In Defense Of Harvard: Why They Were Right to Search Faculty Emails

Tim Goral's picture
Wednesday, March 13, 2013

This weekend, it came to light that Harvard University secretly accessed the email accounts of their 16 Resident Deans. The Harvard administration confirmed this yesterday morning, releasing a statement detailing their search and the motivation behind it.

Since this revelation, Harvard's administration has been the target of attacks both internally and externally. Alumni, faculty, and everyone in between have made no secret of the fact that they disagree immensely with the core of Harvard's actions, and more specifically, how the administration handled the search. Over the weekend, The New York Times quoted Harvard professors who called the search "creepy" and "dishonorable." Even after the administration released their statement explaining and apologizing for their actions, professors likened Harvard to "the Hoover era FBI" and told The Crimson their true concern was the university "trolling emails." Same thing, different eras, right?

These sentiments are misguided. While the Harvard administration did not fulfill their obligation to inform the Resident Deans of the investigation as it was happening, the university was fully justified in conducting their email search.

First and foremost: Confidential information was sent out twice by a Resident Dean. No matter how innocuous the emails may seem, the central issue at hand is that a Harvard employee directly in charge of students forwarded confidential information (however vague) about Harvard students involved in a disciplinary matter. It's not that far of a stretch to worry about what other -- potentially more sensitive -- information this Administrative Board member would leak. And Harvard needs to worry about that, not because of pride or honor or their need to maintain everlasting fear, but rather because FERPA exists. Boring, maybe, but true.

According to their statement, the first step Harvard made was to ask the Resident Deans if one of them had leaked the emails. It was only after no one -- including the guilty party -- owned up to something the administration knew happened that the email search was initiated. According to the university's statement, "It was made clear at that time that absent clarification of what happened, an investigation would be required. No one came forward." Resident Deans were asked multiple times if they knew anything about the emails and, shockingly, nothing was confessed.

Harvard did not access anyone's personal emails. They used a computer program to search the subject lines of administrative email accounts, which come with a position (random examples: the Cabot House Resident Dean is ca-abrd@fas.harvard.edu, the Elliot House Resident Dean is el-abrd@fas.harvard.edu, etc.). Administrators in charge of the investigation concocted the most innocuous way to determine who forwarded the email, setting up a "metadata" system that specifically and solely searched the original subject line of the forwarded email.

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