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Harvard Governance 101: Scrutiny Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Now that we’re in Year 5 of the Obama iteration of the national surveillance state, it’s clear that it operates along some very clear and simple guidelines. To begin with, any leaker of information deemed hostile to the state’s interests is in for a prolonged smear campaign. If the miscreant is Edward Snowden, for instance, the full meritocratic moral authority of Washington’s courtier press will be enlisted to pointlessly deride the leaker as a narcissist, a college dropout, a bad boyfriend–and of course, an abettor of the shadowy forces of besieging global terror.

If we’re talking about Army leaker Bradley Manning, the script shifts a little in its particulars, but carries much the same ugly McCarthyite stench: The state’s mortal foe is an unhappy homosexual, a delusional seeker after glory, and a Julian Assange fanboy, who “pulled as much information as possible to please” the Wikileaks impresario.

But what happens when the guardians of our elite consensus are caught in the act of hounding and improperly surveilling the individuals who complicate their lives? This is the burning question at the bottom of MIT’s much-publicized–and now unconscionably delayed–inquiry into the institution’s role in the draconian prosecution of JSTOR hacker Aaron Swartz that wound up leading to the young man’s suicide. (Swartz was a friend of the Baffler, let the record show.)

Still, we need not await the outcome of this glacial proceeding to get a glimpse of how benignly the lords of our elite institutions regard the unauthorized access of information when they themselves are the ones doing the accessing. For the latest instructive case study, traipse with us to that other leafy Cambridge preserve of the higher learning in America, good old Harvard.

The Harvard case stems from the university’s draconian handling of its widely reported 2012 “cheating scandal.” In that case, which reportedly involved an intro government class, about 70 students were bounced out on a “leave of absence,” and are the subject of an ongoing investigation by the school’s Administrative Board on grounds that they shared notes for an exam. The particulars of that case need not detain us–save to note that the course’s professor, like many Harvard teachers, stressed that he expected students to work collaboratively, and would conduct exams on an open-book basis.

What’s of real interest here is how Harvard higher-ups reacted when they saw unwelcome details of the scandal starting to surface in the school’s student newspaper, The Crimson. Like bungling paranoid bureaucrats everywhere, the administrators of Harvard started to monitor the email accounts of suspected faculty leakers, in violation of just about every basic precept of academic freedom that our elite universities routinely champion in press releases and other cost-free public forums.

And when word of that thuggish behavior became public, why, Harvard did what any prim source of moral authority in the great American meritocracy would do: It announced that it would commission an investigation of its own conduct in the whole petty and ugly episode. And guess what? The Harvard spies meant well, everyone! That is to say, per the New York Times, a report on the incident by Michael B. Keating, an attorney with the Boston firm of Foley Hoag, “concluded that administrators who searched some faculty members’ emails did so in good faith, and it found no evidence that they had actually read any emails.”

But this confident, sweeping assertion comports strangely with some details mentioned later in the Times piece. After learning that the leaks may have come from one or another resident dean, Harvard’s crew of academic G-men swung into action:

The administrators ordered a search of the 17 resident deans’ official accounts to see if they had forwarded an e-mail about the cheating investigation to students. After finding that one resident dean had sent the e-mail to two students who were accused, the administrators then searched that resident dean’s personal account as well, looking for signs of communication with journalists. The resident dean was questioned but not punished.

So if the administrators were not, in fact, actually reading the e-mails that spurred their inquiries, how were they to know that the suspicious email-forwarding resident dean was communicating with journalists? If they were simply going by the names of recipients in the poor proctor’s Sent roster, how would, say, a Boston Globe billing query be distinguished from a compromising exchange with an investigative reporter on the Harvard beat? And where did they get off digging around in a personal email account that cannot in any be construed to be Harvard property?

Nothing to worry about, Mr. Keating’s review of the matter assures us. Even though one Harvard policy not only spells out that faculty and employees should be granted a reasonable expectation of privacy in the emailing lives, but also that anyone who’s a subject of a search by the Harvard administration has to be notified of the planned search in advance, well, that wasn’t the policy that these particular Inspector-Javerts-in-crimson were following. “Mr Keating’s report said that the officials who approved the searches did not appear to be aware of that policy, but went by a separate policy that did not have that requirement.”

Translation: There’s always one set of rules for the targets of inquiries conducted by the powerful, and another set of rules for the supervisors of said inquiries. Really, what better introduction to the principles of government could the Harvard community hope for?