The Harvard Email Snooping Case:
Overreaching Administrators at Work

By Harvey Silverglate, Juliana DeVries, and Zachary Bloom

There’s been a lot of head-scratching of late about how and why a clutch of Harvard administrators searched the email accounts of 16 “resident deans” in a Nixonian effort to find and then plug a leak of utterly inconsequential information about the so-called Harvard “cheating scandal.” But trendwatchers at Harvard and virtually every other college and university in the country should not be surprised. At Harvard, the Administration and General Counsel—rather than the faculty or students—run the show, with the campus police exerting a good deal of influence as well.

The governing board, despite being granted virtually absolute authority over the affairs of the college by an unusual provision of the Massachusetts Constitution, appears to be AWOL. And when the lawyers and bureaucrats take over as they have at Harvard, we can only expect that the campus culture will resemble a corporation at best and a police state at worst.

As has been widely reported, this past fall Harvard College’s disciplinary tribunal, the Administrative Board (or “Ad Board” in Harvard-speak), set its sights on 125 Government 1310 students accused of cheating on their final exam. John “Jay” Ellison, a Georgia police officer turned lecturer in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, runs the Ad Board. “While Ellison no longer wields a gun, he is still an enforcer of the rule of the land,” wrote the Harvard Crimsonin a 2010 profile.

Ad Board Under the Thumb

Officially speaking, the Ad Board’s membership consists of a mix of faculty members and administrators, but the board has become a de facto creature of the administration. The resident deans, who live alongside students in the Harvard houses and are on the Board, claim to be students’ advocates, but are more accurately described as apparatchiks beholden to the more senior members of the Board and administration, who provide them with all-important recommendation letters and job references.

During the course of the Ad Board’s investigation, Ellison sent an email dated August 16, 2012 to other members of the disciplinary apparatus, including the College’s resident deans. That email found its way to the Crimsonand to the Boston Globe. In the message, Ellison discusses whether some students, such as athletes and other students “who know they cheated,” might consider taking a voluntary leave of absence. It included no information about specific students or their disciplinary cases. Nevertheless, the leak was deemed, by Ellison at least, a very serious matter. After all, he does run the Ad Board show under cover of complete secrecy, and the “security breach” demonstrated, if nothing else, his lack of absolute control. His reaction hints that he may have been unnerved by the leak. The continued existence of the Ad Board system, in its present form, likely depends on the outside world not learning that Harvard has its own version of the infamous Star Chamber.

Who Forwarded the Message?

So Ellison launched an investigation, which included a search of the resident deans’ email accounts. Administrators instructed information technology staff to search for relevant words in the subject lines of the resident deans’ emails, in order to catch whoever had forwarded Ellison’s message. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds, and General Counsel Robert Iuliano gave their approval for the search. They did not warn the resident deans beforehand about the search, and, until the Globe broke the story almost six months later, the administration informed only the one resident dean who, as the search revealed, had forwarded Ellison’s email.

Harvard’s policy for staff promises no expectation of privacy for employee email, as is typical for corporations. However, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has its own (at first glance more promising) policy regarding email privacy, which states, in part:

“The FAS considers faculty email messages and other electronic documents stored on Harvard-owned computers to be confidential, and will not access them, except in the following circumstances…. [I]n 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. The faculty member is entitled to prior written notice that his or her records will be reviewed, unless circumstances make prior notification impossible, in which case the faculty member will be notified at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Complicate and Contradictory

Translated into normal English, this policy, despite its lofty language, boils down to:The administration will not search faculty email, except when it does, and the administration will notify faculty of the searches, except when it doesn’t.” An ambiguity in how the university classifies the resident deans further complicates the issue. Although the deans teach classes, conduct research, and are designated as “faculty” when they serve on the Ad Board, Harvard’s Office of Student Life classifies them as “House Staff.” These complicated and contradictory codes and classifications, rife with ambiguity, put immense power into the hands of administrators to exact revenge against subordinates who cross them. That is how, in an astonishing act of institutional cannibalism, Harvard’s resident deans found themselves victimized by the same disciplinary apparatus of which they themselves are a part.

