Harvard Searched E-Mails for Source of Media Leaks

Monday, March 11, 2013

Harvard secretly searched the e-mail accounts of several of its staff members last fall, looking for the source of news media leaks about its recent cheating scandal, but did not tell them about the searches for several months, people briefed on the matter said on Saturday. Related

The searches, first reported by The Boston Globe, involved the e-mail accounts of 16 resident deans, but most of them were not told of the searches until the last few days, after The Globe inquired about them. Resident deans straddle the roles of administrators and faculty members, teaching classes as lecturers while living in Harvard’s undergraduate residential houses as student advocates and advisers.

In August, an administration memo to the resident deans, on how to advise students being brought up on cheating charges before the Administrative Board, a committee of faculty members responsible for enforcing regulations, made its way to news organizations. The e-mail searches were intended to find the source of leak, but no one was disciplined in the matter.

Last August, Harvard publicly revealed that “nearly half” the students in a large class were suspected of having cheated on a take-home final exam in the spring of 2012 — either working together in violation of instructions, or outright plagiarizing material. Students identified the class as a government course with 279 people enrolled.

Harvard declined to comment on Saturday about the e-mail searches, but offered what appeared to be an oblique defense.

“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,” Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said in a prepared statement.

The handling of the search — if not the search, itself — may have contradicted the Faculty of Arts and Sciences policy on electronic privacy, and faculty members interviewed said they expected a backlash. The privacy policy states that the administration can search faculty members’ electronic records “in extraordinary circumstances such as legal proceedings and internal Harvard investigations.”

Read more »