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Education

Howard Gardner: As a member of the Harvard community for over 50 years, I believed that my communications were private. On the one occasion when I doubted that this was the case, I was assured by the responsible person that email accounts were sacrosanct. Now, of course, such assurances seem hollow. In this photo, students walk into Kirkland House on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Wednesday, May 16, 2012. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Over the weekend, The Boston Globe broke a story about how, in the wake of a cheating scandal at Harvard College, email accounts of resident deans were surreptitiously opened by the central administration. A dean had, without permission, forwarded an apparently innocuous email to one or two student athletes, and that email was leaked to the Harvard Crimson. On the surface, a small event — a single email passed on from dean to student. Yet in this seemingly isolated incident lurk important issues about what it means to be an educational community and, more broadly, about the way in which American colleges and universities are likely to be regarded in the future.

It’s no secret that institutions of higher learning feel beleaguered. While they are admired and emulated in much of the world, many question their value here in the U.S. The huge annual fees for post-secondary education, the rise of MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses), and the hyper-professional orientation of students (will this degree get me a job?) threaten the traditional focus on the disciplines of liberal arts and sciences, and the one-time appeal of a broad general education.

If one account can be broken into, what about other accounts? If one episode sanctions such a break-in, which other episodes might be adequate grounds?

What’s more, the residential life at the heart of post-secondary education is increasingly seen as a mixed blessing. If residential education leads to more opportunities for learning, contact across generations and among racial and ethnic groups, and valuable extra-curricular activities, that’s fine. But as we have had occasion to learn in this year, residential education on college campuses can also enable widespread cheating, rape and other forms of sexual harassment, binge drinking, and racial and ethnic bullying. The value of this expensive, privileged form of education is certainly thrown into doubt.

Both the scholarly and the residential facets of higher education presuppose the existence of a community, indeed a moral community. The general public has valued higher education because it gives the young people — our future leading citizens — the invaluable chance to spend four years in a very special setting. At the same time, faculty are given privileges — ranging from tenure to academic freedom — with the assumption that they will contribute to the life of the college community and perhaps as well to the broader society.

Enter the most recent episode at Harvard. Whatever the motivations of the resident dean who passed on the email, the individual who leaked it to the press, and the administrator(s) who sanctioned the examination of email accounts without getting permission, a sacred bond of trust has been broken. If one account can be broken into, what about other accounts? If one episode sanctions such a break-in, which other episodes might be adequate grounds? And if email can be examined, then what other files and mail are available for surveillance?

At corporations and at public universities, this question has already been answered. If you are an employee of a company or a state (or another jurisdiction), you know that anything sent over your account is privy to investigation. And you are well advised to avoid writing anything sensitive.

But the thousands of private secondary and tertiary educational institutions in America should operate on the basis of trust among members of the community. Absent the investigation of crimes, surveillance should not be permitted and even in the case of suspected criminal behavior, the suspect should be alerted.

Rebuilding such trust inside is essential; and only if it is rebuilt, do we have any right to expect that the wider public will embrace and support these institutions as well.

It takes a long period of time to build a feeling of trust. At institutions like Harvard, such trust had been established and as a member of that community for over 50 years, I believed that my communications were private. On the one occasion when I doubted that this was the case, I was assured by the responsible person that email accounts were sacrosanct. Now, of course, such assurances seem hollow; and at least one longtime faculty member, Professor Harry Lewis has said that from now he will use his university account strictly for business transactions.

The email incident raises broader questions about the university as a moral community.

Those of us who are privileged to belong to such a community have special responsibilities — to set ethical examples, to think hard about actions and their consequences, to learn from missteps and to apologize and atone when we have not respected the stated and the implied norms of the community.

I cherish American higher education. It has been my life. Despite many criticisms, I have praised the calling of scholarship to young people and to friends and acquaintances around the world. The external threats to the university are real and — like journalists living a new digital era — we need to deal with these as best we can. But only those of us within the community can counter the internal threats.

Some months ago I talked about the “four acts” of the Harvard cheating episode. Embracing the dramaturgical metaphor, I questioned whether act four would be a tragedy (with the university failing to learn from the episode and therefore likely repeat it) or a comedy (with a bright new page being turned). I thought the principal actors would be students and faculty, but I now realize that the role of senior administration is crucial.

Administrators at Harvard and elsewhere must give their solemn assurance to the rest of the community that their privacy will be respected. Rebuilding such trust inside is essential; and only if it is rebuilt, do we have any right to expect that the wider public will embrace and support these institutions as well.

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The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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