The revelation Tuesday that Harvard had secretly photographed 2,000 students as part of a study of class attendance has reignited a debate at the university about the privacy of students and faculty. It’s not that this study was particularly invasive — the researchers were interested in documenting the number of empty seats, not the students — but the manner in which it was conducted raises troubling questions about institutional surveillance and the value Harvard puts on privacy.
Last spring, the college’s Initiative for Learning and Teaching placed cameras in four lecture halls. The photos were then run through a computer algorithm that deduced whether the seats in the room were empty or full. According to a statement from Peter Bol, Harvard’s vice provost for advances in learning, the study was approved by the Institutional Review Board, which ensures that research studies are in line with regulations, and all photos were destroyed after the study was completed. Bol also told The Harvard Crimson via e-mail that he would work to inform all students in the courses monitored that they might have been photographed as part of the study. The study’s methodology only came to light in a faculty meeting earlier this week, although the university had reached out to the professors who taught the classes after the project was completed.
The study itself is not particularly unorthodox. Social scientists routinely conduct research without informing the subjects of the study beforehand. In this case, they properly sought approval of a review board before embarking on their experiment. But Harvard’s decision not to inform faculty and students that they were being monitored until months after the study was completed was a major lapse.
The university contends that informing the people involved beforehand would have resulted in skewed data, potentially rendering the information useless. That may be true. But faculty members have a right to know what is going on in their classrooms. And while students are probably accustomed to filling out surveys and questionnaires during their academic year, they shouldn’t be photographed for a research study without their knowledge.
The Initiative for Learning and Teaching has a worthy mission: improving the classroom environment for professors and students alike. But Harvard is still working to rebuild a level of trust after a privacy scandal last year, when it came to light that the university had searched thousands of e-mail accounts. No single study is worth damaging those efforts.