Harvard apologizes after secret e-mail search
By Dana Ford
(CNN) — A cheating scandal at Harvard College just got bigger, and this time the focus is flipped: Administrators, not students, are under fire.
On Monday, the school apologized for the way it handled a secret search of the e-mail accounts of resident deans. It conducted the search in an effort to find who leaked information about the scandal to the media last year.
“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,” said a statement from Deans Michael D. Smith and Evelynn M. Hammonds.
“Consequently, with the approval of the dean of FAS (Faculty of Arts and Sciences) and the University General Counsel, and the support of the dean of Harvard College, a very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search was conducted by the University’s IT department,” they added.
Smith and Hammonds stressed that the search was limited to administrative accounts, and that it did not involve a review of e-mail content.
“To be clear: No one’s e-mails were opened and the contents of no one’s e-mails were searched by human or machine,” they said.
The search successfully identified a resident dean, who had forwarded a confidential e-mail.
However, after review, school officials determined the dean in question had committed “an inadvertent error and not an intentional breach” by sending the message to two students.
Other resident deans were not told of the search, which was first reported by The Boston Globe.
“Operating without any clear precedent for the conflicting privacy concerns and knowing that no human had looked at any e-mails during or after the investigation, we made a decision that protected the privacy of the resident dean who had made an inadvertent error and allowed the student cases being handled by this resident dean to move forward expeditiously,” Smith and Hammonds said.
“We understand that others may see the situation differently, and we apologize if any resident deans feel our communication at the conclusion of the investigation was insufficient,” they added.
News of the secret search drew immediate criticism from some members of Harvard’s faculty.
Harry Lewis, a professor and former dean of Harvard College, said on his blog that he will likely move most of his personal e-mails to another account, keeping his Harvard address just for business. He described the way the school handled the case as dishonorable.
“Why not tell people you are reading their e-mail? Would it not be the honorable thing to do? What is to be gained by not doing that? Other than avoiding, perhaps, the embarrassment of acknowledging that you are doing something to which the targets would reasonably object if they knew it,” he wrote.
Attempts to contact Harvard for details on Monday on the search and the handling of it were unsuccessful.
Last month, the school announced that more than half the students implicated in the cheating scandal had been required to withdraw for a time.
More than a hundred students were investigated for plagiarism or for having “inappropriately collaborated” on a course’s take-home, open-book spring final exam.
The class was Government 1310: Introduction to Congress, according to The Harvard Crimson, the school’s student newspaper.
Many of those who were not forced to withdraw faced disciplinary probation at the Ivy League institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the remaining were cleared.
CNN’s Rande Iaboni contributed to this report.
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