Harvard ouster linked to porn
Divinity School dean questioned
By James Bandler, Globe Correspondent, 05/19/99
The dean of Harvard Divinity School was forced to resign last fall
after thousands of pornographic images were found on his
Harvard-owned personal computer, university sources said this week.
Harvard asked for Ronald F. Thiemann's resignation shortly after the
matter was brought to the attention of president Neil L. Rudenstine.
He was asked to resign his position ''for conduct unbecoming a
dean,'' the sources said.
''Last fall, information was brought to President Rudenstine's
attention bearing on Dean Thiemann's continued capacity to serve as
dean,'' said Joe Wrinn, a university spokesman. ''President
Rudenstine met immediately with Dean Thiemann. They agreed that it
would be in the best interests of the Divinity School for the dean to
At the time of his resignation, Thiemann did not publicly disclose
the specific reasons for his sudden departure. Thiemann, who has
taken a year sabbatical, remains a tenured faculty member.
''Based on what we knew, the university did not initiate tenure
revocation proceedings,'' Wrinn said, adding that Harvard would have
no further comment on the matter, which he described as a
confidential personnel issue.
Thiemann's lawyer, Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law
School, said Thiemann would not respond to ''anonymous allegations,''
but would issue a statement later in the week.
''The measure of a man like Ron Thiemann cannot be determined in
response to allegations such as these but in the context of the
admiration and respect he has gained from colleagues at the
university, in the theological community and the secular community,''
Ogletree said the decision of Thiemann to step down was a ''mutually
agreed upon decision and there were a number of factors beyond those
alleged that influenced his decision.''
While not speaking about this particular case, Ogletree added: ''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.''
The pornographic material was found last fall on Thiemann's office
computer at his Harvard-owned residence at Jewett House. The
discovery was made after Thiemann requested more disk space for one
of his Harvard-owned machines, which was full, according to
university sources. Thiemann was caught after he asked the computer
department to transfer the pornographic files to the new disk drive,
Individuals familiar with the proceedings described the material as
explicit pornography, but said they believed the incident did not
involve child pornography or other illegal activity.
Nevertheless, the discovery ended Thiemann's nearly 13-year deanship
at the Divinity School.
By the accounts of most colleagues, Thiemann's tenure was
extraordinarily productive, marked by the acquisition of a slew of
world class scholars and a successful capital campaign for the
Divinity School. One of Thiemann's most recent accomplishments,
faculty members say, was the creation of the Divinity School's Center
for the Study of Values in Public Life, which is designed to engage
discussion of values in fields such as law, journalism, business, and
Thiemann's colleagues said they worried about the effect that the
scandal would have on the Divinity School's reputation. ''There's the
potential for tremendous damage to the school,'' said a source at
Harvard. ''If this were a business school dean, people might say,
`Big deal.' But take a look at what this guy's area of research is:
It's values. That makes it all the more shocking.''
Last fall, Thiemann surprised faculty when he announced at a special
meeting that he was stepping down as dean. ''I had the impression a
few days before that he was not himself,'' said a faculty member who
At the meeting, Thiemann told the faculty that he was resigning
because of medical problems, according to faculty members.
''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.''
Rumors about the reasons for Thiemann's departure have been swirling
for months at the Divinity School, where there is debate about the
boundary lines between public and private conduct.
''I think the issue is one of privacy,'' said a Harvard Divinity
School graduate who asked to remain anonymous. ''Is the dean's
computer in his home his own? Or because his home and computer are
owned by Harvard, is his whole life owned by the Divinity School?''
Others questioned whether the use of pornography on Harvard-owned
equipment constituted a grave enough offense to justify the forced
resignation of a dean.
''Even if these allegations concerning pornography were true - and I
have no knowledge that they are - I question whether someone would be
dismissed on those grounds,'' said Hutchison.
He added: ''I guess it would depend on the details. As you know,
that's where the devil is.''
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 05/19/99.