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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

E-mail Imbroglio

May-June 2013

Even before classes met, this academic year began on a somber note. The College disclosed on August 30 that nearly half the students (more than 100) in a large lecture course were being investigated for impermissible collaboration or even outright copying of classmates’ answers on the take-home final exam the previous May. Then, on February 1, Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael D. Smith reported that some three-quarters of those students were forced to withdraw for some period or placed on probation: more than 1 percent of the undergraduate body punished for academic misconduct in a single case.

No one expected that distressing story to metastasize as it did during the weekend of March 9-10. The Boston Globe reported that as the huge cohort of investigations had begun, publication of communications from the Administrative Board caused concern about protecting confidential student information—prompting administrators to authorize searches of the e-mail accounts of the College’s 16 resident deans, who advise undergraduates and represent them in proceedings before the Ad Board. Subsequent news only aggravated the situation.

• March 11. Dean Smith and University vice president and general counsel Robert Iuliano conducted a briefing to review a statement released by Smith and Harvard College dean Evelynn M. Hammonds (who was not present). That document reviewed the early conduct of the Ad Board investigation (Hammonds is chair) and noted that a “confidential e-mail sent to resident deans…was forwarded beyond the group, and eventually made its way to news outlets.” That “was quite concerning,” given the need to maintain students’ privacy and to guarantee “due process...before the board.” Board members were advised, and “It was made clear at that time that absent clarification of what happened, an investigation would be required. No one came forward.” Following a news report on a conversation within the board, members “were again queried but no explanation emerged.”

Ultimately, “with the approval of the dean of FAS and the University general counsel, and the support of the dean of Harvard College, a very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search” was conducted by the University’s IT department, “limited to the administrative accounts for the resident deans…as distinct from their individual Harvard e-mail accounts.” The investigation “was limited to a search of the subject line of the email that had been inappropriately forwarded.…The subject-line search turned up two e-mails with the queried phrase, both from one sender.” That resident dean was queried, and found that he or she had, apparently inadvertently, forwarded the message to two students. No other resident deans were advised that the e-mail investigation had occurred.

Certain claims in the announcement were disputed by the senior resident dean, Sharon Howell, lecturer on history and literature. The Globe reported that she had not been informed about the e-mail investigation, contradicting the Smith-Hammonds statement—and on March 11, she disseminated an open letter to President Drew Faust, raising as the crucial question the “trust at the heart of Harvard’s culture that is ours—yours—to protect or not.”

Faust later issued a statement, saying, “Back in September, I was made aware that there was concern about a potential breach in the confidentiality of the process, and was told it had been resolved, but I was not informed of specifics.” Having consulted Smith and Hammonds, she continued, “I feel very comfortable that great care was taken to safeguard the privacy of all concerned…and to protect the confidentiality of the Administrative Board process. I share the view that questions about whether more Resident Deans should have been informed sooner are fair to ask….”

Her sense of comfort would be challenged, and the fairness issue expanded. Faculty members made clear their unhappiness about the e-mail investigation and the apparent distinction drawn between professors (who by FAS policy must be notified if their e-mail accounts are examined for, say, a legally mandated investigation of academic misconduct) and resident deans (who are FAS members, and often hold teaching positions, but were not accorded that treatment). The issue was not on the April 2 faculty meeting agenda, but many expected that it would be raised.

• April 2. In a tense, standing-room-only meeting in University Hall, Faust departed from routine business to address “e-mail privacy.” She said that after March 11, she had sought a fuller account of the facts and past practices governing investigatory access to such communications—and had discovered “highly inadequate” policies and practices that not only made it difficult to know what had been done, but represented “a significant institutional failure.” She declared that Harvard must “never again” face such a situation.

That situation, Dean Smith then explained, was more troubling than his March 11 statement with Dean Hammonds had revealed. Following a March 12 meeting with the Ad Board, he told his faculty colleagues, he emerged with more questions; pursued more information from the IT staff and general counsel’s office; and “learned of additional actions—concerning actions—taken in this case.” He then turned to Hammonds.

She immediately said she and others had “made serious mistakes”—in particular, her failure to “recollect” that she and a Harvard attorney had authorized two more searches of the same resident dean’s e-mail accounts (administrative and individual FAS accounts), looking for contact between that dean and two students covering the Ad Board for the Crimson. In neither case did she (or apparently the general counsel’s office) inform or seek approval from Smith, the normal procedure. Nor had Hammonds recollected this information prior to the March 11 statement, resulting in “inaccuracies.”

Faust then reminded the faculty of the “extraordinary size and scope” of the Ad Board investigation, and of the need to keep student information confidential throughout. Pursuing private and transparent processes at the same time sometimes brought commitments into tension—“and sometimes those tensions may be reconciled in a highly imperfect manner.”

She announced two actions. Foley Hoag litigator Michael B. Keating, LL.B. ’65, will conduct an external review of Harvard’s research into the e-mail investigations, and will report to Faust whether the situation is completely understood. Separately, Green professor of public law David J. Barron ’89, J.D. ’94, will chair a University task force to establish policies and guidelines on e-mail privacy, with recommendations to be ready for Corporation action by the end of 2013.

These presentations left many questions unanswered: What was the impetus for the second and third e-mail investigations? How were they initiated without the FAS dean’s assent? What was learned about the handling of Ad Board materials from those further queries? What transpired in the March 12 meeting that prompted Smith to pursue further queries? When did he and Faust learn about the additional investigations?

In the ensuing discussion, faculty members thanked Faust, Smith, and Hammonds for their statements and the apologies offered—but also raised further concerns. Some focused on the damage done to resident deans’ confidence, and to students’ belief that they could trust in the confidentiality of their communications (often about personal or academic challenges) with resident deans.

Others expressed worry about the caliber of the communications between University and FAS administrators and the faculty. Lane professor of the classics Richard Thomas, a member of the elected Faculty Council, which consults with and advises Dean Smith on FAS matters, said that trust depended on a foundation of truth in the accounts of what had happened and why. Professor of history Lisa McGirr characterized many exchanges as having devolved to a “spectator sport,” with faculty members observing presentations but not having a genuine, or sufficient, opportunity to weigh in on issues ranging from the planned move of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to Allston, to a proposed policy on professors’ involvement in online instruction. Francke professor of German art and culture Jeffrey F. Hamburger, another Faculty Council member, spoke of the “unhelpful distance” that had arisen between faculty members and decision-making administrators.

When the docketed business resumed, dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris presented a summary report on the meeting’s intended focus: how to respond to new challenges to academic integrity. The preliminary report of the faculty-student committee on academic integrity, based on three years of work and distributed for faculty members’ consideration, calls for a “modified honor code,” with a statement of values, a “declaration of integrity” for students to affirm their adherence to those values, and opportunities throughout their four years to learn about those values. It does not call for students to monitor one another during exams, but does suggest creation of a student-faculty judicial board to hear academic-dishonesty cases (now the realm of the Ad Board, which does not have student members).

That last proposal will require further discussion. Separating academic-integrity cases from other Ad Board proceedings may depart from the board’s tradition of viewing its work as educational, not solely disciplinary, and considering the students appearing before it in holistic terms. And given the crushing workload the Ad Board faced this academic year, student members of such a body might be overwhelmed if another significant cheating case arose.

Furthermore, a student pledge, one faculty member noted, does not address professors’ teaching obligations, and the 2012 cheating case itself raised questions about classroom rigor, the nature of final examinations, and the instructions students are given.

As the faculty debates how best to proceed, it seems certain that FAS’s response will extend into the 2013-2014 academic year—and that the University, too, confronts much unanticipated, unfinished business.

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