For decades now, email has been the preferred form of communication for individuals in large and small organizations, including colleges and universities. The impact of the use of email on the need for vital primary sources for institutional histories, however, has been little noticed, let alone addressed. And the clock is ticking.
David Skorton, president of Cornell University (where I have taught and served as an administrator for 30 years), receives between 150 and 200 emails each day. He replies to virtually all of them. The volume of email traffic (perhaps 100,000 notes a year per person) is about the same for the provost and many of the vice presidents and deans at Cornell. Like telephone conversations, which are often informal and irreverent, with a mix of the personal and the professional, their emails can be more important – and more candid – than snail mail letters.
It is not entirely clear who owns emails. Lawyers at private colleges and universities claim that all business records and communications, including correspondence conducted on computers, iPads or iPhones purchased and maintained by the employer, are the property of the institution. In many states, email records at public colleges and universities are covered by open records laws, and can become public as a result. Many experts acknowledge, however, that few colleges and universities have policies that explicitly engage this issue with reference to email.
Past practice, moreover, has permitted presidents, provosts and deans (and, for that matter, faculty and staff) to review their own correspondence, be it in the form of hard copy or emails, before deciding what material is personal and what “documents,” if any, should be housed in library archives. It should not be surprising, then, that many college and university officials routinely delete their incoming and outgoing emails, rendering them difficult to recover and doomed to extinction when the computer that houses them is discarded.
Given the volume – and the sometimes sensitive content – of email exchanges, it seems likely that few, if any, academic leaders will have sufficient time or be inclined to conduct a comprehensive review of their “files.” Nor, I suspect, will they choose to allow a third party to make decisions about what items to include or exclude. Absent a formal policy governing this correspondence, which may or may not resemble the preserve everything that has “documentary or evidential value” approach taken by the litigation and freedom of information-conscious federal government and applied to many state employees, it may well be that in the 21st century, the official “papers” of college and university officials will lack vitally important information about decisions made during their tenure.
In my view, boards of trustees should act – with a sense of urgency. They might begin by appointing a task force, composed of professional historians, lawyers, board members, and administrators, to recommend procedures for an independent review of the correspondence of presidents and provosts. Although a mandate that all communications should reside in library archives might have a chilling effect on email exchanges (and boost the telephone bills of academic leaders), it should be considered as well. Equally important, boards of trustees should set aside funds for the review – and for cataloging presidential and provostial papers (having just completed a history of Cornell from 1940 to the present, co-authored with my colleague Isaac Kramnick, I can attest to the massive challenges posed by uncataloged collections, which contain millions of documents).
In addition to making possible more accurate institutional histories, complete and accessible presidential "papers" might well help sitting presidents facing tough decisions, by allowing them to understand what their predecessors considered, said and did in similar situations.
Such an approach will cost a considerable amount of money, but even at a time in which resources are tight, the alternative – a less complete, more sanitized, and impoverished account of the history of colleges and universities – is far too steep a price to pay. Emails are, in a sense, an endangered species: it’s in our interest to design a practical plan to preserve and protect them.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
The University of Southern California and the Scripps Research Institute have abandoned talks about Scripps becoming part of USC, The Los Angeles Times reported. The end of the talks comes amid widespread opposition among Scripps researchers to the merger idea.
States are poised to provide 3.6 percent more in higher education operating support in 2015 than they did in 2014, an informal survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities shows. Of the 49 states that have passed a budget, 43 increased higher education funding for the new fiscal year, while only six cut funding.
On same day U.S. senator released report saying colleges don't take sex assault allegations seriously enough, word leaks that a college is recruiting an athlete who was accused of sexual assault at two other institutions.
This week, in response to concerns expressed by student activists, Washington and Lee University announced changes to the display of Confederate flags on its campus. Northwestern University recently studied the involvement of one of its founders with a massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, while Duke University removed the name of a segregationist politician from a dormitory.
And many Northern and Southern colleges are considering evidence that they benefited from the colonial slave economy, as documented in Craig Steven Wilder's book Ebony and Ivy (2013). Inevitably, the older a college or university, the greater the likelihood it has some history of which it is not proud.
The question for those of us who work on complicit campuses is how to respond to this knowledge. When institutional identity collides with identity politics, the result is a microcosm of our national culture wars: debates over the meaning of contested events and people; questions about apologies and restitution; and demands by some to jettison traditions that others cherish.
What should a modern, multicultural institution do about history and symbols tainted by exclusion or discrimination?
First, we must boldly research and acknowledge the past, and then we need to think hard about how – or whether – our institutional identity should be recast. A principled response may mean changing the stories that we tell about ourselves. It may mean altering or recontextualizing the names, iconography, and traditions of our campus. In short, we owe it to our students to interpret any uncomfortable facts in light of our current values.
Confronted with a history that is contested, troubled, or downright shameful, there is no need for embarrassment. Rather, we should gather as many facts as possible, acting proactively and pursuing this research with rigor and candor. In the words of Brown University’s Slavery and Justice Commission, which explored Brown's ties to the slave trade, “Universities are dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. They are conservators of humanity’s past.... If an institution professing these principles cannot squarely face its own history, it is hard to imagine how any other institution, let alone our nation, might do so.” The fearless embrace of scholarship and analysis is a powerful way of demonstrating institutional ideals.
In undertaking this work, we must be prepared for the possibility of dissent. Brown's review of its connections to slavery attracted the attention of both advocates and opponents of reparations, as well as demonstrations by white supremacists and the Nation of Islam.
