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Harvard University administrators secretly searched the emails of 16 deans looking to find out who leaked information about the school’s cheating case to the media, according to several Harvard officials interviewed by the Boston Globe.
The deans on the Administrative Board were not informed about the email access and only one was notified after the search, the Globe and the New York Times reported. The dean who was informed forwarded the confidential Administrative Board message to a student he was advising. It made its way to the Harvard Crimson and the Globe along with a spur of controversy over the cheating scandal.
The other 15 deans were informed by administrators after the Globe approached Harvard with questions about the incident, having learned from several Harvard officials who asked for anonymity out of fear of reprisal. The rest of the deans were informed by Harvard administration almost six months after the search.
Harvard deans have two email accounts. One is for administrative duties and the other is for personal matters. Only the first category of accounts were searched and information technology staffers were instructed to look only for specific forwarded message headings and to not read the contents of the messages.
The incident angered Harvard faculty members who believed their privacy in electronic records was protected under a Faculty of Arts and Science policy.
Harvard said they will not comment on personnel matters or provide additional information, but released a statement to the Globe about the matter.
“Generally speaking, however, if circumstances were to arise that gave reason to believe that the Administrative Board process might have been compromised, then Harvard College would take all necessary and appropriate actions under our procedures to safeguard the integrity of that process, which is designed to protect the rights of our students to privacy and due process,” said the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael Smith, whose office authorized the search with the Harvard general counsel’s office.
The statement seemed to defend the reasons – for the leak might have compromised the Administrative Board’s confidential disciplinary process. “Harvard College would take all necessary and appropriate actions under our procedures to safeguard the integrity of that process, which is designed to protect the rights of our students to privacy and due process,” the statement said.
Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal did not specifically address the allegations but denied any routine of monitoring of emails.
“Any assertion that Harvard routinely monitors emails — for any reason — is patently false,” he said in an email to the Huffington Post.
Some Harvard policies do allow administrators to freely access email accounts and other electronic records without notifying the holders or owners. One policy aimed to ward off potential attacks by hackers says administrators may access accounts in order to “prevent harm to the University”.
Another policy, aimed at non-unionized administrative and professional staff states electronic records “may be accessed at any time by management or by other authorized personnel for any business purpose.”
In September, Sharon Howell a senior resident dean at Harvard said the dean of the college, Evelynn Hammonds had discussed the possibility that administrators could search the deans’ email accounts.
“They don’t seem to think they’ve done anything wrong,” Howell said in an interview with the Globe. “[I told them], if you want to repair this with the resident deans, it would make sense to talk about why you thought this was the right thing at the time, and apologize for not notifying us after the fact.”