The Harvard ‘plumbers’

(This post has been updated with a response from Harvard.)

We at the Washington Post are all too familiar with important people who feel the need to find and close leaks to the media.

We knew back in the 1970s when Richard Nixon’s ‘plumbers’ secretly tried to find who leaked classified information and then decided to expand their activities to include breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building. A big scandal followed.

But one of the last places we expected officials to be secretly scouring e-mail accounts to plug a leak was at Harvard University, which is held up as a bastion of academic freedom where respect for professional educators and freedom of thought is paramount.

Alas, we learn that not even Harvard is exempt from the plumbing mentality. The Boston Globe reported that top administrators at the university secretly went through the e-mail accounts of 16 deans to see if any of them had leaked information about a cheating scandal that became public and involved dozens of students. The deans weren’t told that their e-mail account used for administrative matters was checked until a few days ago — six months after the search was conducted, the Globe said.

Maybe the administrators need to take Harvard’s course, History 1434 — American Public Life in the 20th Century, which reviews the Watergate scandal. The Harvard plumbers didn’t break any laws, like in Watergate, but they probably broke some people’s trust.

Update: Here’s a link to a public statement on the Harvard Web site from deans Michael D. Smith and Evelynn M. Hammonds explaining that the search was undertaken to protect student privacy and that it was only a search of the subject lines of e-mails, not the content. The search revealed two e-mails with confidential information sent by a single dean. The “breach” was deemed unintentional and the dean was not reprimanded. The statement says in part:

…The search did not involve a review of email content; it was limited to a search of the subject line of the email that had been inappropriately forwarded. To be clear: No one’s emails were opened and the contents of no one’s emails were searched by human or machine….

To be clear: Harvard administrators staged a secret search of the administrative e-mail accounts of deans.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 11, 2013