Sunday, March 10, 2013

Harvard Spies on E-mails

A strange offshoot of the Harvard cheating scandal -- a report in the Boston Globe that Harvard administrators decided it was OK to search through Resident Dean e-mails when some information marked confidential had appeared to have been leaked.

Just some "vocabulary" for non-Harvard people.  Resident Deans are people who live in the Harvard dorms (what we call "houses") who help administrate the dorms and work with students.  For example, one of their jobs is to serve on the Administrative Board ("Ad Board"), which, as I've talked about, handles disciplinary cases, including the now infamous Gov 1030 cheating scandal.

Short version of the story:  it was noted that a confidential e-mail of the Ad Board had apparently leaked out to the Crimson.  The e-mail was pretty innocuous, but of course one doesn't want confidential e-mails leaking about.  So someone in the Harvard administration decided a bright idea was to check the e-mail accounts of the Resident Deans without telling them to see if they had leaked it.  (Apparently, one had.  Success!)  

Now, since Professors are the uber-people in the university*, we have rules to protect our e-mails from being searched except in extreme circumstances (and even then with notice), as the article points out.  I found it online after a bit of searching.  The first paragraph is:

"The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) provides the members of its faculty with computers, access to a computer network and computing services for business purposes, and it is expected that these resources will be used in an appropriate and professional manner. The FAS considers faculty email messages and other electronic documents stored on Harvard-owned computers to be confidential, and will not access them, except in the following circumstances."

(I was amused when the article noted "That FAS policy was drafted in part because some professors feared that previous president Lawrence Summers was monitoring their correspondence."  Summers really was quite unpopular with many faculty, and while I can't recall what specifically had some professors concerned about whether the administration could read or was reading our e-mail, I hope some of my colleagues can remind me in the comments -- I do recall that concern being around.)

So it would seem that the administration violated its own policy.  What ground do they have to stand on?  It seems like the only question is, are Resident Deans "faculty" under the policy?  They generally hold lecturer positions within the University, but they are also generally not tenure or tenure-track.  But as far as I can tell right now, they're faculty under any reasonable definition the university gives.

(The FAS Handbook described Lecturers as follows:
"A lectureship is a short-term, non-tenure-track position that is held by individuals who serve as course heads for courses that would otherwise be taught by tenure-track or tenured faculty. Lecturers must hold a Ph.D. All lecturer appointments must be based in a department or degree committee."
Sounds like faculty to me....) 

I was pleased to see CS faculty members Harry Lewis and Greg Morrisett quoted in the article, with both of them being pretty unhappy to hear about this.  Greg's comment that "a lot of faculty are going to be 'pissed off'" rings true to me.  (I assume I won't have to, but if nobody else makes a big deal about it -- hard to believe -- I would plan to bring it up at the next FAS faculty meeting.)

Also, it just seems silly.  They could have/should have first asked the Resident Deans if any of them had messed up, and let them know that Harvard considered the leak of Ad Board related confidential information a sufficiently big issue that they planned to search their e-mail if necessary.  My reading is the FAS policy would have allowed for that, according the following paragraph:

"Second, in extraordinary circumstances such as legal proceedings and internal Harvard investigations, faculty records may be accessed and copied by the administration. Such review requires the approval of the Dean of the FAS and the Office of the General Counsel. The faculty member is entitled to prior written notice that his or her records will be reviewed, unless circumstances make prior notification impossible, in which case the faculty member will be notified at the earliest possible opportunity."

One might quibble as to whether the e-mail leaked in this case corresponds to an "extraordinary circumstance", but if the administration had followed this policy, it would have been hard to argue with.  Why didn't they do this?  We (or at least I) don't know.  Heck, it could be that they forgot about this policy.  There are so many pages of policy around, it's hard to keep track of them all, as I've annoyingly found while serving as Area Dean.  Or they did remember the policy, but actively decided that Resident Deans weren't "faculty".  Or, they just really didn't care.  Lots of possibilities.  But the idea that nobody had the common sense to say, "Whoa!  Isn't it bad precedent to go looking through people's e-mail without going through other options or letting them know?" is the kind of thing that make faculty think they need to push back or even rein in the administrative side of the university.

So I expect to hear more on this issue.  

* Or at least we like to think so.  Though we can tell that the administrators increasingly think that they're the uber-people, and this can make us very unhappy in some circumstances.  Like this one.  

 UPDATE:  As is often the case these days, Harry Lewis and I are blogging in parallel on Harvard matters.  His insightful thoughts on this situation can be found here.  


Unknown said...

foolish people that believe in privacy inside harvard or other university!

anonymous moose said...

I think the email hacking has to be investigated, but seriously, how clueless does one have to be to intend to leak confidential documents to the press and do it from one's institutional email account?