Harvard Dean
Linked to Pornography

On May 19, 1999 the Boston Globe reported, belatedly, the resignation of the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, an action that apparently took place in November 1998. Originally the reported reason for the resignation was:

"He explained he had been suffering depression for some time and had been trying to deal with it," said William Hutchison, professor of the history of religion in America. "He said that he'd been ordered or strongly advised by his doctor to go on leave, to resign from the deanship and return as a teacher." [1] The reporter had discovered that the real reason for the resignation was the discovery of pornographic material on the Dean's computer that was provided by the University and located in the Dean's home, also provided by Harvard. At the request of the Dean, a school technician had been asked to upgrade the hard disk on the computer and to transfer the data thereon to the new larger hard disk. the methodology used was to upload the data to the schools mainframe computer and then to download it after the new hard disk had been installed. Apparently this transfer was taking an extraordinarily long time. In a later article [2] on the same subject Bandler, the Boston Globe Correspondent reported that he had been informed: Because of the presence of so many image files, the file transfer process took an entire work day, the sources said. When the technician's supervisor inquired why the transfer was taking so long, he did not want to answer, but eventually did, the sources said. Perhaps the reason for the technician's retinence to reply was that he had noted that he had noticed that many of the files had "sexually explicit file names". Later the technician did speak to his superiors and the University President was informed. In a later written statement President Neil L. Rudenstein stated that the technicians were "were unavoidably and involuntarily exposed to inappropriate materials which they found to be not only offensive, but severely distressing." [2] Rudenstein suggested that the Dean resign; in return the Dean was given a year's sabbatical leave and allowed to retain his tenured professorship in the School.

Charles Ogletree, the dean's lawyer, and himself a faculty member in the Harvard Law School stated, not in reference to this particular case but in general, that:

"Any time there is a question of an employer pursuing the private life of employees it raises some large constitutional issues, and the public debate on this is necessarily a vigorous and hotly contested one." [1]

Clearly one of the major questions in this debate is whether the technician acted properly in reporting the find to his superiors or whether he was breaking an implied trust when he was working on the Dean's computer. The Harvard University policy for the use of their computers "bar[s] personal use of university computers outside the school's educational mission and specifically ban the 'introduction' of material that is 'inappropriate, obscene, bigoted or abusive.'" [3] On the other hand Richard Wood, Dean of the Yale University Divinity School opined that "the pornography did not involve children and was not illegal." [3] The Washington Post was reported (by the St. Petersburg Times [4]) to have noted that the Harvard Divinity School Computer Use Policy also included the statement that assumes "that computer users wish the information they store on our shared computing resources to remain confidential".

The New York Times article [3] also interviewed others who expressed a greater concern for the relationship between the academic position of the Dean and pornography than the means by which the relationship was uncovered. A student countered with the opinion that "Even if he is a Divinity School dean or professor, I think that Harvard's action is a little extreme. The kind of moral policing that we're having in our society is really getting out of hand." The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts spokesperson stated that the case "raises questions about the right to privacy and questions about punishing people because they have interests in sexual images".

In a June 24, 1999 article also by James Bandler, researched several similar cases:

"Erik Butler resigned abruptly from his position as the Pine Street Inn's executive director amid allegations that he had stored pornography on his office computer last year.

Twenty-eight employees were disciplined last month at St. Louis-based Edward Jones & Co., a brokerage house, for sending e-mail that contained pornography or offensive jokes. Another 19 were dismissed.

On Tuesday, the chief executive officer of Florsheim Group Inc. was forced to resign amid allegations of lewd behavior that reportedly included viewing pornography in his Chicago office.

Conservative Republican Senator James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, was embarrassed this month when two of his aides had to be disciplined after they downloaded so much pornography onto their office computers that the entire office network crashed." [5]

He then went on to suggest:

"... the presence of the Internet in the workplace raises a host of questions: Are computer technicians being put in the awkward position of becoming workplace cyber-police? Where is the line drawn between one employee's right to privacy and another employee's right to work in a harassment-free workplace?"

Alan Dershowitz, well-known law professor also from Harvard, wrote a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe in which he opined:

"This case presents Harvard with an opportunity to look to the future and to articulate guidelines for the use of Harvard-owned computers in the office and at home. Surely Dean Thiemann would not have been asked to resign if he had been found using his Harvard-owned computer to keep track of his private stamp collection. Nor would he have been asked to leave if a cleaning person had found a copy of a pornographic magazine in the desk drawer of his Harvard-owned residence. What, then, is the principle, and where are the lines to be drawn?" [6]

Earlier Dershowitz had told Bandler that he believed that "... the biggest issue in the Harvard case is why the technicians were not disciplined for disclosing the content of the computer files ... The computer technicians didn't have to look at the content of the files they were transferring. These were snoops. These were Peeping Toms."

