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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Controversy at Harvard continues to grow

Published: March 21, 2013
Section: News

A scandal at Harvard University has recently expanded from accusations pertaining to students’ academic violations to new charges regarding the university’s invasion of administrators’ privacy. The situation began at the end of the Spring 2012 semester, at which time questions arose regarding plagiarism conducted on a take-home final exam for the course “Government 1310: Introduction to Congress.” Media attention at the Ivy League university and the manner in which the administration and advisory board handled the issue served to exacerbate the conflict.

Further problems arose when an email sent from a resident dean to two student advisees regarding the “Government 1310” was leaked to the media. As a result, the content of that email has became public knowledge and was made available to the rest of the Harvard community, The Boston Globe and Harvard Crimson reported.

This email consisted of information on how resident deans should advise students under suspicion of plagiarism. The administration reacted to this slip by searching through the resident dean’s administrative email accounts in pursuit of the source of the leak. This investigation, in turn, sparked further controversy.

The rules of the constituent school involved in the case, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, allows administrators to access faculty email accounts under “extraordinary circumstances such as legal proceedings and internal Harvard investigations,” according to Harvard regulations. A search can only be conducted after the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Office of General Counsel have approved of the review and notified the faculty members in question. University information technology employees were instructed to look at emails that had specific subject lines. Harvard has responded that they followed the set guidelines and informed the respective parties. Senior Resident Dean Sharon Howell expressed concern in a public letter to Drew Faust, president of Harvard University. In this message Dean Howell expressed her and her colleagues concern for privacy and integrity among members of the university.

“I hope that you will speak with us, and with the rest of the faculty, and let us know what your thoughts are about what was done, as well as whether you knew at the time how it was being handled,” wrote Howell.

President Faust has stated that she was not informed of the faults of the investigation until September when she was informed that the situation had been taken care of. She has also stated that she was not aware that the secret search had been conducted in attempting to find the cause of the leak.

The fact that resident deans are technically not faculty, and are labeled as “House Staff” is a gray area in regulation that has generated further confusion regarding Harvard’s privacy guidelines. Despite this, resident deans are voting members of the university and hold administrative appointments, which come with some faculty privileges and lecturing responsibilities. Searching faculty emails without notification is against the rules but doing so for those labeled “Staff” is not. Some faculty and staff members, as well as students and alumni, feel that the university has unfairly invaded the privacy of members of the Harvard community.

In her message, Dean Howell brought up topics of privacy and responsibility of Harvard members. She believed that conducting such a search questions the legitimacy of a college and that forgoing open communication sets a bad example for students. Dean Howell, as well as other resident deans, were deeply involved in the “Government 1310” case, working as intermediaries and supporters between the higher administration and the accused students.

The initial case arose after 125 of the nearly 300 students taking the government course were implicated in plagiarizing and inappropriately collaborating on a final take-home exam. Of those suspected, nearly 70 were asked to withdraw and nearly half of those that remained were placed on academic probation. Comments have been made about the class that bring up questions regarding the validity of the accusations against the students. Students in the class have reported that the course’s teaching fellows encouraged peers to collaborate with one another despite the instructions which directed students to not discuss the exam, and that the class was poorly taught and organized.

In addition, regardless of possible truth in the accusations, many students believe that the investigation into the situation was poorly performed. Students remained in a state of prolonged uncertainty before they were to find out if they would have to withdraw from the school.

The university has released a statement from Michael Smith, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Evelyn Hammonds, dean of the college.

“We understand that others may see the situation differently, and we apologize if any resident deans feel our communication at the conclusion of the investigation was insufficient,” the statement concluded.