Harvard University administrators admitted Monday to secretly looking through the email accounts of resident deans last year in an attempt to find out who leaked to the press confidential details about the school's embarrassing cheating scandal.
Dozens of students were forced out of Harvard after they were caught cheating on a final exam last spring. The full story didn't emerge until The Boston Globe and The Harvard Crimson, thanks to the leaked information, gave it thorough treatment last fall.
In statement posted to the school's website, Deans Michael D. Smith and Evelynn M. Hammonds confirmed that the Ivy League school had searched employees' email accounts to find the source of the leak. But they defended the school's actions, saying the search was necessary because the leak had "threatened the privacy and due process" of the students implicated in the scandal.
"While the specific document made public may be deemed by some as not particularly consequential, the disclosure of the document and nearly word-for-word disclosure of a confidential board conversation led to concerns that other information — especially student information we have a duty to protect as private — was at risk," they wrote.
According to the statement, the school found that a resident dean had forwarded to a student an email about the scandal, though administrators determined that act to be "an inadvertent error."
They added that the school checked only the deans' administrative email accounts, and that the search involved a review of subject headers but did not involve opening any emails. Resident deans have two Harvard email accounts, one for administrative work and another for their personal use.
The controversy came to light over the weekend when The Boston Globe reported that the college had reviewed the school-issued email accounts for 16 resident deans — student advisers who teach classes at Harvard but are not full professors. According to that report, administrators only notified the one dean whom they determined had leaked information about the cheating scandal, leaving the other 15 in the dark.
While defending the investigation as a whole, the deans' statement does somewhat acknowledge that administrators could have been more open about their process.
"We understand that others may see the situation differently, and we apologize if any Resident Deans feel our communication at the conclusion of the investigation was insufficient," the statement reads.
That amounted only to a "partial apology," according to the Globe.