Harvard Digs a Deeper Hole on Cheating, E-Mail

A statue of John Harvard sits in Harvard Yard on the school's campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts Photograph by Michael Fein/Bloomberg

Harvard has finally retained some adult legal supervision to sort out its cheating-and-e-mail-snooping fiasco. That’s the good news.

The bad news remains that the country’s most closely followed institution of higher education has already done damage to its valuable brand. The university’s clumsy reaction to the mess has made an embarrassing situation worse.

First, the latest headline: As reported by our colleagues at Bloomberg News, University President Drew Faust announced that David Barron, a professor at Harvard Law School, will head a new task force to develop recommendations on campus e-mail policy. Barron, a former journalist who went on to more respectable pursuits, including clerking for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and serving in the Justice Department during President Obama’s first term, is a noted expert on constitutional and administrative law. Faust said she would also ask Michael Keating, a leading Boston business litigator with the old-line firm Foley Hoag, to help sort out the situation.

The problem is that, at this late date, Harvard is still choosing task force members, rather than getting its story straight and focusing on the real issue at hand (which ain’t e-mail policy).

Let’s review: Late last summer, news broke that 125 Harvard students were implicated in a cheating scandal stemming from collaboration on a final exam in a political science class reputed to be an easy “gut” course. More than half the students were told to withdraw from the prestigious school for as much as a year.

Then, in March, Harvard confirmed media reports that school administrators searched the e-mail accounts of 16 resident deans last fall, seeking to find out who leaked information about the cheating investigation to undergraduate reporters at the Harvard Crimson. (Disclosure: As a former THC nerd-in-chief, Class of 1983, I am bursting with pride that the ol’ campus rag was on the case.)

Senior university officials tried to play down the significance of their snooping. They said they surveilled only “administrative” e-mail accounts, as opposed to “individual” Harvard e-mail accounts. The senior officials also emphasized that full-fledged faculty members enjoy more privacy protections; the resident deans are mere untenured lecturers, a lower class of humanity in the Ivy jungle.

All of this led to much gnashing of academic teeth and rending of scholarly garments.

Now Harvard admits that the e-mail surveillance was wider than the school originally admitted. Evelynn Hammonds, dean of Harvard College, said officials performed two reviews of a resident dean’s e-mail that the school hadn’t acknowledged last month, according to a transcript of remarks she made April 2 to a Faculty of Arts & Sciences meeting. The confusion over how much, and what kind of, digital monitoring Harvard does led University President Faust to form the Barron task force.

“It constitutes a significant institutional failure to provide adequate guidance and direction in a digital environment that is a powerful and rapidly changing force in all our lives,” Faust told the faculty. “We need clear, visible, and well-articulated policies and processes.”

Let me give this a crack: How about if Alma Mater acts like most other big employers? Tell all of your employees, whether they have tenure or not, that all of their office computer work, including their work e-mail, whether “administrative” or “individual,” is subject to oversight by management. If employees want to look at porn or communicate privately—for example, by sending confidential information to the student newspaper—they ought to do it from their personal computers at home and from their Gmail, Outlook, or Yahoo accounts. By all means, Professor Barron and his task force ought to ponder all the implications of this proposal, but at the very least, it offers simplicity and clarity.

Resolving the e-mail kerfuffle in short order would clear the air for a discussion of a far more troubling set of questions. The university’s main mission is to educate students. What has Harvard done to make sure that students aren’t cheating on a massive scale in other classes? What has Harvard done to communicate to its highly fortunate student body—young people who have opportunities others their age can only dream of—that it is ludicrous to seek to slide by, cheating in gut courses, when they have four years to take advantage of Harvard’s e-mail-obsessed but still quite learned faculty? And why are there any gut courses at a great university?

Harvard will bounce back from all this foolishness—if it focuses on the real challenges.

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