Last fall, someone informed the media that about 70 Harvard University students were being forced to take a leave of absence for cheating on a take-home exam in a government class. Administrators decided they could prevent future scandals by searching sixteen resident deans’ university e-mail accounts for the source of the leak, but that strategy has backfired. Over the weekend, the Boston Globe reported on the secret searches, sparking a debate over privacy and drawing even more attention to the controversy.
The deans were tasked with advising students accused of cheating, and the investigation revealed that one of them had forwarded an administrative board message on the scandal to a student, not realizing it was confidential. Harvard has a policy that protects the privacy of faculty members’ electronic records, but it’s unclear if that extends to the resident deans, who teach but aren’t professors.
Regardless of the deans’ status, many faculty members are outraged about the treatment of their coworkers, according to the New York Times. Timothy McCarthy, a lecturer and program director at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, called the search “disgraceful” in a post on Facebook, adding, “even more so than the original cheating scandal, because it involves adults who should know better — really smart, powerful adults, with complete job security.” The leaked memo was fairly innocuous and the dean who leaked it wasn’t punished, so it’s unclear why administrators decided spying on the deans was a better plan than simply asking them who sent out the e-mail.