Harvard Searched Resident Deans' Email Accounts After Cheating Scandal Leak

Mar 11, 2013
Originally published on March 12, 2013 8:14 am
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Faculty and staff at Harvard University are in an uproar after learning that college administrators searched employee emails. Harvard was looking for the source of a leak to the media about a cheating scandal last year.

Now, Harvard staff say they feel cheated, as Curt Nickisch reports from member station WBUR.

CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: Sharon Howell is not exactly what you'd call a rabble-rouser. She has a doctorate in English literature. She writes poems and has a medieval-style map of Harvard's campus hanging in her office at Adams House, one of the college's dorms. But she's speaking out against university officials who filtered through the emails of hers and those of 15 of her colleagues.

SHARON HOWELL: Subjected to a search, it makes a lot of us very uneasy. It doesn't feel right.

NICKISCH: Howell is known as a resident dean. They're kind of like academic mentors in each Harvard dormitory. Harvard was in the middle of a cheating scandal involving around 125 students in a single class. Some of those students went to their resident deans. Howell thinks one of the deans probably just innocently forwarded an official email to a student, an email that said: do not forward. From there, the email got in the hands of the student newspaper. The scandal became public. But Howell says an accident is not something worth sniffing through people's emails.

HOWELL: It feels like the level of severity of this situation just doesn't seem to warrant it.

NICKISCH: Many faculty agree.

WILFRIED SCHMID: Certainly, when I first heard about this, I was shocked.

NICKISCH: Shocked is how math professor Wilfried Schmid put it. One sociology professor called it creepy. And a computer science professor, who helped draft Harvard's email search policy, criticized the move sharply in a blog post, though Harry Lewis declined to be interviewed, saying he's keeping his head down. Today, university officials tried to explain.

In a statement, deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences say they were just trying to protect the privacy of students, and that they set up their search not to read people's emails but only look at their headers, only look at the date to whom the email was sent, the subject line. But computer science professor Eddie Kohler says he's not surprised by Harvard's snooping.

EDDIE KOHLER: So I worked for a while at UCLA, which is a public school, where in a sense, all of your records, including your emails, are public.

NICKISCH: Kohler says he believes administrators have the right to look through his email. He just hopes they don't use that power too much.

KOHLER: And I don't know yet whether this was too much or not.

NICKISCH: Harvard's action is pretty hands-off, says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute.

LEWIS MALTBY: Almost every major employer in America today reads employee email. And if you haven't been told by your boss that someone is reading your email, that's just because they haven't told you. It's happening.

NICKISCH: But Maltby says Harvard may have violated its own policy about email searches. It says faculty emails are considered confidential and will only be read in extraordinary circumstances. Harvard apparently considered resident deans under a separate staff policy even though they teach classes as well as advise students. Regardless, senior resident dean Sharon Howell says Harvard should hold itself to a higher standard.

HOWELL: I think that a university is different from a company, and that one of the kind of bedrocks of our activity here is free speech and openness and communication and knowledge.

NICKISCH: And she considers searching emails a violation of trust and collegiality. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.