The resident deans are on the university's Administrative Board, the committee responsible for handling the cheating case, The Boston Globe reported.
Administrators said only one of the deans' two Harvard email accounts was searched, and the people looking through the accounts were directed to look only for a specific forwarded message and to not read the content of any emails.
The email in question was sent by the head of the Administrative Board, Jay Ellison, on Aug. 16, and mostly advised resident deans on counseling students involved in the cheating case. It also contains a passage in which Ellison noted that student-athletes might consider taking voluntary leaves of absence in order to preserve NCAA eligibility if found guilty.
The email brought criticism toward Harvard after two of the school's basketball players withdrew from the university.
One of the resident deans was informed of the search after administrators found that he forwarded the confidential Administrative Board message to a student he was advising. That email ultimately made it into the Harvard Crimson and the Globe. No administrative action was taken against the dean.
The other 15 deans did not find out about the university's search until Thursday -- six months after the search happened -- when they were approached by the Globe about the incident. The university formally informed the deans Friday.
The issue has stirred controversy over the deans' privacy.
Resident deans are not covered by the university's a Faculty of Arts and Sciences policy, which protects Harvard faculty's privacy in electronic records, because although they teach, they are not considered faculty.
"If reading the deans' email is really OK by the book, why didn't they just ask the deans who leaked the memo, threatening to read their email if no one came forward?" said Harry Lewis, a computer scientist and former dean of the college. "Why not tell them what was being done if it was really an OK thing to do?"
Meanwhile, the university was involved in a mass cheating scandal; 125 Harvard students were suspected of cheating on a take-home final exam for an introductory government class. Seventy of the students were reprimanded for the incident.