Monday, March 11, 2013

Mike Smith Explains, Apologizes

Given the hubbub that arose this weekend over the issue of Harvard examining the e-mail of some of the Resident Deans, it's gratifying (if unsurprising) that this morning Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Mike Smith has released a statement, which explains the incident from the administration's point of view.

My high-level take -- this has been blown out of proportion by the media, but it's certainly an issue the administration and faculty should discuss and work out together, so there's a common understanding.  

Here's my summary (with commentary), but of course you should go the source.
1)  It was apparent that an e-mail labeled confidential has made it's way out to the press.  While the e-mail itself might not have contained especially sensitive information, the administration was concerned.  Who knew what else might have or would be leaked?  There was also concern that other specific confidential information had leaked to the Crimson.

Commentary:  The Ad Board member, who apparently forwarded a note containing advice on how Resident Deans might advise their students with regard to the Gov 1030 case, made an understandable error in judgment.  It's best not to forward mail labeled confidential, even if it seems unimportant.  If they had just rephrased the advice in their own words, perhaps this would have been avoided.  The administration's concern is also understandable, given the student privacy issues around Ad Board proceedings.

2)  The administration says they asked the Ad Board members about the forwarded email, but "No one cam forward", and they were told this might cause an investigation.

Commentary:  Sounds good.  This was something that wasn't clear or known (at least by me) based on previous reports.

3)  The administration decided to do a targeted e-mail search, looking specifically at the "Resident Dean" accounts (and not the "individual Harvard email accounts");  they did not look at the email content, but just looked at the subject lines to determine if the email in question had been forwarded. 

Commentary:  While I pleased with the care with which they did the search so as to avoid violating the privacy of the Resident Deans, I don't think this care offers an excuse for not following the policy of informing the Resident Deans of the search.  I would still say a search on their email had been performed and, from my understanding of the policy, they should have been notified.  This is something the faculty and administration can and should discuss further.  (In particular, should searches be required in the future, I do think the administration should be encouraged to follow a similar process to specifically target the search.)

4)  After the forwarding had been found, the administration determined it was an inadvertent error, and no further action was taken. 

Commentary: Based on what I know, I agree, and think the administration took the right action.

5)  The administration made the decision not to inform the other Resident Deans, in order to protect the privacy of this Resident Dean and "[allow] the students cases being handled by this Resident Dean to move forward expeditiously."

And now here's the key statement to me in the statement:

"We understand that others may see the situation differently, and we apologize if any Resident Deans feel our communication of the investigation was insufficient."   

Commentary:  In the original story I saw at, Sharon Howell, senior Resident Dean, said the following:

“They don’t seem to think they’ve done anything wrong,” she said. “[I told them], if you want to repair this with the resident deans, it would make sense to talk about why you thought this was the right thing at the time, and apologize for not notifying us after the fact.”

I feel that the administration has done this.

I've seen postings in other places, where people are suggesting that this case demonstrates some sort of moral failing, and that someone somewhere should be dismissed.  I disagree.  In my opinion, a Resident Dean made an understandable (and I would argue small) error in judgment in forwarding an email marked confidential.  The administration was rightly concerned.  In my opinion, the administration made an error in judgment by not treating the Resident Deans as faculty and strictly following the Harvard policy by informing them that a search was being done as part of an investigation into the matter.  I'm not clear if they feel they made an error in judgment, but they have apologized.

The faculty now have a chance to discuss with the administration why they felt this was an error in judgment and how they'd like to see similar situations handled in the future.  I expect and hope these conversations will happen.  But I don't think that's the sort of exciting stuff that somehow gets into the New York Times. 


D. Eppstein said...

It looked ok, up to the final paragraph, which is a pseudo-apology and not a real apology. "I'm sorry that your misinterpretation of policy led you to think I broke it" is not an apology. "I'm sorry that I broke the policy and I will take steps to make sure I don't do it again" is an apology. Theirs looks a lot more like the first than the second.

Greg Morrisett said...

I agree with Mitzenmacher's summary and conclusions. This has been blown out of proportion (and I'm partly to blame for that.) The key things, moving forward, are for the administration to reaffirm the policy for FAS faculty, and to clarify to whom the policy applies.

Anonymous said...

There's a simple criterion that applies in this and many other cases: a statement beginning "we apologize if ..." is not an apology.

In more detail, I think the statement is disingenuous on two levels.

"We understand that others may see the situation differently, and we apologize if any Resident Deans feel our communication of the investigation was insufficient."

1. Others DO see the situation differently, and some Res. Deans presumably DO feel the communication (and execution) of the investigation was improper. These facts could be easily ascertained. So the "may" and "if" above are disingenuous, and serve to deflect the more proper expression of what was written: "SINCE x, y, and z hold, we apologize."

2. IMO, there is no real apology without an admission of wrongdoing. At most there is an expression of regret for an unfortunate consequence of one's actions, as in, "We regret to inform you that your grant application was rejected." (But we're not sorry. We stand by our decision.)

Unknown said...

Good that people at Harvard cannot be harassed like some of the professors in Michigan

I ended up switching most of my email to private accounts after I read the article above -- including using private email when I submit papers to conferences.

Allende said...

Still think there is no moral issue here and things were blown out of proportion by the media?

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

@Allende: Yes.