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Harvard Dean Evelynn Hammonds resigns amid email search controversy

Hammonds says controversy was not a motivating factor in her decision

Howard Manly

Evelynn M. Hammonds, the embattled Dean of Harvard College, announced her resignation last week, effective July 1, after her admission that she conducted unauthorized searches of faculty email accounts.

The resignation marked a controversial end to Harvard’s first African American and first woman to serve as Dean of College at the prestigious Ivy League institution. She served for five years.

“I was never asked to step down. I have been in discussions to return to academia and my research for some time,” Hammonds stated in published reports. “The e-mail controversy was difficult, but it was not a motivating factor in my decision to step down as dean.”

First reported by the Boston Globe, the email searches ordered by Hammonds were in the wake of last year’s cheating scandal involving the open-book, take-home exam of about 125 students in the upper-level government class, “Introduction to Congress,” taught by professor Matthew B. Platt.

Of those students, only two names were published in newspaper accounts and Hammonds sought to find out who released those names. The first search involved the electronic mail accounts of 16 resident deans and had been limited to subject lines of only one of their two email accounts.

But at a faculty meeting in April, Hammonds admitted that an additional search was conducted on both accounts of one resident that went beyond a simple subject-line search.

The student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, immediately called for her resignation.

“Since Hammonds provided misinformation regarding the highly sensitive issue of email searches,” The Harvard Crimson editorial stated, “and since she violated clear policy regarding those searches, her presence at the helm of the College stands as a roadblock to rebuilding trust between students, faculty, and the administration. For the good of the University, Hammonds must resign.”

“I was never asked to step down. I have been in discussions to return to academia and my research for some time. The e-mail controversy was difficult, but it was not a motivating factor in my decision to step down as dean.”

— Evelynn Hammonds

As it is now, an email search of faculty accounts requires the approval of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean and the University Office of the General Counsel. FAS Dean Michael D. Smith has said that he was not made aware of the second search until after it had been launched.

“It was a clear invasion of privacy,” Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson said at the time. “It was a serious breach of trust, and those responsible for such actions, especially if there was untruthfulness involved, then they should do the right thing and resign.”

The privacy policy states that administration can search faculty members’ electronic records “in extraordinary circumstances such as legal proceedings and internal Harvard investigations.”

Such searches require the notification of the faculty member “unless circumstances make prior notification impossible, in which case the faculty member will be notified at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Harvard President Drew Faust said that a new faculty task force had been formed to develop recommendations for a new email policy by the end of the Fall 2013 term.

In announcing Hammonds was stepping down last week, Faust praised her for leading the school through years of “remarkable transformation.”

“She has fully invested herself in improving the experience of our undergraduates both inside and outside the classroom, and in promoting a culture of inclusion and community across the College,” Faust said in a statement. “I’m grateful to her for all she has done to help our undergraduates thrive, and we will be fortunate to continue benefiting from her talents and wisdom.”

Hammonds will leave her post July 1 and return to teaching after a sabbatical. Hammonds said in a statement that she is looking forward to redesigning her classes in light of new technological innovations. She is a professor of the history of science and African and African American studies.

Her new program at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard will look at the role of race in science and medicine.

“Being dean of Harvard College has been an immensely rewarding experience for me, but I miss engaging deeply with my scholarship and teaching,” she said in the statement. “I am looking forward to redesigning my classes in light of new technologies and modes of teaching, and I’m eager to return to my teaching and research on race, genomics and gender in science and medicine.”