What Happened at Harvard: Professors Are Employees

The lesson to draw from the Harvard email episode is simple: a university is a business and everyone who works there is an employee.  The Harvard administration combed through email accounts of resident deans in order to track down leaks regarding last year’s cheating scandal. The cheating happened last year when students were discovered to have copied one another’s answers on a take-home exam.  Somehow, the deliberations of the Administrative Board, which handled the cheating case made their way to the press, and Harvard wanted to uncover how.  Sixteen residence deans had their emails investigated, and Harvard kept its inquiry secret.

Harvard reserves the right to scan employees’ emails, but in the case of faculty members it must inform the targets of the scrutiny promptly.  Some professors believe that residence deans deserve the same exemption, and others go further in alleging that the investigation betrays the rightful trust that should prevail on campus.  Charles Ogletree huffed in the Times, “I was shocked and dismayed.”  A sociology professor calls the action “creepy.”

A more sober voice, Harry Lewis, says, “People are just bewildered at this point because it was so out of keeping with the way we’ve done things at Harvard.”

Lewis is a genuine moral authority on higher education, but however much we approve of the sentiment, it no longer holds.  Deep-pocketed institutions such as Harvard are subject to litigation, publicity, rankings frenzy, and alumni/donor scrutiny.  Administrators act not on trust but on preservation–that is, protecting the institution and safeguarding their own careers.  Which is worse: a few days of discomfort and faculty suspicion over the news story, or having someone behind closed doors feeding embarrassing information to the media?  (It turned out that the leak was inadvertent.)

Professors should adjust their thinking.  Forget about privacy, confidentiality, and trust.  Recognize that everything you do in your office, on your school’s computers, and over your school email account belongs to the entity that signs your paycheck.  Follow the advice of Charles Fried, Harvard law professor who told the Wall Street Journal, “I subscribe to the [rule] that I never put anything in email that I wouldn’t want published in the Harvard Crimson.” 


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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