Corporation Approves New Policy for Searches of Electronic Communications

The Harvard Corporationthe University’s highest governing bodyhas approved the first university-wide policy on searches of electronic communication on the Harvard network, about a month after a task force led by Law School professor David J. Barron ’89 submitted a policy draft at the end of February.

Under the new policy, electronic searches must be authorized by “an appropriate and accountable person” and must serve “a legitimate and important University purpose.” The policy states that the individual authorizing a search must consider University values, “such as academic freedom and internal trust and confidence,” with the decision whether to search communications.

If the target of the search is a faculty member, the dean of the relevant school must authorize the search. If the subject is a student, the relevant dean or the dean’s designee must approve access.

The policy also stipulates that all searches are to be recorded and that a committee chaired by Law School professor John C. P. Goldberg will conduct periodic reviews of recorded searches. Finally, the new policy states that while the University must notify the target of a search in most situations, it is not required to do so if notification might compromise the effectiveness of the search.

Goldberg, who was a member of Barron’s task force and specializes in tort law, said that while the conception of the oversight committee is still in its early stages, he was “pretty confident” its role will be solidified by the next academic year.

“That’s going to have to be a conversation with the folks in Massachusetts Hallwhat makes sense in terms of size and membership,” Goldberg said. “We’re all on the same page in terms of setting up the committee that will do the job it was appointed to do.”

The approval of the Corporation, which includes University President Drew G. Faust,  comes after Barron’s task force solicited feedback from a number of different Harvard constituencies. The task force estimated in its February report that, in total, it met with around 500 members of the University community, and Barron himself led two open forums on the policy last fall and addressed the November meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. After Barron submitted his draft to Faust in February, the policy was made available to the Harvard community on an online discussion board.

“We’re very pleased with how much the University community came together to think through this problem,” said Barron, who is a former Crimson president. “While on the one hand it came out of a particular controversy, we always thought the charge of the committee’s work was a policy that will be durable going forward.”

He added that the policy seems to have “gained the confidence of the community as a whole.”

Barron also noted that while most changes to the draft policy were minor, the ‘Internal Investigations of Misconduct’ subsection now includes a second explicit mention of the need to weigh University values “such as academic freedom and internal trust and confidence” before authorizing any searches in connection with an internal investigation of misconduct, previously only explicitly mentioned in the general ‘Reasons for Access’ section.

“This policy is an important response to a complex set of challenges,” University President Drew G. Faust said in a press release. “It reflects the values that underpin our work as an academic community—transparency, trust, and respect for academic freedom—and as such will serve us well in the years ahead.”

Barron was charged with leading the task force on electronic communication policy last April, amidst a scandal that erupted over two rounds of searches of resident dean email accounts, one of which violated Faculty email privacy policy. While Barron and 16 professors and administrators from across the University worked on their report, interim guidelines installed by Faust have constituted the University’s electronic communications policy since August 2013.

—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at matthew.clarida@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattclarida.

—Staff writer Amna H. Hashmi can be reached at amnahashmi@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @amna_hashmi.

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