Harvard continued to act to rid its computers of "inappropriate materials" when in early July when:

... technicians removed an independently produced Web site from school computers after receiving a complaint that it contained offensive material.

[Apparently] the site was operated by a group known from North Carolina, [and] Harvard had made an unusual agreement recently to host the popular site in order to help distribute software security tools.

But in addition, the PacketStorm's site included graphic sexual images and other material apparently intended to satirize a rival Web site, AntiOnline.com, devoted to software security matters.

According to a letter to Harvard from AntiOnline founder John Vranesvich, the PacketStorm site included 'a large archive of libelous and, to put it bluntly, sick material,' including ' images ranging from people engaged in homosexual activities, to a nun that appears to be covered in seminal fluid.' [This prompted] the university to remove the site from its computers because it violated school policies."[2]

The questions of privacy and appropriate action on the part of the technician remain, though the environment of this case may be somewhat different from "normal" workplace situations. In the second article [2] by Bandler he concluded by quoting an number of industrial experts:

Robert Ellis Smith, the publisher of the Privacy Journal, a Providence publication, who is usually a staunch defender of privacy rights, said he believes it should. He cited the example of a Massachusetts bus driver who was fired after he drove the school bus during off hours to an adult bookstore, emerging with a brown paper bag - a termination that Smith said was appropriate.

"I think it's reasonable for the employer to act to protect the reputation of the organization or the integrity of the job," Smith said.

Another question raised is whether there is something about Internet pornography that makes employers especially uneasy. Are they, for instance, more likely to punish an employee for use of cyber-porn than they would be if a Playboy magazine were found in an office desk?

Eric Krause, a spokesman for Gillette Co., said the company considers the display of any sexually suggestive material in the workplace as a possible form of harassment - be it on the computer, in a magazine, or in a calendar on the office wall.

"What may have been appropriate once in the manufacturing environment is definitely not appropriate now," Krause said. "Those tool calendars may have been up years ago, but if it creates a threatening work environment, it's inappropriate and unacceptable now."

The change in office mores is being driven by several factors, experts say, such as the larger numbers of women in the work force and the fact that most women no longer accept that harrassment must be endured.

The testimony of Anita Hill against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in the early 1990s prompted many companies to develop sexual harassment policies. And the rapid proliferation of computer and Internet technology has forced companies to scramble to develop clear rules regarding Internet use.

Eric Greenberg of the American Management Association said employees should assume that anything on their computer could be viewed by their bosses.

"My own personal advice is, don't be stupid," Greenberg said. "If you're going to call a bookie, don't do it from your office. If you're going to surf for porn don't use your office connection."

There remains one unasked question: "Which was the greater invasion of privacy - the exposition of the contents of the Dean's hard disk by the technician, or the series of articles in the Boston Globe by James Bandler?" The University, a private institution, had handled the problem by giving the Dean the opportunity to resign and thus lose his prestigious position and university supplied housing as punishment, but allowed him to retain his dignity (and tenured faculty positon). Bandler uncovered the covert operation and built a long enduring story that could do little more than embarass the Dean and the University. Or is this a case of the application of the First Amendment?


[1] "Harvard ouster linked to porn; Divinity School dean questioned", by James Bandler, Boston Globe Correspondent, May 19, 1999, Wednesday ,City Edition, METRO/REGION; Pg. B1.
[2] "Harvard defends role in dean's resignation amid porn claims; Review found nothing invasive in staff's actions, president says", by James Bandler, Boston Globe Correspondent and Ross Kerber,Boston Globe Staff, July 3, 1999, Saturday ,City Edition, Pg. B3.
[3] "Pornography Cited in Ouster At Harvard", by FOX BUTTERFIELD, New York Times, May 20, 1999, Thursday, Late Edition - Final, Section A; Page 21.
[4] "Computer porn leads to Harvard dean resigning", Compiled from Times Wires, St. Petersburg Times, May 20, 1999, Thursday, South Pinellas Edition, Pg. 3A.
[5] "Office porn cases raising issues of privacy, protection", by James Bandler, Boston Globe Correspondent, June 24, 1999, Thursday ,City Edition, Pg. A1.
[6] "Harvard dean's ouster raises new privacy issues", Alan Dershowitz, LETTERS TO THE EDITOR, Boston Globe, July 9, 1999, Friday ,City Edition, Pg. A26.


Last updated 99/08/26
© J.A.N. Lee, 1999.