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.
Intellectuals in Italy are objecting to a plan of a hotel developer to use property that includes the one-time home of Antonio Gramsci to build an upscale hotel that would be named for him, The Guardian reported. The intellectuals believe that it would be an insult to the name and work of Gramsci, a Marxist thinker who was known for the idea of cultural hegemony, to use his name in such a commercial way.
In a letter to the mayor of Turin, the academics and others write: "It is always a cause of pain when a place that safeguards a part of our history becomes the container of something else that is trivial rather than a space in which the collective memory is cultivated. But this time the pain is atrocious because the trivialization is directly hitting one of our fathers, a man who wrote pages which still speak to us today, a martyr who paid for the freedom of his ideas with his life."
In today's Academic Minute, Jodie Plumert, professor and chair of psychology at the University of Iowa, discusses an experiment designed to help us understand how safety and danger are perceived. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Ersula Ore, an Arizona State University faculty member, pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of resisting arrest, but several other charges against her were dropped, The Arizona Republic reported. Ore, a black woman, said that she was stopped and treated harshly by a police officer when she jaywalked, even though others had been doing the same. She and her supporters said that she was a victim of racial profiling. Ore's lawyer said that she was comfortable admitting to resisting arrest, because that was true -- even if the arrest itself was inappropriate.
Arizona Critical Ethnic Studies, one of the groups that has been backing Ore, issued this statement: "What transpired was a tragedy, which no one should have had to endure from simply walking on a street. We continue to believe that this incident should never have happened in the first place, and that it is emblematic of the need for a comprehensive review to ensure that university safety policies protect and remain accountable to the rights and dignity of all members of the community. We urge the public to keep watch and the FBI to thoroughly investigate the incident, as we await ASU’s official response to our call for an audit of their police force and a plan for community accountability."
One in five women and one in five black Ph.D. recipients in science, technology, engineering or math leave those fields for careers outside STEM, according to a new report from the American Institutes for Research. That's compared to one in six STEM Ph.D.s over all who leave the sciences for other careers. Women of all races are also significantly less likely to report research and development as a primary work activity. Lori Turk-Bicakci, lead author, said such "brain drain" restricts the potential advantages gained from diverse perspectives in STEM. Data was drawn from the National Science Foundation's longitudinal Survey of Doctorate Recipients; most of those surveyed have had their degrees for 10 years or more. The report says that 40 percent of those who leave STEM work in the private, for-profit sector. The report doesn't specify how many Ph.D. recipients working in academe in particular left the STEM fields.
In today's Academic Minute, Denise Dearing, a professor of biology at the University of Utah, explains her research on pikas -- rabbit-like mammals -- as a way to study the impact of climate change. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
In the Ivory Tower, labor organizing is no easy task. Teaching assistants, who have recently unionized at New York University and the University of Connecticut, don’t have factory floors where collective bonds can be readily formed. We’re scattered throughout classrooms spread over vast campuses, each grading for different professors and advisers, with different and often incommensurable working conditions. We don’t stand before an assembly line with parts of metal and plastic – we work face-to-face with students, who are sometimes apathetic and bemused by our decision to prolong our schooling, but sometimes enthusiastic and insightful enough to remind us why we thought a life of teaching and research could be worthwhile.
When I started graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I proudly signed a union card the first day of orientation. The unprecedented contractagreement reached this year between the University of California and my union, United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents graduate teaching assistants at all UC campuses, reflects our strategy for dealing with these challenges.
Since teaching assistants are also students, we have to insist on our work being taken seriously as work, not just a step on the way to a future career. In order to win higher wages, our union wrote a report (“Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Mismanagement and the Decline of UC Education”) demonstrating that the viability of the university depends on whether it provides livable conditions for its student-workers. Over half of our most qualified applicants currently choose to attend other institutions, which offer better compensation. We were only able to settle our contract when the UC – after a long, drawn-out struggle – agreed to close a third of this gap between pay at our university and other institutions.
What’s more, many graduate students are supporting families, and enticing as the prospect of a future tenure-track income may be, it doesn’t put dinner on the table tonight. So our new contract also includes increased child-care subsidies, as well as expanded parental leaves and guaranteed access to workplace lactation stations.
We think that we were able to win these demands because we responded to the specificity of our workplace, and expanded the boundaries of union activity. In this contract campaign, expanding the boundaries meant raising three issues alongside wages, and refusing to allow management to dismiss them: class sizes, opportunities for undocumented students, and rights for transgender students.
For teaching assistants, working conditions are a question of quality of education for undergraduates. Class sizes are perhaps the clearest point at which these two interests intersect: every additional paper we have to grade means less time to sit with students in our offices and less time grading the papers of other students. Every extra seat filled in our discussion sections means a reduced opportunity for quieter students to speak up – and they’re usually the ones who will benefit the most from asking questions. The impact that class size has on our workload is mirrored by its impact on the ability of the institution to serve its constituents. Unless educators like us play a role in determining what class size is appropriate, students will be left to flounder instead of thrive.
We’ve also tried to show that universities are one of the places where civil rights issues can be seen as labor issues. One of our most pressing concerns is the availability of funding for students who are undocumented immigrants. About 500 graduate students at the UC are undocumented, and face incredible challenges to completing their degrees. Without the opportunity to work as teaching assistants, undocumented students lead precarious lives, and they’re unable to gain the teaching experience they need to build their careers.
Another issue has been discrimination in the most personal of settings. Once upon a time, when women began to enter male-dominated academic departments, it wasn’t uncommon for them to discover that there were no bathrooms for them in their buildings. We realized that while our society is coming to recognize that transgender people need the safety of gender-neutral bathrooms – indeed, Governor Jerry Brown signed a California law dictating that public schools should provide these facilities last summer – this issue needs to be addressed in labor contracts, since it bears directly on conditions for trans workers.
The contract we’ve agreed on breaks new ground on each of these issues. After months of insisting that TA-to-student ratios were not a “mandatory subject of bargaining,” the UC has agreed to form joint labor-management workload committees in which class sizes can be discussed. The UC has also agreed to form an "instructional opportunities" committee, which will be directed toward providing equal academic and professional opportunities for undocumented students. Finally, we’ve successfully bargained for language in our contract that guarantees access to gender-neutral bathrooms as a “right,” setting a precedent for us to directly address other anti-discrimination demands in the future.
As graduate students, undergraduates, adjuncts, and others grapple with increasingly precarious conditions, unions will become a major force in shaping the future of the university. This is not always clearly understood; successfully waging our contract campaign required us, at times, to go on strike against unfair labor practices that interfered with our ability to bargain. Armed with the UC precedent, frustrated graduate students across the country can think creatively about how to meet their needs as educators. Instead of arguing about ballooning class sizes at interminable department meetings, they might take their demands to the picket line.
Asad Haider is Ph.D. student in history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a member of the Executive Board of UAW 2865.