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I’ve been giving President Drew G. Faust the benefit of the doubt through the many Harvard scandals over the past year, but her handling of the Resident Dean email search debacle is where I draw the line.
Faust’s response has been three-pronged: simultaneously deny responsibility for the searches, assure others of their proper execution, and refuse to address the searches’ ethical implications.
It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for her.
First: deny responsibility.
Faust, doing her best Godfather impression, says, “Back in September, I was made aware that there was concern about a potential breach in the confidentiality of the [Ad Board] process, and was told it had been resolved. But I was not informed of specifics.”
Isn’t it troubling that her subordinates did not consult her before they performed a (supposedly) unprecedented and certain-to-be controversial search at a time when the university was already under the national microscope? Is Faust so disconnected from the day-to-day events at Harvard that Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds and Dean Michael D. Smith saw nothing unusual about that? Why in the world would Faust not ask for specifics about a complication regarding Harvard’s largest scandal in recent history?
Call me crazy, but I think a university president, even a Harvard president, should be more connected to the community she leads.
Second: assure others of their proper execution.
In the same statement in which she denied knowing about the searches, Faust said, “I feel very comfortable that great care was taken to safeguard the privacy of all concerned, especially our students.”
I’m glad Faust is okay with that, but her feelings after the fact are irrelevant. She needed to feel comfortable with the searches before they happened.
Mostly, though, Faust has left Hammonds and Smith to defend their searches on their own.
Ironically, the searches themselves were justified. A confidential memo and Ad Board conversation somehow found their way to the media. The administration repeatedly asked the guilty Resident Dean to step forward, and threatened an “investigation” if no one did. No one did.
Here is where Hammonds and Smith messed up. First, they didn’t specifically threaten to search inboxes, so their current defense that they warned Resident Deans about an investigation rings hollow to the faculty. As Professor Harry R. Lewis said, if the searches were ethical, why did Smith and Hammonds need to hide their possibility?
Second, the Resident Deans’ status as either faculty or staff is unclear and subject to various interpretations. Though they are not technically faculty, they do share some of the faculty privileges and are listed as FAS members in the Harvard directory. However, the faculty email policy requires notification of a search of email accounts (though the administration refuses to confirm that the faculty policy applies to Resident Dean email accounts). Yet Hammonds and Smith only notified the Resident Dean who was discovered to have inadvertently forwarded the memo. They only notified other resident deans after the Boston Globe approached them about the search, months later. Smith and Hammonds claim to have immediately informed Senior Resident Dean Sharon Howell, but she and an anonymous Harvard official contradict that.
What explains this failure to notify, which seriously damaged the faculty’s trust in the administration? Smith and Hammonds say the lack of notification “protected the privacy of the Resident Dean who had made an inadvertent error and allowed the student cases being handled by this Resident Dean to move forward expeditiously.”
Smith and Hammonds seem to imply that outing the Resident Dean at fault would have resulted in his or her removal and the delay of his or her students’ Ad Board cases. Lewis finds it unlikely that other Resident Deans would have demanded the head of a colleague who had made an honest mistake. Besides, Lewis says, it’s only right to tell people that you are violating the privacy of their inbox, and to explain why. Hard to argue with that, especially since Howell told Hammonds in September that email searches would be “sort of drastic and problematic.”
Third: refuse to address the searches’ ethical implications.
Howell sent a letter asking Faust to explain her thoughts on the searches, Faust came closest to addressing the issue in her comment the same day: “Questions about whether more resident deans should have been informed sooner are fair to ask.”
So Faust’s personal opinion on the searches is…what? An answer would have been better than bureaucratic evasiveness.
In sum, the administration screwed this one up big time. It compromised the trust of both faculty and students. Faculty may now begin to eschew FAS accounts and students were swapping rumors that the Office of Student Life might have been monitoring list-serves for River Run festivities, which they have denied. Some worry that Resident Deans are no longer trusted confidants.
Faust appears bent on never saying anything unscripted or conceivably offensive (the ghost of Larry Summers haunts her, perhaps). But being a leader sometimes means having the guts to take charge. When will Faust?
Wyatt N. Troia ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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