Just a month after the release of a University report detailing Harvard’s recent history with access of electronic communications, Secretary of the Administrative Board John “Jay” L. Ellison said that the Ad Board has not searched a student email account in a case since he joined it in fall 2002 and likely will not in the future.
“We’ve never done a search of a student’s [email] unless a student has asked us to or they presented information,” Ellison said last week. “I can’t envision a case where we would.”
Interim Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister confirmed that the Ad Board has not searched any student accounts in his time chairing the body this academic year.
In the fallout of last spring’s email search controversy, some students expressed concern that student email accounts might also have been searched without notification. At the time, the Undergraduate Council asked for administrative clarification of the policy governing the privacy of student email.
The task force’s report mentions the Ad Board just one time, writing that there have been “occasions when access [to electronic information] was sought in connection with academic misconduct investigations involving students pursuant to Administrative Board actions.” According to the report, these actions “appear to have been carried out with consent.”
Ellison said that students have voluntarily brought email evidence to the Ad Board, either printed out in paper form or by forwarding a message, but that administrators have never, in his time there, gone through the process of searching a student’s account for evidence in a case, nor would they.
Even in a peer dispute case, Ellison said, the Ad Board would only look at the contents of an email message if one of the students presented the Board with the material. In such a case, both students involved would have a chance to view the message and respond to it.
Ellison wrote later in an email that he has “no idea what the report is talking about” with regard to the Ad Board seeking electronic information beyond when students have voluntarily provided that information to the body. He wrote that in one previous case, he asked the student or students involved if administrators could look at electronic material, but only at the information that the student or students “wanted [administrators] to see” with “express permission.”
Ellison said he could only envision a possible search of student emails in cases involving the safety of an individual or of the wider community. Pfister added that the only situation in which he thought that administrators would even discuss a search is if a student went missing.
The proposed University-wide policy released with the report stipulates that the search of a student account would require the authorization of the dean of the appropriate school or the dean’s designee. The policy further states that “[a]ll reasonable efforts should be made to give notice at the time of access or soon thereafter as reasonably possible.”
—Staff writer Madeline R. Conway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MadelineRConway.
—Staff writer Steven S. Lee can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenSJLee.