Top Harvard University administrators disclosed Tuesday that covert searches of e-mail accounts regarding a massive cheating scandal were more extensive than previously acknowledged, deepening a controversy that has caused a rift between faculty and the administration.
Evelynn Hammonds, the dean of Harvard College, told faculty that she authorized a search of two e-mail accounts belonging to a resident dean who had forwarded a confidential message about the scandal. The search looked specifically for correspondence with two Harvard Crimson reporters who had covered the scandal.
Initially, Hammonds had said that only one of the dean’s e-mail accounts was searched, by an examination of the subject field alone.
Drew Faust, the university’s president, said she is asking an outside lawyer to determine the full extent of the searches and assembling a task force to develop recommendations around e-mail privacy.
While Faust said protecting students’ privacy is paramount, she told faculty that “different choices should have been made” in the handling of the matter, according to remarks provided by the university. The Globe was not present at the meeting.
Hammonds said she conducted the search out of concern that the names of students suspected of cheating would become public.
“We needed to act to protect our students,” she said, adding, “Preserving confidentiality was paramount on my mind.”
But she apologized to the deans for not informing them that their e-mails had been accessed.
“I regret deeply the poor notification of these searches,” Hammonds said at the Tuesday faculty meeting, according to the provided remarks. “Let me be clear: No e-mails were opened, and no content was searched.”
Hammonds said she consulted with legal counsel but did not inform Michael Smith, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, about the additional searches.
“This was a mistake,” she said. She told faculty members she regretted inaccuracies in previous comments about the e-mail searches, which she said resulted from “my failure to recollect the additional searches.”
Administrators acknowledged last month that they had searched the subject lines of e-mails of 16 resident deans at the college, the vast majority of them without prior notification. They said the search involved only e-mail accounts used for administrative correspondence, a statement contradicted by Tuesday’s admission.
Although administrators did not tell faculty Tuesday, there was also a search of another e-mail account, that of Jay Ellison, secretary of the board that has overseen the investigation of the cheating scandal. Ellison was aware of that search, which he initiated himself.
Smith, who apologized to the faculty, said searches of e-mails happen “very, very rarely.”
“In those rare instances when an e-mail search is authorized, I strongly agree with the community that we should always give notification,” he said. “To my great dismay, I cannot stand before you and say definitively what happened in this current case. The records kept are incomplete. And from talking to individuals, I have learned that the memories of specific notifications are meaningfully different.”
Hammonds, speaking in personal terms, referred to her 10-year-son in stressing “how important it is to own up to your mistakes, to apologize, and to make amends.”
“I have to model that behavior for him,” she said. “This is what I have tried to do today.”
Scores of students were forced to withdraw from school after they were found to have improperly collaborated on a take-home exam.
The task force, to be chaired by David Barron, a Harvard Law School professor, will recommend guidelines about e-mail privacy, Faust said.
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com.