Report into Harvard Email Snooping Absolves Administrators

Hoping to bring to an end the saga that spanned more than a year, Harvard University has released its final report on the revelations that university administrators accessed faculty emails, violating privacy for the purposes of internal investigation. The report concludes that there’s no indication that emails had been read, and those who authorized the searches as well as those who conducted them had a good faith belief that they were acting within the school’s electronic communications privacy policy.

The author of the report was Michael B. Keating, a lawyer with the Boston-based firm of Foley Hoag. According to Richard Pérez-Peña writing for The New York Times,the 29-page report blamed a number of overlapping and occasionally contradictory email privacy policies for the confusion.

After allegations that there was widespread cheating in one of the university’s introductory courses leaked to The Harvard Crimson in May of last year, Harvard administrators searched the email accounts of 16 resident deans attempting to find the source of the link. The deans, who were all members of the Administrative Board which was charged with getting to the bottom of the cheating scandal, were not told that their email had been accessed.

In a statement, Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, said, “The findings strengthen my view that we need much clearer, better and more widely understood policies” on privacy.

Dr. Faust has commissioned a task force to recommend such policies. “In the meantime,” she said, “I will be announcing before the start of the fall semester interim protocols governing any searches of e-mails at the university.”

Some faculty members who have been critical of the administration’s actions said they would withhold judgment until new policies were created.

Administrators accessed the emails because they wanted to see if any of the resident deans, who, in addition to their academic responsibilities also reside and oversee student dormitories, had told any of the students involved about the investigation. A search of the work-related emails uncovered one dean who had been in contact with two of the students involved. After their personal email had been likewise searched, the dean was questioned but not disciplined.

The other resident deans did not learn that their e-mail accounts had been searched until March, when The Boston Globe began inquiring about the matter, prompting angry reactions from professors who cited not only an expectation of privacy, but a policy in which Harvard had to give a faculty member prior warning of such a search.

Mr. Keating’s report said the officials who had approved the searches did not appear to be aware of that policy, but went by a separate policy that did not have that requirement.