Scandal Makes a Cheater Out of Harvard

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It's been half a year since news broke that 125 Harvard University students were implicated in a cheating scandal and over a month since it was reported that more than half of them were told to withdraw from school for as much as a year. But the controversy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows few signs of abating. Now it's administrators, not students, whose integrity is being questioned.

Yesterday, the university issued a statement confirming what the Boston Globe and the New York Times reported over the weekend: that Harvard administrators searched the e-mail accounts of 16 resident deans last fall, seeking to pinpoint who among them had leaked a confidential message from the administration about how to advise students being investigated in the scandal. According to the statement from deans Michael D. Smith and Evelynn M. Hammonds, the concerns stretched beyond the e-mail to the fact that detailed information from an Administrative Board meeting was shared with the Harvard Crimson newspaper. Resident deans were approached several times about these leaks, but nobody fessed up, prompting the administration to start snooping.

Like the cheating itself, this most recent debacle revolves around vague rules applied haphazardly. Harvard has two standards of e-mail protection for its employees. The accounts of administrative and professional staff can be read "at any time by management or by other authorized personnel for any business purpose." Faculty members are afforded greater protection; their electronic correspondence is theirs alone with one exception being that "in extraordinary circumstances such as legal proceedings and internal Harvard investigations, faculty records may be accessed and copied by the administration." In the latter circumstance, faculty members are supposed to be notified before their records are accessed, or as soon as possible after the review.

The problem is that the resident deans don't fall neatly into either category. They are members of the administration, but also teach courses as lecturers. To complicate matters more, they have two e-mail addresses. Yesterday's statement made clear that that the search "was limited to the Administrative accounts for the Resident Deans - in other words, the accounts through which their official university business is conducted, as distinct from their individual Harvard email accounts."

This seems to suggest an emphasis on the resident deans' roles as administrators, and thus a de-emphasis on Harvard's need to explain its actions. Still, as computer science professor and former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis put it wryly in a March 9 blog post, "I am sure we include courses taught by Lecturers when we report to US News the number of courses taught by faculty."

At the heart of this discussion over the exact role that these hybrid teacher-advisers play is whether their privacy rights should really come down to a matter of institutional semantics. Why does such a double standard exist in the first place? If forwarding the e-mail truly, as the statement alleges, "threatened the privacy and due process afforded students before the Board," shouldn't the administration have the power to locate the culprit regardless of whether he or she is a tenured professor or an administrative assistant?

Harvard is also patting itself on the back for protecting privacy by searching only the subject lines of the e-mails to see whether or not the message had been forwarded. If the students' rights were at risk, why not search all the correspondence? Perhaps in addition to the resident dean who was caught having forwarded the e-mail to two students, other individuals copied and pasted the text into e-mails with innocuous subject lines. Does being tech-savvy render them inculpable?

In addition, if this was about finding out how the e-mail and the details of a confidential meeting got to the news media, why does the statement seem to suggest that the investigation stopped before it had answered those questions?

Last, why, if Harvard thought it had acted in the best interest of its students and of the integrity of its disciplinary system, did the university keep the investigation a secret from all but the one "guilty" resident dean until the Boston Globe came knocking on its door?

To this final question Harvard did offer something of an apology as well as a bit of an explanation: "Operating without any clear precedent for the conflicting privacy concerns and knowing that no human had looked at any emails during or after the investigation, we made a decision that protected the privacy of the Resident Dean who had made an inadvertent error and allowed the student cases being handled by this Resident Dean to move forward expeditiously."

When did the privacy of the "inadvertent" culprit become the priority? And what stopped the university from telling the other resident deans about the investigation without revealing which of their colleagues erred?

What all this backtracking and second-guessing and arbitrary rule-making suggests is that somewhere along the way university administrators started to worry that they had overreacted, that they were approaching the line of what was acceptable, and it was too late to turn back. In trying to piece together the rules after the fact, Harvard seems like the one cheating the system.

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