Harvard Snooping on Employee Emails Without Asking Is No Shock

For those experienced with the university’s bureaucracy, like alum Aaron Mattis, the move was predictable.

Proving once again that it functions as a self-interested private institution rather than as a utopian supporter of academic freedom, Harvard has ruffled feathers by snooping on employee emails, as reported by The Boston Globe and commented on by everyone with an Internet connection.

Some background: in September, The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, broke the news of a university investigation into a huge cheating scandal in which nearly half of the 179 students in Government 1310: Introduction to Congress were implicated. The Crimson’s reporting relied in part on emails leaked by one of Harvard’s 16 resident deans, who live with students in Harvard’s residential houses and serve both as scholarly lecturers and undergraduate advisers. The content of these emails, which concerned how the Administrative Board, or “Ad Board,” Harvard’s main disciplinary body, would handle the scandal, was meant to be confidential—hence the administration’s recently reported investigation of resident deans’ official email accounts.

What has upset those critical of the administration’s actions, including some Harvard professors, isn’t that resident deans had their email accounts inspected—they were Harvard email accounts, after all—but that the resident deans weren’t informed of the search. According to Harvard’s employee email policy, faculty members must be notified in advance or as soon as possible if their email accounts are to be searched. (Student email accounts are also confidential.) The university apparently either ignored its own guidelines or decided that resident deans were not faculty members but staff members, who are not entitled to advance warning prior to an email search. Whatever the case may be, it’s fair to say Harvard was not operating with the utmost concern for transparency or for its employees’ privacy.

Here’s something else that’s fair to say: the administration’s prioritization of internal regulations over concern for members of the Harvard community shouldn’t surprise anybody. When it comes to administrative procedure and disciplinary action, the openness and respect for the individual encouraged in a liberal-arts culture are supplanted by an impersonal stickler-ness. Where the university’s critics err is in suggesting that this attitude is extraordinary, something you “might expect ... from the Nixon White House,” as Harvard alum Richard Bradley, editor in chief of Worth magazine, puts it on his blog. Rather, Harvard is in this respect exceedingly ordinary and, to those experienced with the university’s bureaucratic proceedings, very predictable.

In my admittedly limited dealings with the Ad Board—mundane stuff like petitioning for paper extensions and demonstrating that I had spent my time productively during a semester off—I learned that the administration was neither out to get me nor overly concerned for my well-being. The Ad Board wanted to treat me fairly, but any decisions it made were going to be based largely on administrative expediency and on well-established internal guidelines that it preferred to keep private. Like all bureaucrats, the administrators tasked with deliberating on my petitions were inclined to do their jobs as directed, nothing more, nothing less.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. The Ad Board always ruled in my favor, and I’m sympathetic to arguments like those made by Harvard computer science professor Harry Lewis, who writes in a blog post that his employer undermines its culture of personal and academic freedom and respect when it behaves like a “corporate university.” It would be nice if Harvard adopted a more personal touch toward its students and employees. Would it really have hurt to talk to the resident deans one on one instead of secretly searching their emails? But it’s silly to wait around for the administration to adopt an attitude of benevolent paternalism. Were people really shocked that the organization they worked for would read the subject lines of their emails—the full extent of the search, according to a statement by Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Evelynn M. Hammonds, dean of Harvard College—without asking first?

As Lewis, who helped to design several of Harvard’s digital privacy policies, notes in passing, “[The employee email policy] plainly gives Harvard complete access to the email of employees … I understand that this is very much boilerplate for employee email accounts in corporations.” If there’s something you’d prefer your employer not to read, you shouldn’t send it over your employee email, no matter who that employer may be.

Part of the appeal of a university is that it fosters a more personal, humane culture than a for-profit corporation, which may be why evidence to the contrary has caused such consternation. It’s not wrong to demand the best of Harvard. But it’s foolish to expect it.