Harvard dean who authorized secret search of faculty email to step down

Filed Under: Featured, Privacy

HarvardThe Harvard University dean who approved a secret search of faculty email to track down a media leak about student cheating will step down on July 1, the dean announced on Tuesday.

According to the Harvard Gazette, Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds will return to teaching and research in the departments of the History of Science and African and African American Studies at the university, located in the US city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hammonds found herself in hot water in March, after the Boston Globe broke the story about her authorization of a secret search of 16 deans' email accounts.

Harvard admitted to the Globe that it secretly gained access to the email accounts of the resident deans but that it was necessary to safeguard the privacy of students involved in a 2012 cheating scandal.

That scandal involved some 125 students enrolled in a spring 2012 class about government.

In a statement issued on Monday, Hammonds and Dean Michael D. Smith confirmed that a "very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search" of official university email accounts had been approved and carried out by the university’s IT department in the fall of 2012.

The deans emphasized that only the subject lines, not the content of the emails, were searched and read:

"To be clear: No one's emails were opened and the contents of no one’s emails were searched by human or machine. The subject-line search turned up two emails with the queried phrase, both from one sender. Even then, the emails were not opened, nor were they forwarded or otherwise shared with anyone in IT, the administration, or the board. Only a partial log of the 'metadata' - the name of the sender and the time the emails were sent - was returned."

Faculty members' reaction to the news that their employer had searched their email had been fast and furious.

One, Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College and a professor of computer science at the university, questioned why the higher-ups didn't simply ask who had sent information about the cheating to the Harvard Crimson newspaper, from whence it made its way to the Boston Globe.

Harvard students. Image courtesy of Jannis Tobias Werner/Shutterstock

In fact, the university didn't inform faculty of the email search until the Boston Globe asked about it, the Globe reported.

Lewis, in his blog postings, poses questions that are relevant to many employees in many other organizations when it comes to what type of expectations we should have about the privacy of our work email accounts:

"This seems to me a sad incident which raises many questions. If an employee's boss wants to spy on her, who has to sign off on it and how does it get done? How many such searches have been done over the past five years? Is it always done without informing the target?"

Whether or not you know the answers to these thoughtful questions as they pertain to your own employer, it's likely safe to assume that your business email account is considered fair game for surveillance.

Can we blame institutions for this? As Harvard emphasized, it has a responsibility to protect students' privacy.

Other businesses are obligated to protect intellectual privacy and to ensure that employees aren't using their business accounts to break the law.

Whether you agree with the fairness or not, bear in mind that Big Brother could be watching.


Image of Harvard students courtesy of Jannis Tobias Werner / Shutterstock.com.

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7 Responses to Harvard dean who authorized secret search of faculty email to step down

  1. I don't get the outrage. Surely their privacy policy said they were able to search any email accounts hosted by the university. As long as they followed all of their own rules and internal policies, I don't see an issue. If you don't want your employer to access something, don't use your work email to do it.

  2. NoSpin1600 · 460 days ago

    If you use corporate or in this case university email system than you should not have an expectation of privacy. I am sure all signed an acknowledgement that university computer systems to include email can be monitored. I do agree that the university could have at minimum asked who sent the email, not saying anyone would have confessed, but at least they would have asked.

  3. Wouldn't the email be property of the University anyhow? I'm sure there are many places of employment that infer that email being exchanged using the company domain should NOT be considered private.

    • Spryte · 457 days ago

      That is exactly the way I understand it to work!

      The corporate e-mail account belonged to the company and was expected to be used for business related activities.

      All users had web access so they could hook up to Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, etc for personal use (at break time of course!).

  4. Guest · 460 days ago

    COULD BE watching? You've got to be kidding. Surely you mean IS WATCHING.

  5. Laurence Marks · 459 days ago

    Lisa, in American business--as opposed to ivory tower academia--employee email privacy policy is made quite clear: there is none. In the Fortune 100 company I work for, we are reminded of this annually.

    It's not clear why these whining academics and their students expect they are entitled to something different.

  6. Kevin · 458 days ago

    Universities sometimes have very different and far broader privacy policies than a similar sized company would have. No idea if this is the case, but I have seen it before.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.