The news media flocked to Harvard last fall after an email of private information was leaked by one of the school’s own faculty members about a cheating epidemic in one of its classes. Harvard retaliated by secretly searching the emails of 16 resident deans, betraying the very people who help the university thrive.
The invasion of privacy that Harvard committed did not help promote a positive image; instead created a negative one. The search through email, though an honorable attempt to protect Harvard against internal corruption, became a scandal within the school.
Faculty are placed in a situation in which they feel betrayed since Harvard never inquired about it openly.
While the search would be understandable, it went against Harvard’s faculty policy. According to the New York Times, the university’s policy states that the administration can search a Harvard faculty email account as part of an investigation, but they must notify the faculty member beforehand or soon after.
However, the faculty members were clueless for about six months.
Harvard is a dignified school and with a high level of respect, but it went behind everyone’s back instead of being honest with its intentions. While it’s entitled to its privacy policies as a private university—and a degree of power to alter this if it so wishes—Harvard may have crossed the line.
Richard Bradley, author and Harvard alumnus, wrote on his blog, “it’s an invasion of privacy, a betrayal of trust, and a violation of the academic values for which the university should be advocating.” He went on to chide the violation as “one of the lowest points in Harvard’s recent history.
The start of the email search began after a leak concerning Harvard’s varsity athletes and potential cheating. In the messages, the university suggested that players who were accused and then charged with academic indecency be given the option to withdraw from an athletics program voluntarily, rather than face a year of ineligibility otherwise.
Harvard owes their faculty an apology for failing to notify them and betraying their trust. Reaction by the faculty, however, seems to suggest that is unlikely to happen.
“They don’t seem to think they’ve done anything wrong,” said Sharon Howell, senior resident dean, to the Globe.
Of course, one could say these searches were done to protect the students and their right to an equal and unbiased education. Yes, it would be a valid argument if such searches were out in the open instead of in secret, only letting those affected know they were finished with the emails.
Yet now this internal strife proposes something bigger and more troubling—that the privacy of the students themselves is in jeopardy, and the privacy of the faculty’s emails is nonexistent. If this privacy protection was true, then why did Harvard go against its own faculty?
The search through emails without notice is like going to a person’s house without a search warrant and demanding them to comply to a thorough search; even if police do have a right to do this, they do not do anything positive to their public image by doing so.
Not only did this scandal affect the faculty, but it also affected the students by forcing them to withdraw temporarily from the school. This leak of information about Harvard made it aware of how many things go on at a university under the radar of the public.
Regardless of Harvard’s intentions, they could only have tarnished their reputation as an esteemed school and cracked their professional image that so many associate with the university.