Letter Cosigned by 32 History Faculty Says Secret Searches Threaten 'Climate of Trust'

Thirty-two members of the History Department sent a letter to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith last Thursday, lodging “strong opposition” to Harvard’s decision to secretly search the email accounts of its 16 resident deans and imploring the administration to address what they characterized as a growing gap of trust within the University.

Authored by history professor Lisa M. McGirr and signed by a number of senior faculty in the History Department, including Walter Johnson, Daniel L. Smail, Charles S. Maier '60, Maya R. Jasanoff '96, and Andrew D. Gordon, the letter warned that covertly searching communications “leads down a slippery and dangerous slope.” It suggested that unless administrators take steps to mend the “breach of trust” caused by the secret email search, the free exchange of ideas so paramount to the Harvard community could be hampered.

“While we have read the recent response outlining the reasoning behind the searches, we believe that such surveillance, even within the narrow scope of this particular investigation, threatens the freedom of expression and the community of trust that are at the core of our great university,” the two-paragraph letter reads.

The letter, which was cosigned by more than half of the History Department, is the first known group effort by faculty to question administrators since news broke on March 9 that Smith and the University General Counsel had authorized the covert search last September as they scrambled to plug a leak of confidential information related to the Government 1310 cheating case.

“Such actions are incompatible with the climate of trust among students, faculty, staff and the administration upon which the university has been built and upon which its international reputation rests,” the letter reads. “It points to a gap between faculty and administration understandings of our rights and responsibilities in an institution dedicated to fostering teaching, learning and the open exchange of ideas.”

Using strong language, the letter concludes by calling on administrators to guarantee “that such a violation of restraints will not occur again and that email privacy will be protected.”

The letter raises the possibility that faculty could form something of a unified front in challenging administrators on their handling of the search. Since the search first became public, many faculty have said they expect the searches to be the subject of much discussion at April’s faculty meeting and potentially even a faculty investigation. But the details of how that might happen are uncertain. So too is the degree to which faculty might push back, following what some have described as a shift in the balance of power away from professors and towards the administration in recent years.

History professors had received no response to the letter from Smith as of late Friday, according to McGirr. And with the University on spring break until next Monday, faculty members said they do not expect any major developments in the case this week.

In separate interviews last week, individual members of the History Department who signed the letter said that the searches have already had a chilling effect on communication among their ranks and the community as a whole. Even if their accounts were not monitored, every segment of the community is implicitly affected by the searches as the free exchange of ideas is strained, McGirr said.

History professor Alison Frank Johnson, who signed the letter, added that without reassurance from administrators that email searches of this kind have been handled differently in the past, confidence among faculty that their correspondence is unthreatened will not be restored.

“What I need to hear from the administration is that either this hasn’t ever happened—that this is the first time they’ve done something like this—or that it has, but they have informed everyone that was involved,” Johnson said.

History professor Sven Beckert, another of the letter’s signers, echoed Johnson, writing in an email that the primary concern raised by the searches is one of trust. There is a difference, he said, between the privacy practices of a corporation and those of a university, even if both are legally permissible.

“It raises the issue of university governance—do we want a university that is based on mutual trust and respect, or do we want a university that is run like any other large American corporation,” Beckert wrote.

Johnson said that professors enter academia expecting to enjoy a greater deal of freedom and privacy than might be afforded in the corporate world. Threats to that freedom of expression and privacy undermine the very idea of a university, she said.

“If you're working for a place and you imagine that this is the professional community that defines your identity, your livelihood, your life, for the rest of your life as long as you are working, then the nature of that community is very important. And I don't want to work for a corporation that worries about its brand,” Johnson said. “I want to work for a university that worries about learning and knowledge.”

—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at nicholasfandos@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @npfandos.

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