Harvard profs steamed at opened emails

Posted3/13/2013 5:00 AM

"Harvard Search of Email Stuns Its Faculty Members," the headline says. University officials rifled through the messages of resident deans to learn who passed on a confidential communication about a student cheating scandal to the media. The profs are steamed at this alleged invasion of their privacy.

Too bad, but hey. The wounded response has many outsiders scratching their heads. Most of us have a reasonable expectation of no privacy whatsoever.


There's also the recent example of former CIA Director David Petraeus having private emails to his lover/biographer intercepted. The two tried to cover their tracks by setting up an online service account and using fake names. The FBI found them anyway, leading Politico to ask the obvious question, "If the nation's top spy can't hide his personal communications from law enforcement -- who can?"

Thus, the expectation of privacy at "the world's greatest university" would seem unnaturally high.

"I think what the administration did was creepy," Mary C. Waters, a sociology professor, told The New York Times. She said, "This action violates the trust I once had that Harvard would never do such a thing."

Law professor Charles Ogletree commented: "I was shocked and dismayed. I hope that it means the faculty will now have something to say about the fact that these things like this can happen."

Just because the employer shouldn't look doesn't mean that it won't look. The modern American Dilbert knows not to say anything on the office email that he or she wants kept secret.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

Or, as a commenter on The Boston Globe's site succinctly put it, "Even a dope knows that private emails written or read on the organization's equipment aren't private."

The resident deans at Harvard presumably know about Gmail. If one wants privacy, one must make an effort. (Meanwhile, professors unwilling to speak to reporters were blabbing about the matter on websites.)

The back story is a bit more complicated. Official Harvard policy bans the university from looking at mail written by faculty members going through the Harvard domain, except in extraordinary circumstances. But the university apparently regarded the resident deans, though they teach courses, not as faculty, but as administrators.

In a useful blog post, Harvard computer science professor Harry Lewis explains the written privacy policy, which permits the university to be "quite intrusive." Still, he found the university's actions in this case to be "dishonorable."


Clearly, Harvard is not the protected academic pasture of yore. Lewis writes that "we have taken another step away from the old feeling that the university was a family, benevolently disposed toward its members and even lovingly indulgent. It has taken a step toward becoming instead a bristling corporation, with adversaries within who must be spied upon using all available tools, or perhaps an authoritarian government."

The leaked confidential message to the deans discussed how to advise students caught up in the cheating scandal. Oddly, it suggested that student-athletes consider taking leaves of absence to protect their NCAA status, should they be found guilty.

The fallout from this controversy has turned predictably mild. The offending leak did not name students accused of cheating. The source of it has not been named, nor have the Harvard officials running the email scan operation.

Harvard has just put out a statement pouring water on this unpleasant flare-up. It said that the university now considers the leak "an inadvertent error and not an intentional breach." And no further action need be taken.

That doesn't sound very bristling, but there is a moral. It is we all should read our company's computer Terms of Service Agreement -- even though lawyers wrote it to bore us out of finishing.

2013 Creators Syndicate Inc.

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.