THE BLOG
03/12/2013 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2013

In Defense Of Harvard: Why They Were Right to Search Faculty Emails

This weekend, it came to light that Harvard University secretly accessed the email accounts of their 16 Resident Deans. The Harvard administration confirmed this yesterday morning, releasing a statement detailing their search and the motivation behind it.

Since this revelation, Harvard's administration has been the target of attacks both internally and externally. Alumni, faculty, and everyone in between have made no secret of the fact that they disagree immensely with the core of Harvard's actions, and more specifically, how the administration handled the search. Over the weekend, The New York Times quoted Harvard professors who called the search "creepy" and "dishonorable." Even after the administration released their statement explaining and apologizing for their actions, professors likened Harvard to "the Hoover era FBI" and told The Crimson their true concern was the university "trolling emails." Same thing, different eras, right?

These sentiments are misguided. While the Harvard administration did not fulfill their obligation to inform the Resident Deans of the investigation as it was happening, the university was fully justified in conducting their email search.

First and foremost: Confidential information was sent out twice by a Resident Dean. No matter how innocuous the emails may seem, the central issue at hand is that a Harvard employee directly in charge of students forwarded confidential information (however vague) about Harvard students involved in a disciplinary matter. It's not that far of a stretch to worry about what other -- potentially more sensitive -- information this Administrative Board member would leak. And Harvard needs to worry about that, not because of pride or honor or their need to maintain everlasting fear, but rather because FERPA exists. Boring, maybe, but true.

According to their statement, the first step Harvard made was to ask the Resident Deans if one of them had leaked the emails. It was only after no one -- including the guilty party -- owned up to something the administration knew happened that the email search was initiated. According to the university's statement, "It was made clear at that time that absent clarification of what happened, an investigation would be required. No one came forward." Resident Deans were asked multiple times if they knew anything about the emails and, shockingly, nothing was confessed.

Harvard did not access anyone's personal emails. They used a computer program to search the subject lines of administrative email accounts, which come with a position (random examples: the Cabot House Resident Dean is ca-abrd@fas.harvard.edu, the Elliot House Resident Dean is el-abrd@fas.harvard.edu, etc.). Administrators in charge of the investigation concocted the most innocuous way to determine who forwarded the email, setting up a "metadata" system that specifically and solely searched the original subject line of the forwarded email.

The only information the administration got back was the name of the sender and the time the email was sent. Not a word of text in anyone's emails or subject lines was ever seen by a human during this search. Don't worry guys; your secret communist affiliations are safe.

This is clearly within the Harvard administration's rights. If you believe that the Resident Deans should have been notified once the investigation was initiated -- a legitimate question -- then they are also subject to this:

"In extraordinary circumstances such as legal proceedings and internal Harvard investigations, faculty records may be accessed and copied by the administration. Such review requires the approval of the Dean of the FAS and the Office of the General Counsel."

To recap: By providing faculty members with computer and email services, Harvard's policy grants them the right to access faculty records in internal investigations (which this was) if they have approval of the Dean of the FAS and the Office of the General Counsel (which they had). You know those 20-page-long service contracts you agree to before getting a new MySpace (or whatever)? This is apparently what they say.

There is a supposed discrepancy as to whether the Resident Deans qualify as faculty members, rather than staff. If the Resident Deans are staff, they can have their accounts searched, no problem. If they are faculty, they require notification of an investigation.

To this point: the email accounts searched were hosted by fas.harvard.edu -- FAS being Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Search any Resident Dean in the university's Web Directory and they are listed as members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Two of the Resident Deans serve on Harvard's Faculty Council, which consists of 18 members of the faculty. It's hard to argue that the Resident Deans should not be considered members of Harvard's faculty.

The university had an obligation to inform the Resident Deans they were searching email subject lines. If the administration's silence is what you are upset by, well ... you're right. They messed up. Keep in mind though that Harvard apologized for this, and this morning Harvard President Drew Faust basically said, "Actually, you have a point there." Another reminder: Monday's statement also claimed that the administration told the Resident Deans at the time of the leaks that an investigation would be imminent if no one came forward (which no one did).

There is still what seems to be a sizable group that seems shocked that Harvard would access email accounts in any scenario. This reaction is surprising, and not supported by Harvard's policies for either faculty or staff. While the Resident Deans were owed and received an apology for not being informed earlier, this search was completely justified -- and clearly stated -- by the administration that provided the email accounts.

This post originally appeared on IvyGate. Read more stories from IvyGate:

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