Vice Provost for Advances in Learning Peter K. Bol admitted at Tuesday’s meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to using cameras placed in classrooms to take photographs of attendance without telling the surveilled faculty and students.
Bol’s comments came in response to a question from Computer Science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68, who said he learned of the photographing—which took place during the spring 2014 semester—from two of his colleagues.
The two unidentified colleagues, neither of whom are tenured, first learned about the surveillance when a senior Central Administration official called them in to discuss the results, Lewis said in his question. The students who were enrolled in these courses and photographed have not yet been told of the study.
“Just because technology can be used to answer a question doesn’t mean that it should be,” Lewis said. “And if you watch people electronically and don’t tell them ahead of time, you should tell them afterwards.”
Lewis ended his question by asking University President Drew G. Faust to promise that all students and faculty involved will be informed that the photographs were taken.
Faust first deferred the question to Bol, who justified the electronic monitoring as part of a larger research effort to study student attendance in lectures. The study was part of the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, which falls under Bol’s purview.
After speaking with the professors whose classes were monitored in August, Bol offered them the option of either removing data from their course completely from the study, retaining the data while masking the name of the course, or including the data with the course name. Every professor whom Bol spoke with chose to include data with their course name, he said.
In an email after the meeting, Bol said that he would, “in short order, work to inform all of the students in the courses involved in the study about the fact that their images may have been taken, but were subsequently destroyed."
Prior to beginning the study, Bol said, he was given approval by Harvard’s Institutional Review Board, a federally mandated body that assesses academic research. According to Bol, members of that committee said that his work “did not constitute human subjects research,” and, as such, did not require notification or permission of those involved.
Bol said at the meeting that in the wake of this surveillance, the IRB will now automatically refer all internal studies involving undergraduate students to the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Education if the study does not entail human subjects research. “This was a gap in procedures that is being resolved,” Bol wrote in an email after the meeting, saying the Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education will be consulted in the future.
Following Bol’s comments, Faust added that she would refer the study to an oversight committee that was formed based on the advisement of a task force on email surveillance chaired by former Law School professor David J. Barron ’89.
"I indeed do take very seriously the important questions that this incident raises," Faust said. "I wish to submit this incident to [the committee] for comment and exploration. I think that was what the committee was set up to do.”
German professor Peter J. Burgard asked how the instance did not qualify as “spying,” adding that while the University has cameras in place for security and protection, the study was “Orwellian” in nature.
Mathematics professor Wilfried Schmid said after the meeting that news of the surveillance “does make me slightly uncomfortable, I must say, even after being given the explanation.”
Brett M. Biebelberg '16, an Undergraduate Council representative for Quincy House and chair of the Council’s Rules Committee who was at Tuesday’s meeting, criticized the surveillance.
“It’s just another instance of contradiction when we have a University that’s pushing and pushing and pushing the implementation of an honor code that requires students to attest to their honor and integrity, yet here we have yet another example of the University engaging in activities in which it’s not being forthright, it's being secretive, and it's withholding information from students and professors that could potentially be used against them,” he said.
Others disagreed with that characterization. After Tuesday’s meeting, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology professor Gonzalo Giribet and Economics professor Jerry R. Green said they did not consider the surveillance to be spying.
—Crimson staff writers Meg P. Bernhard, Matthew Q. Clarida, Noah J. Delwiche, Mariel S. Klein, and Ivan S. Levingston contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Dev A. Patel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dev_a_patel.
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