Did you ever get that sneaking suspicion that someone’s watching you? As it turns out, if you work for Harvard University, you might have good reason for it.
The fallout from Harvard’s 2012cheating scandal, in which dozens of students werereportedly forced to withdraw from school for cheating on a take-home exam, continued this weekend with the revelation inThe Boston Globe that Harvard administrators scanned the email of 16 “resident deans” to see who might have leaked to the press an internal email about the situation. (Resident deans live in Harvard dorms, teach classes, and sit on the campus court that hears cheating cases.) One was told of the scanning last fall when it happened; the rest were only informed on Sunday after the Globe started asking questions about what happened.
The email in question was first reported on inThe Harvard Crimson student newspaper, and came from Jay Ellison, Associate Dean of Harvard College and secretary of the Harvard College Administrative Board, the campus tribunal that handles cheating cases. Part of the purpose of the email was to tell students, including student athletes, how to minimize the effects of being found guilty of cheating. It doesn’t appear that this was a big deal off campus. As the Globe pointed out, the email came in for some fairly “mild criticism” for its advice to student athletes.
Harvard faculty are understandably (and predictably) in an uproar about the decision to scan the emails.The New York Times variously describes them as “stunned,” “bewildered,” and “at times angry.” As sociology professor Mary Waters put it, “I think what the administration did was creepy … this action violates the trust I once had that Harvard would never do such a thing.” Two Harvard deans, for their part, responded on Monday by saying that the scan only looked at subject lines and was intended to figure out who forwarded the aforementioned email and another email that supposedly revealed some internal discussions.
Most Americans know (or should know) that your employer generally has the right to read your email. But university faculty members aren’t ordinary employees. Free speech and thought is critical to what they do, as is the right to criticize their employers in a way that a business corporation like IBM or Ford would not accept. Harvard recognizes this. The school’s faculty email policy (.DOC) states that Harvard may only access faculty email in “extraordinary circumstances” and with prior written notice to the faculty member, if practicable.
So why didn’t that happen here? It appears that Harvard’s administrators and lawyers decided that the “resident deans,” even though they teach classes and have the academic standing of “lecturer,” don’t count as faculty for purposes of the email policy. This is despite the fact that, according to theGlobe, two of the resident deans serve on the Faculty Council.
Maybe this kind of logic-chopping is appealing to Harvard lawyers and bureaucrats, but it’s unlikely that the faculty of any American university would be effectively persuaded by this. Harvard in particular has legions of faculty members who have reputations in their own right, completely separate from Harvard’s institutional prestige. Sneakily scanning their email messages sounds nearly insane, and the reaction to the episode proves how bad an idea it in fact was. So why in the world would Harvard take the risk?
It comes down to a broken institutional culture at Harvard—a culture that puts “message control” front and center, while pushing considerations like privacy, academic freedom, and freedom of speech to the side. Recent examples of this keep piling up:
If a liberal arts education is supposed to be a “marketplace of ideas,” putting message control above all else is anathema. Students and faculty members must be free to explore ideas and to criticize bad decisions, or the marketplace will not function. They can’t do that if they believe that Harvard is going to read their email if they happen to forward something that makes life harder for the university’s PR folks.
As Harry Lewis, Harvard professor and former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, put it on his blog, “I used to favor Harvard email over gmail because I thought it protected me better. I figured, if someone issues a subpoena for my email, I would rather have Harvard’s lawyers think about whether to comply than to know for certain that Google would comply. My assumption about the relative risks has now flipped.”
If Harvard is to continue to attract the best students and faculty members, it can and must do better.