Nearly half the students in an introductory government class at Harvard, about 125 pupils, were suspected of cheating on a take-home final exam last spring. Printed directions advised test takers that the exam was “completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” However, the Introduction to Congress professor warned, “students may not discuss the exam with others.”

AP Photo/Lisa Poole

Perhaps because the instructions were confusing, the professor found substantial evidence of students copying or sharing answers on the test and reported the suspicious activity to the institution’s administrative authorities.

The university was stern in its reprimands. Those who worked together on the exam made a bad decision.  In order to guide its tender charges to the ethical high road, and initiate a “broader conversation about academic integrity,” Michael Smith, dean of faculty of arts and sciences, publicly announced the cheating investigation while the dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris called the incident a “teaching opportunity.” Making an example of them for the rest of the students, about 70 undergraduates were issued academic sanctions and forced to withdraw from school for a period of time.

To cushion the harsh blow and curb the backlash, the head of the Ivy League school administrative board sent an e-mail to 16 dormitory advisers – housing supervisors who double as part-time teachers — suggesting ways that they could counsel suspended students . At least one of the so-called “residential deans,” not realizing the administrative e-mail was confidential, forwarded it to affected students and, in short order, the e-mail was leaked to the press.

To find out who leaked, Dean Smith, and Harvard’s office of the general counsel, authorized a search by the university IT department to undertake a “very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search” of email indexes for all 16 housing deans.  Their search led to an individual who through, “inadvertent error and not an intentional breach,” forwarded the leaked confidential email. The university kept quiet about the snooping.

While employers generally have the legal right to monitor e-mails sent on company e-mail systems, Harvard has several stated policies to safeguard computer privacy of its personnel.  No less confusing than an exam allowing outside research, while forbidding collaboration, the educational institution’s guidelines for electronic searches are somewhat ambiguous.

While administrative workers can be subjected to e-mail scrutiny for a variety of reasons,  faculty members in particular are assured that school administrators will not snoop into their electronic mail.  (The policy was implemented in part, according to the Boston Globe, “because some professors feared that previous president Lawrence Summers was monitoring their correspondence.”) Privacy in academia is often equated with academic freedom. When the administrative board ordered the e-mail searches of teaching staff, the university broke its own confusing rules.

Resident deans, learning last week their e-correspondence had been secretly accessed, were understandably upset. On Monday, Dean Smith and Dean of Harvard College Evelynn Hammonds issued a statement offering apologies “if any Resident Deans feel our communication at the conclusion of the investigation was insufficient.”

As with the students of the government class, the administrators did something they were trusted not to. Carefully worded apologies notwithstanding, in the spirit of taking the high road, would it be too harsh to sanction the people who made the bad decision?

To take advantage of a “teaching opportunity,” maybe a short suspension as an example to others would broaden the “conversation of academic integrity.”

Bonnie Goldstein dropped out of college but you can follow her on Twitter at @KickedByAnAngel.