March 11 (Bloomberg) -- Harvard University raised concern on and off campus with the revelation that the administration searched 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,” Harry Lewis, a computer science professor and former dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said in an interview.
Harvard secretly searched the e-mails of its 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 school confirmed today in a statement. The university’s actions should be scrutinized, 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 Boston Globe and the New York Times reported the search yesterday.
Harvard’s Administrative Board is charged with helping students work through academic issues and disciplinary actions, Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Evelynn Hammonds, dean of Harvard College, said today in a statement. Confidentiality is essential to the board’s fulfilling obligations to students and faculty, according to the statement.
“In every instance the actions and decisions in this case were motivated by the goals of protecting the integrity of our faculty-legislated processes and the privacy of our students,” they said in the statement.
Harvard President Drew Faust said she was made aware of the potential privacy breach in September, and was told it had been resolved. She said she wasn’t informed of specifics of the case.
“I feel very comfortable that great care was taken to safeguard the privacy of all concerned, especially our students, and to protect the confidentiality of the Administrative Board process,” Faust said.
The university gave an account of its actions to explain how and why the search was initiated. On Sept. 1, days after Harvard disclosed that it was investigating dozens of students in the cheating scandal, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper quoted from a confidential e-mail sent from Administrative Board Secretary John Ellison to board members. As part of their duties administering the houses where students live, Harvard’s 16 resident deans sit on the Administrative Board.
The Crimson reported then that one of the resident deans provided the e-mail to the paper. The e-mail didn’t discuss individual students or their cases.
“It was made clear at the time that absent clarification of what happened, an investigation would be required,” the deans said today in their statement. “No one came forward.”
A short time later, confidential proceedings from a board meeting were recounted in the Crimson, Smith and Hammonds said today in their statement. Again, the resident deans were asked for an explanation, with no results, they said.
“While the specific document made public may be deemed by some as not particularly consequential,” the statement said, “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.”
Concerns about the privacy of the disciplinary proceedings prompted a search of resident deans’ e-mails to determine who had forwarded the original one. Only subject lines were searched, no e-mails were opened or read, and only the time of the e-mails and the name of the sender were returned with the search, Smith and Hammonds said. Harvard only searched e-mail accounts that are assigned to the resident deans for administrative functions.
Smith and Harvard General Counsel Robert Iuliano approved the search, and Hammonds supported it, the statement said.
E-mails are highly personal and should only be searched when a specific individual is under suspicion and reviewing them might reveal evidence of malfeasance, said Chris Calabrese, a legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington who focuses on privacy issues.
“Individualized suspicion is the key element to a search,” Calabrese said in a telephone interview.
Searching subject lines should be viewed as the same as searching the body of the e-mails, he said.
“We’re still talking about the content of the communication,” Calabrese said. “If it wasn’t sensitive, they wouldn’t have wanted to search it.”
Any faculty members whose e-mails were subject to search should have been informed beforehand, even if the e-mails were in an administrative account, said Jenn Nichols, associate secretary in the Washington-based American Association of University Professors’ department of academic freedom, tenure and governance.
“Individuals should have the same assurance of e-mail privacy as when they send and receive envelopes through the physical mail system,” she said in an interview.
Harvard’s search yielded two forwarded e-mails that indicated they involved Administrative Board business, the Harvard statement said. The resident dean who was identified by the search acknowledged forwarding the e-mail to two students. It appears that the breach of the board’s rules was “inadvertent,” and no action was taken against the resident dean.
Harvard didn’t tell the resident deans about searching for the forwarded e-mails before it began, and only the dean whose e-mails were found was informed afterward. The school was operating “without precedent,” and was trying to protect the privacy of the dean who forwarded the e-mails, along with those of students under investigation for cheating, the statement said.
“We understand that others may see the situation differently, and we apologize if any resident deans feel our communication at the conclusion of the investigation was insufficient,” the university said.
Faust, in her statement, said that it’s fair to raise questions about whether the resident deans should have been informed of the search sooner.
“Debates about the rights and responsibilities of members of our community are healthy.”
In addition to their house-related duties, some resident deans are Harvard 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’ e-mail files. The privacy of the 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 e-mails -- 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.
To contact the reporter on this story: John Lauerman in Boston at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at email@example.com