For some time now, I’ve been meaning to write something about the Harvard email controversy because I think it teaches us something important about how we think about academic labor. First, a brief recap:
Last summer…Harvard was hit with scandal: “College officials [said] around 125 students may have shared answers and plagiarized on a final exam.”
Word about the scandal got to the news media in part thanks to a leaked email.
Here is what Harvard said happened next:
Consequently… a very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search was conducted by the University’s IT Department. It was limited to the Administrative accounts for the Resident Deans… The search did not involve a review of email content; it was limited to a search of the subject line of the email that had been inappropriately forwarded.
Later, the dean of Harvard College, Evelynn M. Hammonds stepped-down from that position after admitting “that she had ordered another search, without consulting Dr. Smith [dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences], that also looked for specific e-mail recipients.” (Thus going beyond the narrow search of subject-lines that Harvard had admitted to.)
The reason I find this story so fascinating is that most workers in the US have absolutely no expectation of privacy at work:
On pain of being fired, workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to pee or forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they want, say what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things—punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). But what’s remarkable is just how many of these punishments are legal, and even when they’re illegal, how toothless the law can be.
And that’s just at work. Employees don’t have any more right to privacy at home:
In addition to abridging freedoms on the job, employers abridge their employees’ freedoms off the job. Employers invade employees’ privacy, demanding that they hand over passwords to their Facebook accounts, and fire them for resisting such invasions. Employers secretly film their employees at home. Workers are fired for supporting the wrong political candidates … carrying on extramarital affairs, participating in group sex at home, cross-dressing, and more. Workers are punished for smoking or drinking in the privacy of their own homes. (How many nanny states have tried that?) They can be fired for merely thinking about having an abortion, for reporting information that might have averted the Challenger disaster, for being raped by an estranged husband. Again, this is all legal in many states, and in the states where it is illegal, the laws are often weak.
The Harvard story is that it is only a controversy because it was “faculty” who were subject to these privacy violations. If it had just been “employees” it is likely there would never have been an apology and nobody would have had to step down. Harvard’s employee email policy “plainly gives Harvard complete access to the email of employees.” It even seems that “one faculty member pointed out that administrators should be considered staff” in order to justify the searches.
It seems to me that defending the unique privileges of faculty members to an expectation of privacy is exactly the wrong way to go about responding to such an intrusion. Instead of trying to carve out a unique set of privileges for an increasingly small portion of educational workers, we need to carve out more rights for all university workers.* Even administrators.
- Well, all workers, but you got to start somewhere…