Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — that famous Latin query meaning “Who watches the watchmen?” gained new currency in Harvard University over the weekend, when its administrators were said to have snooped on the email accounts of no fewer than 16 resident deans, to determine who leaked news of the infamous 2012 cheating scandal to the media.

Last fall, around 125 students were investigated for cheating on a take-home exam for the spring 2012 course on “Government 1310: Introduction to Congress”. In August, the university announced the investigation with Jay Harris, Dean of Undergraduate Education, describing the episode as “unprecedented in its scope and magnitude”.

On Saturday, however The Boston Globe broke the story on the unprecedented email surveillance, noting: “The resident deans sit on Harvard’s Administrative Board, the committee charged with handling the cheating case... They were not warned that administrators planned to access their accounts, and only one was told of the search shortly afterward.”

Indicating the source of this information, The Globe said this dean had then forwarded a confidential Administrative Board message “to a student he was advising, not realising it would ultimately make its way to The Harvard Crimson [campus newspaper] and The Globe and fuel the campus controversy over the cheating scandal.”

According to reports, while some resident deans are faculty members, Harvard has different e-mail privacy policies for employees and faculty and employees were said to have “no expectation of privacy” for anything they wrote or stored on the university’s network, according to the employee manual.

The New York Times quoted several members of Harvard’s academic faculty suggesting that they were caught off-guard by the surveillance. “I was shocked and dismayed,” the newspaper quoted said law Professor Charles Ogletree, as saying; and Mary Waters, a sociology professor added, “I think what the administration did was creepy... this action violates the trust I once had that Harvard would never do such a thing.”

‘Partial apology’

Even as an air of suspicion and uncertainty descended over Cambridge this week, Harvard College issued a “partial apology” within a lengthy statement on Monday, and appeared to offer an explanation to the covert email search.

The offices of Deans Michael Smith and Evelynn Hammonds said in the statement, “with the approval of the Dean of FAS and the University General Counsel, and the support of the Dean of Harvard College, a very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search was conducted by the University’s IT Department”.

The administrators added that the search was “limited to the Administrative accounts for the Resident Deans and not their individual Harvard email accounts”.

The statement also addressed the question of why the entire group of Resident Deans was not briefed on the investigation into the cheating scandal and the decision to check emails. “The question is a fair one,” the administrators said, adding, “We made a decision that protected the privacy of the Resident Dean who had made an inadvertent error and allowed the student cases being handled by this Resident Dean to move forward expeditiously.”

Earlier nearly 70 cases from among those students investigated for plagiarism last year were given “required to withdraw” verdicts, which would however allow those students to petition for reinstatement after at least one full term. “It stops short of expulsion, in which case a student can never be readmitted,” reports noted.

At the time Mr. Smith reportedly sent a campus-wide email announcing the verdict, and it was noted that of the remaining students involved in the cheating scandal, “about half will get disciplinary probation, and the rest will receive no punishment.”

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