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Harvard issues partial apology for e-mail search

Harvard College issued a partial apology and a lengthy statement Monday morning offering its explanation to the search of resident deans’ e-mails as part of a leak investigation.

In its statement, Harvard said the e-mail search was prompted by an investigation into a leaked e-mail and other information that described an Administrative Board case involving the university’s cheating scandal that became public last fall.

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The Globe reported on Sunday that Harvard University central administrators secretly searched the e-mail accounts of 16 resident deans last fall, looking for the leak.

According to a joint statement issued this morning by Dean Michael D. Smith and Evelynn M. Hammonds, the Administrative Board convened at the end of the summer to discuss the confidential e-mail, sent to the Resident Deans, had been leaked to the media.

”The situation was shared with the entire Board, including with all Resident Deans,” the statement said. “It was made clear at that time that absent clarification of what happened, an investigation would be required. No one came forward.”

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After consulting university lawyers, “very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search was conducted by the University’s IT Department. It was limited to the Administrative accounts for the Resident Deans – in other words, the accounts through which their official university business is conducted, as distinct from their individual Harvard email accounts.’’

The search of subject lines turned up two e-mails from one sender, one of the resident deans. The e-mails were not opened, the university said. The sending of the e-mail was deemed to be inadvertent, the university said.

“Some have asked why, at the conclusion of that review, the entire group of Resident Deans was not briefed on the review that was conducted, and the outcome. The question is a fair one,’’ the university statement said.

Their decision protected the dean who made the mistake of forwarding the e-mail, the statement said.

“Operating without any clear precedent for the conflicting privacy concerns and knowing that no human had looked at any emails during or after the investigation, we made a decision that 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,” the statement said. “We understand that others may see the situation differently, and we apologize if any Resident Deans feel our communication at the conclusion of the investigation was insufficient.”

The New York Times, among others, followed the Globe’s story, reporting on the anger and dismay among Harvard faculty.

“I was shocked and dismayed,” said the law professor Charles J. Ogletree, according to the Times follow up story Sunday evening. “I hope that it means the faculty will now have something to say about the fact that these things like this can happen.”

“This is unconscionable,’’ reads a comment on the Harvard Crimson website. “Shame on the Harvard administrators, mainly FAS Dean Michael Smith, for sanctioning such an outrageous intrusion of the privacy of resident deans, many of whom are advisors and confidants of the students in their house.’

“. . . it seems to me that we have taken another step away from the old feeling that the university was a family, benevolently disposed towards its members and even lovingly indulgent. It has taken a step toward becoming instead a bristling corporation, with adversaries within who must be spied upon using all available tools, or perhaps an authoritarian government,’’ professor Harry Lewis wrote on his blog.

“I think what the administration did was creepy,” Mary C. Waters, a sociology professor, was quoted as saying in the Times.

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