accounts came when the Administrative Board met just before the beginning of Fall to find out how the email, which had only been sent to the Resident Deans, had been leaked to the press.
“The situation was shared with the entire Board, including with all Resident Deans,” the statement said. “It was made clear at that time that absent clarification of what happened, an investigation would be required. No one came forward.”
Hammonds and Smith went on to say that after the administration spoke with university lawyers to maintain legality, a “very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search was conducted by the University’s IT Department. It was limited to the Administrative accounts for the Resident Deans – in other words, the accounts through which their official university business is conducted, as distinct from their individual Harvard email accounts.”
The search yielded two emails sent by one Dean, and was then deemed by investigators to be sent by the Resident Dean by mistake. While admitting that the question on why the Resident Deans weren’t briefed on the investigation “is a fair one,” the statement said that doing so protected the Dean in question.
“Operating without any clear precedent for the conflicting privacy concerns and knowing that no human had looked at any emails during or after the investigation, we made a decision that protected the privacy of the Resident Dean who had made an inadvertent error and allowed the student cases being handled by this Resident Dean to move forward expeditiously,” the statement continued.
Despite the reasons given by the administration for why the search was conducted and why the Resident Deans were never informed until after the story was uncovered by the media, much of the school’s faculty have reacted strongly to the breach in privacy, including senior Resident Dean Sharon Howell.
“They don’t seem to think they’ve done anything wrong,” said Howell. “[I told them], if you want to repair this with the resident deans, it would make sense to talk about why you thought this was the right thing at the time, and apologize for not notifying us after the fact.”
“I was shocked and dismayed,” said the law professor Charles J. Ogletree. “I hope that it means the faculty will now have something to say about the fact that these things like this can happen.”
“If reading the deans’ email is really OK by the book, why didn’t they just ask the deans who leaked the memo, threatening to read their email if no one came forward?” said Harry Lewis, a former dean and computer scientist that helped develop the university’s email policy. “Why not tell them what was being done if it was really an OK thing to do?”