A New York Times reporter called me last night to ask my opinion on the email scandal at Harvard; I was flying to Los Angeles, so hadn’t yet read the Globe piece exposing the fact that Dean Michael Smith ordered a secret search of the email accounts of 16 residential deans.

Harvard University central administrators secretly searched the e-mail accounts of 16 resident deans last fall, looking for a leak to the media about the school’s sprawling cheating case, according to several Harvard officials interviewed by the Globe.

The move could have been acceptable under a certain interpretation of Harvard policy, but Smith’s office did not follow the terms of that policy; for instance, it did not inform 15 of the 16 deans that their email had been searched.

Naturally, when the Globe started asking questions, a Harvard press secretary (one of the hordes of Harvard press secretaries) was forced to take the fall for Smith, who himself lacked the cojones to talk to reporters.

This is, I think, one of the lowest points in Harvard’s recent history—maybe Harvard’s history, period. It’s an invasion of privacy, a betrayal of trust, and a violation of the academic values for which the university should be advocating. And all to try to hunt down the source of a leak on a story about which the university should have been forthcoming in the first place (but of course wasn’t).

You might expect this from the Nixon White House, but you shouldn’t expect it from Harvard.

That may be changing.

Tim McCarthy wrote this on Facebook, and I think he’s quite right:

To think that the powers that be–who are so often detached from and seemingly disinterested in the lives of students here–would search the emails of those who care most about students, who tend to them on a daily basis, simply to preserve their pristine image in the media–this makes me sick to my stomach. “Veritas” means “truth,” right?

McCarthy also makes the point that this spying is worse than the original cheating scandal, and I think that that is also correct. Perhaps Dean Smith never heard the old Washington adage, “The cover-up is worse than the crime.” That, too, came out of the Nixon White House.

Smith owes the university, at the very least, an apology. But I don’t think a resignation should be off the table.