But we cannot use the risk of conflict as an excuse to minimize the relevance of such “ancient” history. As Wilder says, this would be to “misunderstand the role that history should be playing in the modern academy. It reflects a sense that there is a problem to be managed rather than a history that has to be embraced and woven into the narrative of the institution. Every act of evasion only empowers those who actually are using the history politically.”
For colleges and universities, the past that we do not explain becomes the arena where others reveal the difficult truths we have avoided or, less constructively, project myths and agendas that contradict our institutional cultures.
Exposing the facts is only the first step. It is not usually the historical record that poses the problem; the hard choices arise in the interpretation of and response to that history.
Debate over the necessity for apologies or restitution is one common area of contention. These are decisions that institutions must make for themselves, but in the context of a contemporary college or university, acknowledgment is usually more important than apology, particularly when historical responsibility is murky or the recipient of the apology is not immediately identifiable.
At Brown, where the university was primarily a beneficiary of slavery rather than a perpetrator, President Ruth Simmons decided against a formal apology but committed the university to "restorative justice" activities, including the establishment of a scholarly center and creation of a traveling exhibit. In contrast, in June 2013, Babson College President Lewis Schlesinger chose to formally apologize to Brandeis University for the anti-Semitic behavior of Babson students at a soccer game in 1978 – an incident that took place within living memory under college auspices.
A second challenge arises from the messages embedded in campus iconography, names, and traditions. We are the present-day custodians of these symbols, and inaction on our part suggests an implicit or even explicit endorsement of such messages. At the very least, controversial symbols must be identified and explained, and in some cases the best response may be to abandon them.
Key factors for consideration are the level of connection between the problematic individual or event and the institution, and the existence of any relevant contractual requirements. Because the offensiveness of a name or tradition may be debated, colleges and universities must clearly explain their decisions to either retain or alter symbols.
At Northwestern, for example, significant honor has been given to the university founder John Evans, whose name appears on the alumni center and several professorships (as well as the town of Evanston, where the university is located). After a thorough review of the factual record, Northwestern’s John Evans Study Committee cleared Evans of direct involvement in an 1864 massacre of Native Americans but deplored his justification of it and noted that the university has benefited from Evans’ positive reputation. The committee recommended that Evans’s name remain in its honorific positions but that Northwestern also increase access for Native American students and enhance the study of Native American cultures.
At Duke University, following a similar review, President Richard H. Brodhead made a different decision, which was to strip the name of a segregationist politician from a campus dormitory. In Duke’s case, the eponymous man had minimal involvement with the university, and in the future the building will contain an explanation of the name change. Both of these differing approaches are appropriate to the circumstances, expressing a commitment to factual transparency while reframing the universities’ institutional narratives and reaffirming their modern values.
The situation currently unfolding at Washington and Lee University illustrates many of these considerations. Student activists demanded an apology for the university’s participation in slavery and a denunciation of Robert E. Lee’s participation; the removal of Confederate flags from the campus chapel; and an end to allowing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an unaffiliated group, to hold an annual program on campus.
In his response this week, President Kenneth P. Ruscio announced plans to modify the display of Confederate flags and provide more historical and educational context designed to clarify their ambiguous message. While acknowledging the complexity of Lee’s legacy, Ruscio chose not to apologize for Lee’s actions prior to his affiliation with the university.
I agree that an apology is unnecessary. Far more meaningful will be a thorough airing of Washington and Lee’s institutional ties to slavery, which Ruscio has already launched. I question the wisdom of allowing outside groups to use the campus to promote their own interpretive agendas, but thoughtful disagreement about such complex topics is to be expected.
Washington and Lee cannot change its history, but it is doing the hard work of engaging with its past to shape its current and future culture. All colleges and universities must be prepared to do the same. As the historian Wilder states, “We can’t evade the consequences of the past or shift the responsibility of research to others. This is something we have to wrestle with.”
Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.
A key federal job-training bill has been updated for the first time in more than a decade. The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which governs more than $3 billion in programs, many of them aimed at community colleges. The bill, which the U.S. Senate passed last month, has drawn praise from higher education leaders. It should eliminate red tape and redundancy, they said, while also creating standardized performance metrics and emphasizing better links between K-12, higher education and employers. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation, which has been hailed as a rare bipartisan compromise.
Spelman College on Wednesday announced that Beverly Daniel Tatum, president since 2002, will retire in June. The announcement came the same day the college announced that it has completed a 10-year fund-raising campaign that brought in $157.8 million. The campaign has tripled the available scholarships for Spelman students and supported significant enhancements to faculty research and facilities as well. Tatum is well-known as a scholar of race relations among young people, and she has continued to write about and speak about that issue during her presidency. Given Spelman's many roles, Tatum has also been an advocate for historically black colleges, women's colleges and liberal arts colleges. In 2012, Tatum announced that Spelman would eliminate intercollegiate athletics and instead focus on promoting wellness and fitness among its students.
Here is a Q&A interview with Tatum on the numerous racial incidents and tensions on campuses nationwide in fall 2013. And here is an essay she wrote on racial incidents after the 2008 election of President Obama.
Faculty members at the Scripps Research Institute, a free-standing research institution in California and Florida, are organizing to oppose a possible merger with the University of Southern California, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The scholars are criticizing both the idea of a merger and what they say was a lack of input in developing the plans, which have not been finalized. Administrators at Scripps did not respond to requests for comment.