When the director of the Semitic Museum revealed last week that he'd been copying his employees' fax correspondence without their knowledge, the University administration, facing a gross invasion of privacy by one of its tenured professors, said barely a word.
Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel Lawrence E. Stager '65 said he sees nothing wrong with ordering his secretary to open up a fax machine, remove the cartridge and make transcriptions of all the carbons inside.
"There's nothing about that invades anyone's privacy," Stager pronounced. "Anything dealing with museum business I, as director, should know about."
The Semitic Museum is under close scrutiny for its enormous deficit--sources say the museum has accumulated a more than more than $10 million deficit over the past decade. Defending his behavior, Stager said he wanted to monitor every aspect of the museum's fundraising drive. But Stager's compulsive need to keep tabs on his staff seems a personal problem, not a business concern. Clearly, this is a sign of a serious inability to supervise the museum and a lack of respect for his staff. We urge Harvard's administrators to look into this issue.
At the very least, Stager should have told staffers that he was planning to read items which passed throughout the fax machine. Stager didn't bother.
We expect better conduct from Harvard administrators. A Harvard professor such as Stager should approach employees honestly and openly if he senses a problem within the workplace. Instead, he now has in his possession a pile of correspondence--business and private--sent and received by the museum's staff. Not all of this is official "museum business," and certainly much of it was not intended for others to read.
What is particularly bad about all this is that Stager and his boss, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, are publicly unrepentant. Judging from Knowles' silence on the matter, neither Stager nor Knowles see anything wrong with this abuse of the fax machine.
If a university is to function effectively and honestly, all its members must be able to trust that their privacy is secure. No one should feel as though his or her work is being sabotaged or spied upon; University life is stressful enough without an added threat of a Big Brother watching your every move, ready to compromise your trust or steal your ideas.
Soon tapping other people's privacy won't be as clumsy and bizarre as taking apart fax machines; it'll be as easy as turning on a Mac and dialing the telephone. Local hackers already claim that breaking into Harvard administrators' e-mail is a piece of cake.
The University must clearly define the scope of privacy in the interactions of its staff and faculty. And as we prepare for the coming "electronic information highway," the administration must outline for the faculty and staff the proper code of behavior which reflects this change.
In the meantime, the administration must examine Stager's behavior, and make it clear to him and others that this breach of decency won't be tolerated.