Administrators' Statement on Secret Email Searches Leaves Questions Unanswered

UPDATED: March 12, 2013, at 3:02 a.m.

For the first time since news broke on Saturday that Harvard administrators had secretly searched the emails of 16 resident deans, top University officials offered an explanation of how and why they accessed the deans’ accounts. The statement, co-signed by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith and Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds, left unanswered questions about whether the Harvard administration broke its own policy by accessing email accounts without notifying their owners.

After the statement’s release Monday morning, FAS spokesperson Jeff Neal declined to provide further comment on the statement. Neal would not address whether or not the email accounts of resident deans—who are not technically faculty but enjoy some faculty privileges—are subject to the privacy policy of faculty or that of staff.

Some have suggested that Harvard’s culpability in the incident hinges on this question. The FAS email policy protects professors from unannounced searches of their accounts. If faculty rules govern administrative access to resident deans’ email accounts, Harvard would have broken its policy by failing to notify the resident deans in advance of the search.

The staff policy, however, authorizes Harvard officials to access a staff member’s emails and other electronic files “at any time” and “for any business purpose” without asking the employee. If those rules apply for resident deans, Harvard would not have deviated from its policy.

History professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96 said the statement also did not answer questions about what level of privacy faculty and others can expect from administrators.

“While the statement gave specific answers to specific questions, the fact that email accounts held by figures on the Harvard campus—who teach in the classroom and have close relationships with students—were secretly probed in this way, raises concerns for all of us about the limits around our privacy,” Jasanoff said.

Monday’s statement said that Smith and the University’s General Counsel approved the search last fall with the support of Hammonds in an attempt to track a leak of information regarding the Government 1310 cheating case.

Administrators became aware of the leak when a confidential email, originally sent to resident deans advising them on how to counsel students implicated in the cheating investigation, was obtained by The Crimson after the cheating scandal broke.

“The disclosure of a confidential board conversation led to concerns that other information—especially student information that we have a duty to protect as private—was at risk,” the statement said.

Smith and Hammonds wrote that they first attempted to identify the source of the leak in interviews and committee meetings before the email search occurred.

After a second piece of information—the details of a tiered punishment scheme allegedly devised by administrators for the cheating cases—was leaked to The Crimson and other media outlets a week later, administrators redoubled their efforts to trace the leak. After the continuing investigation proved unfruitful, they decided on “a very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search” of the resident deans’ email accounts.

The search was conducted by Harvard University Information Technology and ultimately located the email with the subject line in question, identifying the resident dean who sent it. After speaking with that dean, administrators came to the conclusion that the leak was inadvertent and no action was taken, according to the statement. The other resident deans remained uninformed about the searches until late last week, when the Boston Globe approached the University in advance of an article published Saturday evening.

Administrators have come under fire from faculty members, many of whom believe the University overstepped its bounds in searching the deans’ accounts without prior notification—regardless of whether or not such action violated University policy. While professors said that Monday’s statement may have alleviated some concerns, they still feel that trust between the University and its faculty has been strained.

“I think the issue I’m concerned about is that people in a university should not be trolling emails,” said history professor Charles S. Maier ’60. “Even just the subject line—it’s considered a kind of searching procedure that we didn’t think we worried about at this university.”

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