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Harvard was wrong to check deans’ e-mails

Workplace e-mails should, in extreme cases, be subject to searches. The employer owns the accounts; if workers want full privacy, they should get personal accounts. As a practical matter, however, workers should feel free to send e-mails from their office accounts without having to worry about the prying eyes of their bosses. But when Harvard administrators became upset over news leaks about the university’s cheating scandal, they wasted little time in checking the subject lines of e-mails sent by 16 residential deans. The administrators say they were concerned about potential breaches in student confidentiality; but there had been no such breaches in the news leaks. Much more likely, Harvard’s leaders were concerned about their own reputations and that of the university. The search was inappropriate — and out of step with the university’s responsibility to protect free expression.

The rush to check workplace e-mails was especially surprising because administrators acted with such cautious deliberation through the months of investigation of the cheating scandal itself; respect for the privacy of the dozens of suspected cheaters was an evident concern. Yet the same administration showed far too little concern for the privacy of residential deans who did nothing to merit the scrutiny except receive a confidential e-mail.

The saga began Aug. 30, when Harvard announced that it was investigating similarities in responses on take-home final exams by 125 students in a government class. Shortly afterward, an e-mail — marked confidential — that provided instructions for deans on how to advise students caught up in the scandal was published in the Globe and The Harvard Crimson. Then, internal conversations describing how students involved in the scandal would be categorized showed up almost word for word in the Crimson.


At that point, Harvard administrators secretly searched the e-mail accounts of the 16 resident deans. The search turned up two e-mails from one sender who had forwarded those confidential emails to students involved in the case but was not a media source. Harvard administrators emphasized that the search covered only subject lines, not content.

Harvard authorizes its administrators to check faculty e-mails in “extraordinary circumstances such as legal proceedings and internal Harvard investigations.” But, according to the policy, the administrators must notify faculty members in advance. Since resident deans also hold positions as lecturers, that should have given them rights to advance notice. However, their status under the policy is a gray area, Harvard maintained. After the Globe reported on the e-mail search, the university issued a partial apology.

Harvard’s investigation into the cheating scandal has been criticized for its slowness and secrecy. In February, six months after the probe began, the university finally disclosed that some students would be forced to leave Harvard as discipline for cheating. The university wouldn’t say how many students were disciplined, but media reports suggest the number likely adds up to at least half of those enrolled in the course.


Critics rightly question how students can learn about what does and doesn’t constitute cheating on take-home exams without more openness about the probe. Harvard was, at least, within its rights to keep a tight lid on information. Checking the subject lines of the resident deans’ e-mails, however, was a clear misstep.