On Confidential Site, Harvard Encourages Whistleblowing

The word “whistleblower” typically conjures an image of Daniel Ellsberg or Edward Snowden, not university students and employees.

But Harvard is not one to be outdone by the likes of federal agencies and national media outlets. The University uses EthicsPoint, a third-party service where affiliates can report anything from “Cheating Plagiarism” to “Alcohol/Drug Abuse,” “Threat of Physical Violence,” “Fraud,” “Theft/Embezzlement,” or “Sabotage or Vandalism.”

Complete with an anonymous hotline, the site assures users “You are currently in the confidential and secure reporting structure of EthicsPoint.”

Over the past few years, Harvard and other universities have cleared the way for individuals to anonymously report wrongdoing with the creation of whistleblower policies. Created in July 2012 by the Office of Labor and Employee Relations, Harvard’s policy covers the thousands of students, staff, and faculty at Harvard, including postdoctoral fellows, teaching assistants, and contractors.

Massachusetts Hall
Massachusetts Hall houses the offices of many University administrators.

Though the whistleblower system constitutes the umbrella policy for thousands of students, staff, and faculty to file reports, an average of just 15 cases have been reported each year through the hotline or online system over the past ten years, according to Office of Risk Management and Audit Services director Michael Monaghan.

When a report comes through EthicsPoint, the service notifies Monaghan’s office. He added that the office may reach out to the reporter to ask questions.

The whistleblower site is one mechanism of reporting wrongdoing, but several others exist. The Human Resources Department, the Title IX Office, and the Office of the General Counsel are just a few examples of offices that work on processing different disputes at Harvard.

Although the hotline has been around since 1986, the University’s whistleblower policy has “consolidated” its existing resources for students and employees to report concerns—which included a non-retaliation policy—according to Monaghan.

“Any mechanism you choose would still be governed in my mind by the whistleblower policy. It’s sort of an umbrella policy,” Monaghan said.

In covering thousands of individuals, officials have faced the challenge of making the policy accessible to students, staff, and faculty across Harvard’s campuses. Monaghan said his office worked with Harvard’s Human Resources to disseminate 250 flyers, although he did not say where these posters were placed.

“‘Speak up’ is the sort of thrust of this branding exercise,” Monaghan said.

But even with this postering effort, many students and staff have been left unaware of the policy. Around a dozen dining service workers and postdoctoral fellows said they have never heard of a whistleblower policy or of the anonymous reporting hotline.

The only students and staff who had heard of the policy said they were made aware of it during mandatory Title IX training.

“If it is supposed to be University policy it should be advertised more, but I haven’t even looked into it myself,” laboratory manager T.J. Martin said. “I’m sure a lot of people don’t even know it exists.”

Roel R. Torres, a lab administrator in the Chemistry Department, also said he only heard of it from a Title IX training.

“I mean there are a lot of policies I need to be aware of and a lot of it sort of trickles down,” Torres said. “I don’t know if there’s a perfect way to disseminate information on a population the size of this university.”

Monaghan said the University keeps track of where Harvard’s numbers are in comparison to its peer institutions. Several Ivy League schools have whistleblower policies in place that operate using EthicsPoint, except for Yale and Cornell.

“We’re certainly not an outlier either high or low,” Monaghan said of the number of reported cases.