Last fall, Harvard University found itself embroiled in a cheating scandal, in which nearly half of the students in a large class were suspected of having cheated on the final exam. Eventually, 70 of the 279 students in the class (Introduction to Congress) were forced to take a leave of absence from the university for plagiarizing or collaborating on the test.
Later, news organizations reported that an email had been sent to the school’s resident deans, advising them to suggest to those accused students who were also varsity athletes that they withdraw voluntarily instead of being forced out. By doing so, these students would avoid losing a year of athletic eligibility.
The resident dean who forwarded the confidential message to a student, one of his advisees, did not anticipate that it would make its way to The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, and The Boston Globe. And now, as the Globe reports, these dark days for Harvard have gotten a little darker. The leaked email prompted school administrators to search the email accounts of 16 resident deans in an attempt to uncover who leaked the information; but most deans were not told that Harvard was checking up on them until the Globe reported it.
And the Harvard community is not happy about the snooping. In an article from The New York Times, Mary C. Waters, a sociology professor at the university, expressed her displeasure, saying, “I think what the administration did was creepy.” She added, “This action violates the trust I once had that Harvard would never do such a thing.”
The faculty’s reaction then found its way onto social media. Timothy McCarthy, program director at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, posted on Facebook, “This is disgraceful…even more so than the original cheating scandal, because it involves adults who should know better – really smart, powerful adults, with complete job security.”
Now, a debate has sprung up over whether the resident deans fall under the auspices of faculty or staff rules about email accounts; Harvard’s policies on email and electronic activity give significantly more protection to faculty. Resident deans are employees who live in Harvard’s residences along with undergrads, both counseling them and serving on various faculty committees – but are not on a tenure track for professorship. Some faculty members speculate that the administration felt free to search the email accounts of the resident deans because it regards them as regular employees, not faculty members.
Was the Harvard administration’s reaction to the problem worse than the cheating scandal itself, or was the administration in the right when it searched the deans’ emails in an attempt to hunt down the leak? Weigh in here.