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The faculty union at Rutgers University on Friday escalated its criticism of how the university is handling faculty members’ communication, urging its members to opt of the university’s new email system or risk compromising their academic freedom.
The dispute, which has been going on since Rutgers in August rewrote its policy concerning the acceptable use of IT resources, highlights the tensions between administrators and faculty members that sometimes arise when universities push for technological updates. While the administration has billed the move to a new email system as a way to consolidate old systems and improve collaboration across departments and schools, the union, which is affiliated with both the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, views it as a way to force faculty members to use one email provider and potentially allow the administration to monitor their communication.
While the old acceptable-use policy stipulated that employees only needed to use the official university email for sensitive personal information such as grades, patient details and Social Security numbers, the new policy expands the scope to include all “university business.” That term is not defined.
Additionally, the policy grants the university the right to “examine material stored on or transmitted through its information technology facilities” -- in other words, read employees’ emails -- for reasons including complying with its own policies or federal and state law, running maintenance on the system, or, more generally, in order for the university “to carry on its necessary operations.”
Together, those provisions represent a “vast overreach,” David M. Hughes, president of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT chapter and professor of anthropology, said in an interview.
“What the administration seemed to want to assert was that they had the right to examine, to look into, to own, to store, to search through the entirety of our intellectual lives,” Hughes said. “We refuse to suffer this kind of intrusion, because we have academic freedom, and we will protect it.”
The university in February announced it would migrate to a new email system, known as Rutgers Connect, which is based on Microsoft’s suite of productivity software, Office 365.
Hughes said the union has since this fall asked the administration to clarify the acceptable-use policy and specify that the university won’t use the new email system -- which includes powerful tools for search and device management -- as a surveillance tool.
In particular, Hughes said, the union would like the policy to borrow language from New Jersey’s open-records law, which includes exemptions for information related to teaching and research. He also said faculty members should be free to set Office 365 to automatically forward emails to a private account, and that the university should follow a semi-judicial review process before it can read faculty members’ emails.
While administrators -- including university President Robert L. Barchi -- have publicly said “university business” does not cover emails related to teaching and research, the policy has not been updated with that clarification. The administration hasn’t addressed the union’s other two concerns, Hughes said.
Unsatisfied with the progress since the two sides last met on Sept. 13, the union Friday morning sent an email to its members in which it recommended faculty members should consider a “personal moratorium” on Office 365. Faculty members should follow university policy and use the official university email for “communicating with students about academic performance and communicating with patients about their health” -- nothing more, the email reads.
In a brief email statement, a spokesperson for the university reiterated what administrators have previously said about what does and does not constitute “university business.”
“The university has informed the union that faculty members are free to use other email platforms for their scholarship and research work,” the spokesperson wrote. “We are in active conversations with the union on this matter.”
Hughes, in response, said in a follow-up email that those assurances don’t change the situation.
“The administration has been saying as much verbally,” Hughes wrote. “We want them to put that commitment -- regarding the narrow definition of ‘university business’ -- in writing and to revise the Acceptable Use of IT policy accordingly. Old Queens [the name of the main administration building at Rutgers] has given us no assurances, in any form, regarding automatic forwarding or surveillance.”