Private Communications

Okay, I’m in the middle of reading today’s Chronicle Careers column, and have just hit a paragraph (or two) that has me positively gobsmacked. The column is about ostensible faculty misuse of campus computing resources, and begins with a fairly reasonable anecdote about a faculty member being denied the ability to distribute news about an anti-war rally via an official campus announcements listserv, because policy clearly stated that the listserv was for official business only. Fair enough: as I can note from my own institution, anti-war rallies lead to puppies that need adoption and furniture for sale, and if your institution is big enough, that kind of thing would be fairly insupportable. But then there’s this:

Broader ethical principles are at play as well. For example, while it is generally considered unethical to use university e-mail accounts to engage in personal communication, most institutions are tolerant when it comes to minor personal usage, such as inviting friends to lunch or cocktails.

But institutions frown on extensive personal use, such as carrying on lengthy private exchanges or selling personal property on eBay, not to mention engaging in day trading or political advocacy. Those are all abuses to one degree or another.

I’m sorry; am I understanding that correctly? It’s considered unethical for me to use my campus email account to engage in non-official-business-related dialogue with my friend across the country, or across the hall, and my institution is merely being “tolerant” of such violations?

I suppose I understand the latter concerns, though frankly, as long as they’re not taking up work time or extensive network resources, I’m not sure I see the harm there, either. But I’m absolutely stunned by the general-principle separation of the official from the personal that the author seems to advocate here. Granted, these days, with free full-service email accounts to be had all over the place, it’s little hardship for an academic computing user to have a second personal account. But most of us in the profession came of computer-using age during the period when the only access that most of us could get — and certainly the only access worth anything — was through our institutions. Of course we use our email accounts for personal purposes; they’re our accounts.

I take the author’s overall point,* that maintaining a non-university email account can help faculty avoid any unwarranted investigations into one’s personal communications, but to intimate that the use of such an account for things other than official business is unethical seems to me a bit over the top, and more than a little impossible to support. No academic life is so clearly separable, it seems to me — work over here, personal stuff over there. God knows what he’d say about my using my work computer to write blog posts…

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*On the email question, that is; the column later goes on to insist that any attempt to install non-officially-sanctioned software on your university-provided computer is also a misuse of campus resources. The lunacy of this claim — particularly for Mac users — is not even worth exploring.

6 thoughts on “Private Communications

  1. To me, this smacks of a corporate consultant drafting a policy in pursuit of minimizing legal liability. Most major corporations have absurd policies like this in place (no personal “web surfing”!), but they are almost impossible to enforce. I googled Gary A Olson expecting him to be 98 years old and hopelessly out of touch, but instead he appears to be about 58 years old and hopelessly out of touch. What is his ethical stance on IMAP and secure shell proxies?

  2. Tres corporate, indeed.

    One wonders if he feels the same way about student emails too — that they may only use it to email professors, and other students about group work.

    I’m thinking that Gary A. Olson was a very late adopter…

  3. This article makes me first off very glad to be teaching at a private institution (no annual online ethics tests required!).

    I use my college-provided laptop & email address for virtually everything. Perhaps this is more justified as a media scholar, as commenting on a blog, watching YouTube clips, playing an MMO, or messing with Facebook all might become fodder for my teaching & research. But I think of the laptop/email account/software/server space/etc. along the lines of a company car (which I’m not saying we faculty do or should get!): your employer provides a tool that will be directly used in your work, but it’s also a perk of employment. You’re liable if you use it illegally, but you’re not beholden to compartmentalize your uses into work/non-work purposes.

  4. Of course we’re all right and this Olson guy is a weirdo.

    But you know what I sometimes wonder? I wonder whether maybe when I use my campus laptop and email account to message people saying any offensive thing that comes into my head — which I do every single day — is my Dean reading it?

  5. I had half a mind to respond to you by posing as the dean and leaving a message saying “I’m not.” But my own paranoia made me not do so. Pity.

  6. I thought this article was pretty asinine, too, although I’ll confess that I stopped using my previous job’s e-mail for anything but school stuff because I did become convinced that the institution monitored what went back and forth on its network.

    But mostly I agree about the not installing your own software on your campus computer. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

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