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Harvard Email Scandal: Profs' Indignation Is About Protecting Privilege

This article is more than 7 years old.

Make no mistake: the email snooping dustup at Harvard is less about principle than it is about privilege.

Yes, Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree is “shocked and dismayed.” And former Harvard College Dean Harry R. Lewis is “bewildered.” Yes, Timothy McCarthy, a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government, finds the whole episode “disgraceful.” And Mary C. Waters, a professor of sociology, thinks it is “creepy” that Harvard secretly accessed the university email accounts of 16 resident deans to find a leaker in last year’s cheating scandal.

But the focus of all the righteous faculty indignation on display this week in newspapers and in their own blogs and Facebook postings is not really that Harvard invaded the email privacy of its employees. It’s that, in their zeal to learn who leaked information to the news media about the cheating episode that forced dozens of students to withdraw from school, those administrators mistook the faculty for employees.

Quelle horreur!

This is a classic case of selective outrage. The offended faculty members are not questioning the university’s right to read the email of staff members. That policy, Lewis writes on his blog, “reads to me like a typical Terms of Service Agreement — written by lawyers on the assumption that almost nobody will read it, and that those who might read it will be too powerless to object. It puts all the authority in the hands of the University so that, if some official of the University does something stupid or invasive out of ignorance or malice, it will be hard for an employee to claim that the official broke any rules. From the standpoint of the university and its legal counsel, it's a nice, safe policy to have on the books, and that is why many businesses have similar policies.”

But why waste energy bemoaning the loss of privacy rights of ordinary workers? They’ll probably never read the policy, anyway. Like most American workers, they have no legal expectation of privacy on their company’s email systems. The employer owns it so the employer can monitor it. Workers forget that at their own risk.

But Lewis, who helped craft a separate policy that gives faculty members near-total privacy protection for their email accounts, thinks professors should be treated differently. Harvard’s intrusive staff policy “seemed to me utterly dissonant with what faculty expected and assumed, and probably with the very spirit of free inquiry and exchange of controversial ideas that lies at the heart of academic culture. (I am sure it is also quite different from what most staff assume about their email, but I leave that aside.)”

Yes, by all means, leave that aside. The secretaries can always raise whatever privacy concerns they might have in collective bargaining. Professors need special protection, preoccupied as they are with Free Inquiry and Controversial Ideas and Academic Culture.

What frosted many professors about the email searches in the investigation of the cheating leak was that Harvard did not extend the same protective shield to the 16 resident deans that it routinely extends to regular faculty, even though those deans — who live with and advise students in the Harvard dorms — also teach courses at the college. The faculty email policy allows the university to access a professor’s account under rare circumstances, but requires administrators to notify the faculty member in advance or soon thereafter. In this case, some of the resident deans did not learn about the email searches until last week when The Boston Globe made inquiries about the incursions.

Writing on his blog, Michael Mitzenmacher, a professor of Computer Science, sounds incredulous at the idea that nobody had the common sense to say, "Whoa! Isn't it bad precedent to go looking through people's e-mails without going through other options or letting them know?"

He is right. It is a bad precedent — bad for “people,” not just for professors.


This program aired on March 12, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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