Over the weekend it was revealed that Harvard University had secretly accessed the email accounts of 16 Resident Deans in connection with a leaked confidential message regarding the university’s recent cheating scandal. Across a number of websites, Harvard faculty members and alumni called the search “creepy,” “dishonorable,” and “one of the lowest points in Harvard’s recent history — maybe Harvard’s history, period.”
This morning, Harvard’s Deans office released a statement about the email search, describing it as “limited to a search of the subject line of the email that had been inappropriately forwarded.” The statement also revealed that the covert operation had the approval of Harvard’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and General Counsel, and the support of the Dean of Harvard College.
One of the key issues in question here is not only whether Harvard had the right to access the Deans’ emails, but if they also had an obligation to inform them of the search. From Harvard’s statement:
“Some have asked why, at the conclusion of that review, the entire group of Resident Deans was not briefed on the review that was conducted, and the outcome. The question is a fair one. 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.”
According to a Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences electronic policy document, “The faculty member is entitled to prior written notice that his or her records will be reviewed, unless circumstances make prior notification impossible, in which case the faculty member will be notified at the earliest possible opportunity.” While The Crimson notes that Resident Deans are not technically faculty, they do have some faculty privileges, so this would seem like “clear precedent.” However, the statement does offer an apology to the Deans (real story: Harvard apologizes!), so that’s something.
Also, for what it’s worth, the search worked. Harvard’s statement acknowledges that the university found the person they were looking for by searching the email subject lines and collecting “metadata” — the name of the sender and the time the emails were sent. While it may make for an uncomfortable precedent in the view of some faculty, it was also effective.
Click through for the full (long) statement from the Harvard Dean’s office: Read the rest of this entry »