The Harvard Business School Baker Library (Kelvin Ma/BLOOMBERG)

Should a university administration have the right to search its employees’ emails without notifying them first?

That’s a question being asked after the Boston Globe reported over the weekend that Harvard University administrators searched the email accounts of its “resident deans” last fall without alerting them at the time. The search was reportedly done in an attempt to find out who leaked an email about a student cheating scandal to the media. At issue was whether the resident deans, who live in the residence halls as student administrators but also generally hold “lecturer” status, should be considered staff or faculty. If the latter, their emails should have been confidential, according to a policy that protects faculty emails except under certain circumstances such as internal investigations, “in which case the faculty member will be notified at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Online and in comments made to reporters, some faculty members lashed out. “I was shocked and dismayed,” one law professor told the New York Times. Another professor called the handling of the situation “dishonorable,” while yet another referred to it as “creepy.” An alumnus and author of a book about Harvard went so far as to call it “one of the lowest points in Harvard’s recent history.”

On Monday, Harvard administrators released a statement in response to the brouhaha. It said that the search was limited to the deans’ “administrative” accounts rather than their individual Harvard email accounts. As it turns out, the statement says, none of the deans’ “emails were opened and the contents of no one’s emails were searched by human or machine.” The university says the search was limited to email subject lines and that it decided not to alert the deans because the situation was seen to be an “inadvertent error.” An apology was made to anyone who “may see the situation differently.”

As a result, some who initially criticized the administration mostly absolved the university’s management on Monday. “My high-level take,” wrote computer-science professor Michael Mitzenmacher on his blog, is that “this has been blown out of proportion by the media, but it’s certainly an issue the administration and faculty should discuss and work out together, so there’s a common understanding.”

The case at Harvard may involve an arcane issue about university employees and a leak that appears not to have been all that consequential. Still, it raises the interesting question of whether employers beyond the Ivory Tower should alert employees before their emails are searched. Do people whose work doesn’t have anything to do with the “spirit of free inquiry and exchange of controversial ideas that lies at the heart of academic culture” have any right to privacy at work? How much trust do managers risk losing if their employees are worried their emails are being searched without knowing about it first?

If there is any trust to be lost, I’d guess it’s probably already gone. In this day and age, it will come as little surprise to most people, in the words of one IT manager I know, that not only is work email fair game, but private email isn’t all that private, either. Still, even if we know there isn’t much privacy to our electronic communication at work, I’d guess managers could do a lot more to remind people about what’s off limits and what’s not. A privacy policy may prevent legal problems, but unless it’s shared well with employees, it’s unlikely to prevent other headaches — particularly of the public relations sort — for employees and employers alike.

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Harvard’s ‘plumbers’

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