Bewildered, and at times angry, faculty members at Harvard criticized the university on Sunday after revelations that administrators secretly searched the email accounts of 16 resident deans in an effort to learn who leaked information about a student cheating scandal to the news media. Some predicted a confrontation between the faculty and the administration.
"I was shocked and dismayed," said the law professor Charles J. Ogletree. "I hope that it means the faculty will now have something to say about the fact that these things like this can happen."
News of the email searches prolonged the fallout from the cheating scandal, in which about 70 students were forced to take a leave from school for collaborating or plagiarizing on a take-home final exam in a government class last year.
Harry R. Lewis, a professor and former dean of Harvard College, said, "People are just bewildered at this point, because it was so out of keeping with the way we've done things at Harvard."
"I think what the administration did was creepy," said Mary C. Waters, a sociology professor, adding that "this action violates the trust I once had that Harvard would never do such a thing."
In the fall, the administrators searched the emails of 16 resident deans, trying to determine who had leaked an internal memo about how the deans should advise students who stood accused of cheating. But most of those deans were not told that their accounts had been searched until the past few days, after The Boston Globe, which first reported the searches, began to inquire about them.
Rather than the searches being kept secret from the resident deans, "they should've been asked openly," said Richard Thomas, a professor of classics. "This is not a good outcome."
Though some professors were disinclined to speak to a reporter, they showed less restraint online, where sites were buzzing with the news, and several professors said the topic dominated the faculty's private conversations.
On his blog, which is closely followed by many people at Harvard, Lewis called the administration's handling of the search "dishonorable," and, like some of his colleagues, said the episode would prompt him to do less of his communication through his Harvard email account, and more through a private account.
Timothy McCarthy, a lecturer and program director at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, posted about the email search on Facebook. "This is disgraceful," he said, "even more so than the original cheating scandal, because it involves adults who should know better - really smart, powerful adults, with complete job security."
Harvard's spokesmen declined to comment on Sunday about the criticism. On Saturday, the university would not confirm or deny that the email searches had taken place. It was unclear whether the issue would blow over or if it might escalate into a major confrontation between the faculty and the administration.
A resident dean generally has two Harvard email accounts, a general one and one specifically for the post of resident dean. A Harvard official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a matter the university considers confidential, said the searches had been limited to the resident dean accounts and limited to message headers indicating whether the leaked email had been forwarded to anyone; the official said no one had looked at the content of any emails.
The resident deans are employees who live in Harvard's residential houses, alongside undergraduates, and counsel them on a range of matters. They also have appointments as lecturers - people who teach classes but are not on the tenure track for professors - and serve on various faculty bodies.
Several Harvard faculty members speculated that the administration had felt free to search the email accounts because it regarded the resident deans as regular employees, not faculty members; Harvard's policies on electronic privacy give more protection to faculty members. The prevailing view from professors seemed to be that the resident deans are faculty members.
"If their role as administrative deans means that they can be treated like staff," Waters said, "then I do think that the emails of the president, provost and dean of the faculty should be turned over to the Faculty Council to investigate who ordered this witch hunt. 'If the resident deans don't have protection as faculty, neither should any other faculty serving in an administrative capacity."
The faculty policy states that while the administration can search a Harvard faculty email account as part of an internal investigation, it must notify the faculty member beforehand or soon after. In this case, the notification followed after about six months.
"So it would seem that the administration violated its own policy," Michael Mitzenmacher, a professor and area dean of computer science in the school of applied sciences, wrote on his blog. As for the resident deans, he said, "as far as I can tell right now, they're faculty under any reasonable definition the university gives."
The affair "is the kind of thing that make faculty think they need to push back or even rein in the administrative side of the university," he said.
Some of the resident deans said they considered the lack of notice - and even the searches, themselves - a violation of trust, but they refused to speak for the record because they lack job protection.
On a cold, gray Sunday, the campus was relatively quiet; students interviewed said they knew little about the email searches or had no particular view on them. It was not clear that the initial wave of ire from faculty members was representative of professors' views, and there were a few dissenting voices.
"If you really want to keep things confidential, then you have to stop leaks; to do that, you have to stop those that are making the leaks," said Harvey Mansfield, a government professor who has taught at Harvard for more than 50 years. "I think the resident deans are essentially functionaries. They're part of the administration."
Strong reactions extended beyond the campus.
"This is, I think, one of the lowest points in Harvard's recent history - maybe Harvard's history, period," Richard Bradley, a Harvard alumnus and author of the book "Harvard Rules," a look at the tenure of a former university president, Lawrence H. Summers, wrote on his blog. "It's an invasion of privacy, a betrayal of trust, and a violation of the academic values for which the university should be advocating."
In August, Harvard revealed that "nearly half" the students in a large class were suspected of having cheated on a final exam. The university would not name the class, but it was quickly identified by students as Government 1310, Introduction to Congress, which had 279 students last spring.
Days later, news organizations reported on an email sent to resident deans. Among other things, the email said they might suggest to students accused of cheating who were varsity athletes that they withdraw voluntarily, rather than face being forced out and losing a year of athletic eligibility.
It was the leak of that email that prompted the searches of the email accounts.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service