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Harvard rejects 119 accused of hacking

Applicants' behavior 'unethical at best'

Harvard Business School will reject the 119 applicants who hacked into the school's admissions site last week, the school's dean, Kim B. Clark, said yesterday.

''This behavior is unethical at best -- a serious breach of trust that can not be countered by rationalization," Clark said in a statement. ''Any applicant found to have done so will not be admitted to this school."

A half dozen business schools were swamped by a wave of electronic intrusions Wednesday morning, after a computer hacker posted instructions on a BusinessWeek Online message board. Harvard is the second school to say definitively that it will deny the applications of proven hackers. The first was Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, where only one admission file was targeted.

Until yesterday, Harvard, which had branded the hacking as unethical from the start, stopped short of explicitly saying the hackers' applications would be rejected. Other victims, such as MIT's Sloan School of Management, Stanford's Graduate School of Business, Duke's Fuqua School of Business, and Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business similarly said they frown upon the hacking and are investigating, but have not said they will reject applications.

''Our mission is to educate principled leaders who make a difference in the world," Clark said in yesterday's Harvard statement. ''To achieve that, a person must have many skills and qualities, including the highest standards of integrity, sound judgment, and a strong moral compass -- an intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. Those who have hacked into this website have failed to pass that test."

Clark, in an interview, said he decided over the weekend to make a stronger statement reaffirming the school's longstanding principles. While the initial statement seemed to imply the hackers would not be admitted, Clark said, ''Looking back, we may have assumed too much about people's ability to read that statement."

In most cases, applicants from around the world saw only blank screens when they hacked into their files, but some Harvard applicants glimpsed preliminary decisions about whether they would be admitted. Other business schools said they had yet to post any information in their applicants' files.

Some business school administrators have said they were being cautious in their reaction because their software vendor, ApplyYourself Inc., can identify which admissions files were targeted but not who tried to access them. Theoretically, at least, a hacker might have been a spouse or parent who had access to the password and personal identification numbers given to a business school applicant.

Clark, who said Harvard was working with ApplyYourself to determine the hackers' identifies, rejected that distinction. ''We expect our applicants to be personally responsible for the access to the website, and for the identification and passwords they received," he said.

One admissions consultant, Sanford Kreisberg of Cambridge Essay Service, which helps students apply to elite US business schools, said he thought Harvard was overreacting.

''What they did was stupid, but that's all it was," Kreisberg said. ''This seems needlessly harsh and rigid. I think it's inflexible, and it's wrong, and it doesn't treat individual circumstances."

Kreisberg said some applicants may had inadvertently tried to access the files, without realizing they were looking for confidential information, after they were e-mailed directions from other students who had copied them from the BusinessWeek message board.

Clark said that rejected applicants won't be barred from reapplying in future years, but he said admissions officials would weigh the hacking incident in considering such applications. Only students expelled from the school are prohibited from reapplying, he said.

As to the possibility of applicants sending apologies, something discussed on message boards over the weekend, Clark said: ''Whether apologies or other stuff happens, that is certainly something people can do. It may help them come to grips with what has happened. But for this year, and for now, our statement is very clear."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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