As recently as 25 years ago, Harvard administrators would have sought advice about the legality and ethics, or at least the prudence, of such a search from an independent law firm, benefiting from an outside counselor’s disinterested and hence more objective point of view. (Back then, the university heavily depended in these situations upon the advice and guidance of Boston’s “white shoe” law firms.) But now that Harvard has an in-house Office of General Counsel, employing 16 full-time lawyers, administrators can get their advice from one of their own, with tailor-made sympathies for the regime. (Harvard’s General Counsel, who doubles as a vice-president of the university, works in a small colonial red-brick building right in the middle of Harvard Yard, the same building from which Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust reigns.)

Secrecy, but Who Benefits?

After the Boston Globe reported on the search, the Harvard administration immediately backpedaled, claiming they carried out their investigation for the sake of protecting student “confidentiality,” and that “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.”

But those familiar with Harvard’s disciplinary structure understand full-well that what the secrecy protects is not the students but the administrators themselves, who run a retrograde disciplinary system in which facts and due process matter little and administrative power is everything. Harvard’s Ad Board has no student representation and operates pursuant to rules of total secrecy. A student going public about his own disciplinary hearing commits an independent offense that can get him thrown out of school. Yet the Ad Board maintains the fiction that the secrecy—politely dubbed “confidentiality”—is for the protection of the student. But at Harvard, as everywhere else, secrecy is rarely for the benefit of those who have to endure the exercise of unrestrained power; rather, it protects those who exercise such power.

Campus Culture Is Corporate Culture

Our campuses are no longer hubs of free inquiry. Campus culture more accurately resembles that of corporations, or, viewed a bit more cynically, mini-police states. This is the endgame of the takeover of academic life by administrators and lawyers. Administrators now safely outnumber faculty. Despite decades of tepid growth in the ranks of tenured faculty nationwide, new and expensive buildings with flat-screen TVs and espresso bars, and athletic facilities with Olympic-sized pools and climbing walls, have been springing up like dandelions after a rain. Harvard, for example, recently converted its Hilles Library in the Radcliffe Quadrangle into “social space.” Admissions and alumni offices churn out glossy propaganda showing happy, hand-picked multicultural students enjoying such “perks.” The educational mission has been pushed aside in favor of campus cultures that marginalize faculty and negatively affect students and our society at large. Such perks have effectively been bribes that keep the students and faculty quiescent.

The Harvard email search scandal is only the latest demonstration of the power of Harvard’s administrators and lawyers over the faculty and staff, and should be a wake-up call to spur a rebellion against the unholy trends destroying liberal arts institutions in Cambridge and all over the country. The Harvard Faculty is rightfully angry, as indicated in the History Department’s letter to Dean Smith: “The decision of the administration of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to monitor email communications raises concerns over the protection of privacy, speech, and dissent…. It points to a gap between faculty and administration understandings of our rights and responsibilities in an institution dedicated to fostering teaching, learning and the open exchange of ideas.” And Harvard is not the only place where faculty is beginning to fight back against bureaucratic authoritarianism. The NYU faculty very recently approved a no-confidence vote in NYU President John Sexton, citing the corporatization of the university and a disregard of faculty input.

At Harvard, even the normally-complacent students are looking over their shoulders following the leak investigation: according to the Crimson, the Undergraduate Student Council is preparing a memo expressing concern to the administration about possible breaches of students’ private email accounts. Chances are that this latest student and faculty reaction against the draconian and disrespectful measure engaged in by university administrators will fade—but it is only a matter of time until the next invasion of faculty and student prerogatives by academia’s new overlords.

Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses [HarperPerennial, 1999], and the co-founder and current Board chairman of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ( Juliana DeVries, a graduate of Columbia University, and Zachary Bloom, of UMass Amherst, are Silverglate’s research assistants.


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