The Custom of the Country: Investigating Email @Harvard.Edu

March 16, 2013, 1:07 pm

harvard-logo-jpg-180One of the downsides to being Harvard University is that everything you do is publicized as if no one else has ever done it.

Take the undergraduate cheating scandal, that led to the investigation of the cheating scandal, that led to a lot of students being asked to either take a leave to think about their sins or get the hell out of Dodge for good. Students (and proffies!) cheat at lots of institutions, but when it happens at Harvard it seems to be particularly news-worthy.

Why is this? Well, here’s a parallel example. When Peaches Honeyblossom Geldof, daughter of Irish activist rocker Sir Bob “I Don’t Like Mondays” Geldof, was picked up for shoplifting cosmetics last summer (and not for the first time either) it was commented on extensively; the same crimes committed every day by Joe Blow from Kokomo command very little attention. We expect Joe to shoplift: he’s a witless ba$tard who rarely surprises us. Upon being alerted to Peaches’ sticky mitts,  however, part of you says: “How can someone so privileged be so stupid?” and part of you — the mean, bad, envious part of you — is doing the happy dance and saying “Woot! How far the mighty have fallen!”

Go to this link for Peaches and 19 other female celebs charged with boosting things and record your feelings for ten minutes.

A similar phenomenon is at work when a Harvard cheating scandal gets in the papers. The phrase “cheating scandal” says it all:  at your local State Teachers college it’s just cheating.  Cheating at Harvard is not not news by any stretch of the imagination (certainly not to any of us who have taught at or attended elite schools.) However, as entertainment it ranks slightly above watching pulchritudinous boy singers being sexually harassed by Nicki Minaj on American Idol, and somewhat below trying to figure out when Dean and Tori will split up.

The entertainment only escalates as we learn that the scandal is not over. It gets better than cheating! Last week we learned that Harvard faculty are “stunned” to learn that residential deans’ email accounts were searched to see who leaked confidential documents on the investigation into the events surrounding “Introduction to Congress.”

(This, I think, requires a pause for station identification. Yes, students cheated on a massive scale in a course called Introduction to Congress. As we continue, please note that quotes from colleagues at Harvard have been excerpted from The New York Times. They are presented as evidence only, without irony or sarcasm, and with full sympathy for all who are still dealing with the tiresome behavior of students who caused this problem in the first place by not studying and taking the test as they were instructed to do.)

To continue: as reported in Times, smelling salts are being distributed widely as Harvard faculty come to terms with the investigation of a leak that, had it occurred in a controversial tenure case, might have triggered their own demands for a full-scale inquiry. A law professor was “shocked and dismayed.” A former dean declared that his colleagues were “just bewildered at this point, because it was so out of keeping with the way we’ve done things at Harvard.” A member of the sociology department described the search for the leaker as a “witch hunt,”and asserted that the email investigation “violates the trust I once had that Harvard would never do such a thing.” Yet another faculty source declared that the email crawl was “disgraceful….even more so than the original cheating scandal, because it involves adults who should know better — really smart, powerful adults, with complete job security.” (The students of course, were not, I suppose, adults who should know better than to organize cheating on a massive scale.)

I must confess that, although I have experienced enough outrage in my time to understand why these faculty leaders are upset, I think their complaints are without foundation. (Full disclosure: two out of the three individuals who were asked to explain, and apologize for, this investigation are friends of mine, and I believe them to be highly honorable and competent people. But this is actually immaterial, as what they did was entirely within the law, and I suspect, within the scope of Harvard’s regulations.)

It’s hard not to imagine that some of the charges being lobbed at the administration stem from having the limits of Harvard privilege being made visible. If tenured faculty are thinking, “Hmmmmm. If they can go after contract faculty and staff this way, maybe they would investigate my email account,” the answer is yes.  They could, they might, and I don’t really see why this is a new thought. Harvard owns all the email accounts that end in They own your university-purchased computer. They own your office. They may own your research.

Almost twenty-five years after email has come into general use, I find the average university professor’s naiveté about the nature and ethical employment of electronic communication stunning. Although the article cited above states that members of the Harvard community have varying degrees of electronic privacy, depending on their status, common sense would imply the following guide to electronic behavior:

  1. Don’t leak confidential documents, or convey privileged student information, to others. The first is unethical, the second illegal. Furthermore, doing it electronically leaves traces that cannot be erased.
  2. If you do plan to be a leaker, open a gmail account. With an anonymous handle. In an Internet cafe. Or show someone a piece of paper and then burn it immediately.
  3. If you violate 1., a responsible institution will investigate what happened, including searching your university email account which you do not own. Because they own it, it is not, in fact, a violation of your privacy.
  4. If you are without tenure, and you violate 1. and 2., you may be fired, just like someone at IBM would be fired if they did the same thing. Even if you are not fired, it is quite likely that no one will trust you again and you might want to seek work elsewhere.
  5. No one at Harvard has alleged that any university rule was broken in the email search; only the custom of the country was violated. But the cheaters and leakers did break university rules. Leakers may also have broken federal law if student confidentiality was violated. Therefore, to say that the investigation was worse than the original crime is incorrect and hyperbolic.


Here’s another question: why was Charles Ogletree, a distinguished criminal justice scholar but with few credentials in digital media, asked for a quote by the New York Times, but Lawrence Lessig, who has written extensively on ethics, the Internet and electronic media, was not? I suspect that Lessig might have had something more pertinent to contribute to the conversation.

The events at Harvard should jolt anyone who hasn’t thought about the privacy of a university email account to think again, and again, and again. If you have ever signed a document put in front of you detailing your rights and responsibilities under the University’s electronic policies, you might want to go back and read it before huffing and puffing and blowing the dean’s office down.

And if not? Well, as they used to say, if you can’t be good, be careful.

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