Harvard U. Committee Proposes Standards for Email Searches

In the wake of a 2013 ruckus that cost a top Harvard University dean her job, a committee appointed by Harvard’s president has recommended that the university adopt institutionwide standards for gaining access to email and other accounts used by students, faculty members, and employees.

“At present, the university lacks a clear, overarching policy in this area,” says the committee’s report. “The absence of a single, visible, and comprehensive policy has led to confusion and uncertainty.”

The committee—led by David Barron, a law professor—is recommending that access to individuals’ accounts be permitted only for “a legitimate and important university purpose” and when “authorized by an appropriate and accountable person.”

In general, the committee says, the account user should be notified when information “will be or has been accessed,” and access “should be limited to the user electronic information needed to accomplish the purpose.” The report also recommends that a committee including faculty members be entrusted with “ongoing, independent oversight” of compliance with the proposed standards.

Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, appointed the committee after top administrators of Harvard College, the university’s main undergraduate division, admitted approving secret searches of the email accounts of 16 resident deans in hopes of discovering who had leaked information about a cheating scandal to the news media.

Evelynn M. Hammonds, the Harvard College dean, stepped down last summer after acknowledging that she and Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, had authorized the secret searches.

The recommendations will now undergo a two-week comment period. After any resulting revisions, they will be presented to President Faust to be carried out.

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