Outside counsel: Harvard acted in ‘good faith’ on covert e-mail searches

An outside counsel hired by Harvard University to investigate covert searches of instructors’ e-mails by college administrators found that all of the e-mail searches “were undertaken in good faith.”

The university this afternoon released the findings of attorney Michael B. Keating, which describe in far more detail than previously known the searches that officials undertook last fall while trying to find out how information about a student cheating scandal was leaking into the media.

While Harvard officials already have apologized and acknowledged some mistakes, such as not notifying the instructors whose e-mails were searched, administrators believed they were following internal policies at the time, Keating concluded. One policy posted on a Harvard website did indicate the instructors should have been notified, but few at Harvard, including the office of the general counsel, were aware it existed.

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Keating also found that no administrators read any of the e-mails unearthed in the secret searches.

Last fall, about 125 undergraduates were facing accusations of cheating on the take-home exam in a government class. Campus discipline is supposed to be done in secrecy, and federal laws require student privacy to be safeguarded.

As tidbits about the case leaked into the Harvard Crimson and into the Globe, administrators grew increasingly alarmed, Keating found.

The searches, which targeted the accounts of resident deans — who are involved in the disciplinary process — “arose in the context of an unprecedented event in the history of the University,” Keating wrote.

Many professors and students were alarmed that the University would search instructors’ e-mail at all, and even more concerned that administrators’ initial versions of what happened were incomplete. Furor over the matter is widely seen on campus as having precipitated the recent departure of Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds.

By now, the general nature of the searches is publicly known. But Keating’s report makes public for the first time that a search was undertaken for e-mails to and from former Globe reporter Mary Carmichael, who had obtained a copy of a message related to the disciplinary process.

Officials wanted to know who had sent Carmichael that e-mail, but did not find the answer.

According to Keating, her name was searched for because two of the resident deans’ e-mail accounts were hosted by a department that did not keep logs of e-mail subject lines, meaning the subject line could not be searched as it was for the other resident deans.

A committee working separately from Keating is discussing recommendations for how Harvard’s privacy policy should be revamped. It is expected to conclude its work later this year.