The Harvard College dean at the center of the controversy over covert searches of instructors’ e-mail accounts last fall announced Tuesday that she is stepping down.
While the dean of the college, Evelynn M. Hammonds, says she was not asked to resign the leadership post she has held for five years, her departure was widely viewed by professors and students as the culmination of a chain of painful episodes that engulfed the campus over the course of the academic year.
The troubles began at the end of August when the university announced that it was investigating 125 students for possible cheating on the take-home final exam in an introductory government class. The severity of punishments — many students were forced to withdraw temporarily — led to criticism that Harvard had overreacted.
The e-mail searches stemmed from Hammonds’s and other officials’ concerns that confidential information about the disciplinary process in that case was leaking to the media.
“I was never asked to step down. I have been in discussions to return to academia and my research for some time,” Hammonds said in brief comments provided by a spokeswoman. “The e-mail controversy was difficult, but it was not a motivating factor in my decision to step down as dean.”
She will take a sabbatical before returning as head of a new program for the study of race and gender in science and medicine.
Neither Hammonds, her boss, Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Michael D. Smith, nor Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, would make themselves available for an interview Tuesday. Hammonds also retained a public relations firm to represent her, an unusual move for an academic administrator who is rejoining the faculty.
Many professors said Hammonds had become ineffective at her job, and the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, had called for her resignation. But some professors said Tuesday that she was unfairly blamed for the e-mail searches, when other officials were also closely involved.
“She was all trussed up to be the scapegoat here for what was in the main a shared set of decisions,” according to a faculty member familiar with the situation, who declined to be identified to avoid embarrassing colleagues.
The Globe first reported in March that Harvard administrators searched the e-mail accounts of 16 resident deans because, Hammonds and Smith said, they were concerned that leaks might have threatened the privacy and due process of students facing discipline in the cheating case.
Weeks later, Hammonds told faculty that the e-mail search had been more extensive. She attributed inaccuracies in the statement she and Smith had made earlier to her “failure to recollect the additional searches.” For the additional queries, she said she consulted with legal counsel but not Smith.
Hammonds and Smith repeatedly apologized to faculty and the resident deans at a faculty meeting in April.
Hammonds spoke of her commitment to rebuilding trust and repairing relationships and even made a poignant reference to her effort to raise her 10-year-old son as a good man.
“As I look out at all of you, I am seeing his eyes,” she said at the faculty meeting, according to the text of her remarks. “I always tell our son how important it is to own up to your mistakes, to apologize and to make amends.”
At the time, Faust made it clear she did not blame individuals alone.
“We have highly inadequate institutional policy and process around the rapidly and constantly evolving world of electronic communication,” she said. She appointed an outside lawyer to conduct an inquiry; the probe is expected to be completed by the end of June.
Professors who have raised questions about the e-mail searches took pains Tuesday to thank Hammonds for her hard work on behalf of undergraduate students.
“It’s important to bear in mind, the circumstances under which all those decisions were made were very difficult,” said history professor Maya Jasanoff, noting the dean’s obligation to protect students’ privacy through the disciplinary process. “I’m sure Dean Hammonds was operating in what she felt to be with the best interests of the people she was primarily concerned to protect.”
In statements Tuesday, Faust and Smith praised Hammonds’s accomplishments, which Smith said will benefit “generations of undergraduates to come.”
Other colleagues also spoke of her accomplishments, such as creating a winter session from scratch to give students more offbeat or career-oriented learning opportunities and helping to revamp residential houses for modern life.
“To have someone of her stature, her quality of mind, with her own recognition of the transformative possibilities of higher education — as it was [transformative] in her own life — at the helm, making life better for Harvard undergraduates, I think that really set a standard that’s going to be hard to meet,” said Martha L. Minow, dean of the Harvard Law School.
Former Harvard provost Steven E. Hyman worked closely with Hammonds in her last job, when she was the university’s first senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity. That position was made more challenging because of controversy swirling around former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers.
“She was level-headed and effective at a time of great turmoil for Harvard,” Hyman said. “As dean of the college, she has put students first, invariably.”
Hammonds said in a statement that she is looking forward to redesigning her classes in light of new technological innovations. She is a professor of the history of science and African and African-American studies.
Her new program, at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard, will look at the role of race in science and medicine.Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMarcella.