Harvard’s Search for E-Mail Leak on Scandal Raises Campus Ire
By John Lauerman - Mar 11, 2013 12:01 AM ET
Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg
Harvard University raised concern on and off campus with the revelation that the administration searched campus e-mails for leaks to the media during the cheating scandal revealed last year.
“It’s sufficiently out of step with ordinary understandings of how we operate at Harvard,” said Harry Lewis, a computer science professor and former dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in an interview.
Harvard secretly searched the e-mail files of 16 resident deans, who sit on the Administrative Board that probes student infractions, to see who had forwarded an e-mail regarding the scandal to the student newspaper, the Boston Globe and the New York Times reported yesterday, citing unidentified sources. The university’s actions are cause for an investigation, said Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Washington- based Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“Harvard had a very good policy for e-mail privacy,” he said in an e-mail. “Intellectual freedom is critical to the university community. So, the news that administrators searched the e-mail accounts of deans to try to uncover communications with journalists is both surprising and unsettling.”
The proceedings of Harvard’s Administrative Board are confidential to protect student privacy. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based university didn’t confirm or deny the reports of the e-mail search.
“If circumstances were to arise that gave reason to believe that the Administrative Board process might have been compromised, then Harvard College would take all necessary and appropriate actions under our procedures to safeguard the integrity of that process, which is designed to protect the rights of our students to privacy and due process,” said Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes most of the university’s undergraduate teachers, in an e-mailed statement.
Resident deans administer the houses where undergraduates live, and some are faculty members. Harvard has different e-mail privacy policies for employees and faculty. Employees have “no expectation of privacy” for anything they write or store on the university’s network, according to the employee manual.
Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences “considers faculty e-mail messages and other electronic documents stored on Harvard-owned computers to be confidential,” with some exceptions, according to the policy.
Exceptions may include legal proceedings and internal investigations, according to the policy.
Lewis agreed that there are cases in which institutions have the right to seize records and said he doesn’t know all the facts of Harvard’s decision to search the resident deans’ files. The privacy of resident deans’ e-mail is particularly important because of their role in house and student affairs, Lewis said.
“We’re dealing with students and families who want to have conversations with us under what they assume are understandings of confidentiality,” he said.
Students also expressed concern about the search. The delay in revealing it reflects poorly on the administration, said Ryan Heffrin, a Harvard senior.
“It makes Harvard look worse because throughout the process there’s been very little disclosure between the students and the administration,” she said.
The e-mail scrutiny “increases the feeling that Harvard is a corporation, rather than a community,” said Clare Sipprelle, a Harvard junior.
Harvard doesn’t regularly review faculty e-mails, said Jeff Neal, a spokesman.
“Any assertion that Harvard routinely monitors emails — for any reason — is patently false,” he said in an e-mail.
Universities are moving toward even greater use of electronic communication and data-sharing through their use of massively open online courses, often called MOOCs, Rotenberg said.
That trend has made privacy “an increasingly important issue for all members of the university community,” he said.
The Harvard cheating scandal came to light in August when the college disclosed it was investigating similarities in responses on the final exams of about 125 students. Students later said that the exams were for “Introduction to Congress,” a government course.
More than half of the students implicated were told to withdraw for as long as a year, Harvard said in February. Of the remaining students linked to the probe, half were given probation, the university said then.
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