Last month, Harvard University thought it had put its cheating scandal behind it with the forcing out of dozens of students who had been accused of cheating in a Government class. It turns out that the embarrassment for the university was not over. Last week, Harvard was rocked by a new scandal in which it was widely reported that the university had searched the emails of Resident Deans in an effort to find who leaked the cheating story to the press. Apparently, according to Harvard's own procedures, faculty must first be informed if their emails are to be read. In fact these Resident Deans (who have a different employment status than tenured and tenure-track faculty, but do teach classes) were not notified their emails had been searched until the Boston Globe told them about it last week, almost six months after their accounts were searched.
The university officials are now on the defensive, offering a "partial apology", and taking pains to point out they only searched the work and not private emails of 16 Resident Deans, and that they only scanned for keywords and did not read all the emails. Meanwhile, various news outlets have reported the outrage of the faculty members over this incident. At both universities I have worked for, I don't believe the university handbook or any other policies are clear about if and when the university can search and read your email. Maybe employment lawyers can enlighten on this topic.
It seems that this an area that should have, but does not have clear rules governing, espeically at universities, which are supposed to be about the free exchange of ideas. The culture of each university varies widely, which may explain the shock by the Harvard faculty, but I've always operated under the assumption that if you are not going to feel comfortable writing it on the back of a postcard, you probably should not put it in your work email.