Harvard isn't sorry for snooping through the emails of more than a dozen of its own deans. On Monday the university issued a lengthy statement explaining why it secretly sifted through the Harvard.edu email accounts of as many as 16 deans who received a confidential email discussing the procedure by which students who were implicated in last year's massive cheating ring would be adjudicated. And, well, the explanation is pretty thin: They spied to save!
According to the statement — attributed to arts and sciences faculty dean Michael D. Smith and Harvard College dean Evelynn M. Hammonds — Harvard officials were officially "concerned" that the leaked email, which was printed by The Harvard Crimson in September, suggested that other, more sensitive documents were in danger of being disclosed (in violation of federal law):
While the specific document made public may be deemed by some as not particularly consequential, the disclosure of the document and nearly word-for-word disclosure of a confidential board conversation led to concerns that other information – especially student information we have a duty to protect as private – was at risk.
In other words, Harvard now seems to care a lot more about protecting further leaks and controlling its image as a bunch of cheaters than, you know, the privacy and professionalism of its faculty.
The statement indicates that Harvard's email probe, first reported by the Boston Globe this weekend as a secret process to search for certain email headers in the accounts of teachers who live on campus, turned up one resident dean who quickly admitted to forwarding the email in question to two advisees. (It's not indicated, however, if either of those advisees works for The Crimson.) Harvard says it decided to "[protect] the privacy of the Resident Dean who had made an inadvertent error," which is why it didn't tell other deans that their emails had been searched. Because, you know, deans talk?
The explanation is unlikely to sit well with Harvard's faculty, members of which have already expressed their discontent with Harvard's clandestine hunt for a leaked email. One professor told The New York Times that he was "shocked and dismayed" about Harvard's conduct. Other professors were even more scathing: one called the extensive search "dishonorable"; another deemed it "one of the lowest points in Harvard’s recent history—maybe Harvard’s history, period.":
It’s an invasion of privacy, a betrayal of trust, and a violation of the academic values for which the university should be advocating. And all to try to hunt down the source of a leak on a story about which the university should have been forthcoming in the first place (but of course wasn’t).