Last fall, Harvard University summarily suspended somewhere between 60 and 70 students after investigating a rash of cheating in an introductory government course. Now, it appears that it wasn't just the students reading over each others' shoulders.
The Harvard administration apparently was concerned about potential leaks to the press, after an email specifying confidential administrative procedure was leaked to the press, apparently because one professor forwarded it to a particularly exposure-hungry student. As a result, the administration decided to skip the process of asking for confession, and simply searched the emails of its 16 resident deans (administration officials tasked with handling the cheating scandal, who also occasionally teach), trying to find the leak in an outbox. The problem? That particular approach may not have been allowed under the deans' contract of employment. The Boston Globe reports:
The other 15 deans were left unaware their email accounts had been searched by administrators until the Globe approached Harvard with questions about the incident on Thursday, having learned of it from multiple Harvard officials who described it in detail. Those officials asked for anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
Harvard administrators said they would inform the remaining deans today -- almost six months after the search.
The deans have two Harvard email accounts – one primarily intended for administrative duties, and another for personal matters. Only the first category of accounts was searched; information technology staffers were instructed to look only for a specific forwarded message heading and to not read the content of messages.
News of the incident could nonetheless anger Harvard faculty members, whose privacy in electronic records is protected under a Faculty of Arts and Sciences policy.
Resident deans are not professors, but they teach. At issue is how much privacy they should expect.
This decision by the Harvard administration has touched off protests from the officials in question, even as the university tries to calm the storm. The Associated Press reported:
Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal did not specifically address the allegations but denied any routine monitoring of emails.
"Any assertion that Harvard routinely monitors emails — for any reason — is patently false," he said in an email.
Sharon Howell, Harvard's senior resident dean, criticized Harvard administrators and said they owed the deans an apology for failing to notify the email account holders until after gaining access to the emails.
"They don't seem to think they've done anything wrong," she told the Globe.