Harvard: Be Smart and Respond to E-Mail Search Controversy

Harvard has a communications crisis and a possible faculty revolt on its hands. On Sunday, faculty members at Harvard lashed out at the administration for secretly searching the e-mail accounts of 16 resident deans. The search, conducted last fall, was an effort to learn who leaked information last fall about a student cheating scandal to the news media.

The criticism of the search by faculty members—much of it online—was swift and rife with anger, reported The New York Times.

A key critic of the move was Harry R. Lewis, a professor and former dean of Harvard College, whose blog is a popular read on campus. “People are just bewildered at this point, because it was so out of keeping with the way we’ve done things at Harvard,” Lewis posted.

Timothy McCarthy, a lecturer and program director at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, took to Facebook to post his opinion, writing, “This is 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.”

At the heart of the controversy appears to be the definition of “faculty member” versus “regular employee.” Professors speculated that the administration regarded resident deans as regular employees, whose emails would be considered property of Harvard and subject to search, while the professors feel that resident deans are faculty members, whose email privacy is more protected.

At press time the university has not officially responded to the criticism. At the very least the administration should spell out to the faculty and the public which electronic communications edict it was following in deciding to conduct the search.

If Harvard officials don't respond quickly, the school can expect online vitriol to grow, and any trust the faculty had in the university with regards to privacy may be seriously damaged.

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About Scott Van Camp

Scott Van Camp is editor of PR News, an executive-level, reader-supported publication that helps enhance the business impact of PR. Scott has a rich background in both journalism and PR/marketing. He has more than 15 years of experience as a writer/editor at various consumer and trade publications. Scott was with VNU Business Publications for five years, including stints as managing editor at IQ News and Technology Marketing magazines and senior editor at Brandweek. In the PR/marketing sphere, he has served as corporate communications manager at MarketBridge, a marketing and sales consultancy, and as editorial director for the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council. While at the Council, Scott led several high-profile marketing research projects. He has also operated his own communications and media consulting firm, SVC Communications.

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