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The 'Orwellian' Action an Ivy League University Took That's Prompting an Investigation


"[I]t's being secretive, and it's withholding information."

People sit on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (Credit: AP)

When faculty members at Harvard University noticed more students skipping class, they wanted to find out why. So the university's institutional review board approved a study that involved installing cameras in lecture halls. The cameras took still pictures every minute to track how many students were in attendance and how many were not.

People sit on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (Credit: AP) AP

There was just problem with that approach: The university didn't notify the students – and in some cases faculty members – who were being photographed.

Harvard University Vice Provost for Advances in Learning Peter Bol said the results of the study are still being discussed with professors for each of their respective courses, but that once the photos were analyzed, they were destroyed.

Still, Harvard University President Drew Faust has referred the study to a university oversight committee. Computer science professor Harry Lewis, who was among the first to raise the study as a concern, stated his disapproval to the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.

"Just because technology can be used to answer a question doesn't mean that it should be. And if you watch people electronically and don't tell them ahead of time, you should tell them afterwards," Lewis said.

Student Brett Biebelberg called the surveillance another example of the university "not being forthright."

"[I]t's being secretive, and it's withholding information from students and professors that could potentially be used against them,” Biebelberg told the Crimson.


German professor Peter Burgard asked how the monitoring did not amount to "spying," going so far as to call it "Orwellian."

Evolutionary biology professor Gonzalo Giribet and economics professor Jerry Green disagreed, however, saying they did not classify the surveillance as a form of "spying."

As the oversight committee examines the monitoring, Bol said the university is working to inform those students who may have been part of the study that they were photographed but that the images have since been destroyed.

Follow Jon Street (@JonStreet) on Twitter

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