CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard University administrators Monday offered an explanation for secretly searching resident dean emails last fall for the source of a leak to the media about a cheating scandal, saying the searches were done to protect confidential student information.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences deans Michael Smith and Evelynn Hammonds said in a statement posted on the university’s website that after consulting with university lawyers, Harvard conducted a “very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search.”

The email accounts belonged to deans on the Administrative Board, a disciplinary committee addressing the cheating, The Boston Globe and The New York Times reported Sunday, citing school officials. The deans were not warned about the email access.

The secret searches drew criticism from some faculty and staff at Harvard. Monday’s statement said the search was limited to the administrative accounts of the resident deans.

That search found that an email from a disciplinary board had been forwarded from a resident dean to two students. That dean was not identified.

The dean whose account had been identified was asked about the incident and voluntarily reviewed sent items and confirmed having forwarded the message.

The statement said the university determined that the leak was “an inadvertent error and not an intentional breach,” and no further action was taken.