Members of the Harvard community should be informed of email searches
At the conclusion of the Administrative Board investigations into the Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress” cheating scandal, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith wrote, “We are responsible for creating the community in which our students study and we all thrive as scholars.” Administrators, faculty, and students have a shared sense of a Harvard community, a community of mutual support, trust, and collaboration. The recent news that, in connection with the same scandal, Smith authorized a search of resident deans’ email accounts with the support of Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds is deeply troubling. Their apparent failure to notify the subjects of the search—save for one—is detrimental to our sense of shared community.
The email searches raise issues far beyond questionable email search policies and failed communication. It cuts to the core of what trust and community means at Harvard. The University’s actions fell well short of what should be expected in an open, honest academic environment. While email searches may be necessary from time to time, the University’s failure to notify the resident deans involved is unconscionable. Instead of immediately informing the deans of the search and the reasoning behind it, the University hid the search in a manner that appears to be, at best, sneaky. It is disheartening that the administration only saw fit to notify the deans after reporters began asking questions.
The scholarly community at Harvard is crucial to our success. Students, faculty, and staff all have roles to play, but they are meant to work together in relationships of trust. Harvard breached that trust when it treated its resident deans like a collection of corporate employees rather than members of a community. This incident speaks volumes about the attitudes and relationships at the most senior levels of administration. The search policies may leave room for the University to conduct these kinds of searches, but it is deeply troubling that the administration chose to construe these policies such that they would have a minimal obligation to keep the deans informed.
The administration’s secretive actions and its confusing, unsatisfying responses in the press leave much to be wondered. The faulty judgment of administrators has reopened the wound of the cheating scandal and created a public relations disaster that harms the University’s reputation. The failure to notify the deans raises the unfortunate question of whether some administrators may be more concerned with shielding themselves from legitimate criticism than engaging with the community.
The University and faculty should clarify the policies on email searches for faculty, staff, students, and everyone in between. This incident serves as a sad reminder that under today’s policies, members of the Harvard community are not secure in the privacy of their email. Except in extreme cases, such as those involving ongoing criminal activity, administrators should be required to inform users—faculty, staff, and students—of email searches. Our community deserves to know when their communications have been examined. Mandatory disclosure serves as a crucial safeguard to intellectual freedom, scholarly independence, and privacy.
The ideal of a Harvard community in which faculty, staff, and administrators work towards common goals in a relationship of trust has been called into question. As tempting as it is to close this disheartening and sad chapter in Harvard’s history, the Harvard community should push for clarification, change, and honesty. The faculty should revisit the rules on email searches and notifications, and the administration should be held accountable for its lapse in judgment. Only time will tell whether the administration can repair the breach of trust.