As Christian colleges seek exemptions from parts of some federal laws, two institutions face legal challenges to their treatment of transgender students -- and Education Department exempts one from part of Title IX.
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.
Like our fellow Americans, we planned to spend the July 4 holiday weekend with our families and friends. Instead, on the late afternoon of Independence Day, we found our email inboxes near to bursting with reports that the president of the University of Texas at Austin, Bill Powers, had received an ultimatum -- resign, or be fired this week -- from the chancellor of the University of Texas System, Francisco Cigarroa. The timing of this alarming news regarding our president, and the short timeline, seem very odd. Chancellor Cigarroa had announced earlier this year that he will be stepping down to return to his prior career in academic medicine. In addition, many faculty feel it cannot be a coincidence that this announcement came during a national holiday in the summer session when the population of the university community is at its lowest.
While relationships are often strained among UT Austin, its parent organization UT System, and the Board of Regents that provides oversight of multiple campuses and health science centers across the state, we were completely blindsided by this "July 4 Coup." We first learned about events through the media, and we are still waiting to learn the basis for the chancellor's decision. In this age of ever-increasing rules and mandates from the Board of Regents to improve transparency and accountability, we call upon Chancellor Cigarroa to explain his actions, to allow the faculty and other stakeholders at UT-Austin to have a voice, and to listen to what we have to say.
Certainly, any decision to terminate Bill Powers's presidency is independent of his exceptional competence as a leader and visionary in higher education. President Powers has demonstrated an irrefutable ability to successfully lead a university of over 50,000 students and faculty members in good times and bad. Indeed, as chair of the Association of American Universities, he is a "president among presidents" in higher education.
As the 2013, 2014, and 2015 chairs elected to lead UT Austin's Faculty Council, we have worked closely with Bill Powers since he took the helm in 2006. From Hillary Hart, current chair: "In my years on the UT-Austin Faculty Council, and 27 years as a faculty member at the university, I have never seen a president so devoted to students and faculty and so open to innovative ways to deliver high-quality higher education. It seems extremely shortsighted to eject Bill Powers before he can finish the initiatives he has championed in partnership with the very UT System that is now threatening his presidency: programs to increase the four-year graduation rate, to empower faculty to develop innovative courses -- efforts that embody UT Austin's motto of ‘what starts here changes the world.’ ”
These are volatile times for higher education in Texas, and the country needs to pay close attention to events as they unfold. A similar, albeit not identical, situation happened at the University of Virginia in June 2012, when President Teresa Sullivan was forced to resign by that university’s Board of Visitors. Events at Virginia turned into a public relations nightmare, with several prominent faculty members talking about leaving, a loss of donations from alumni (until Sullivan was reinstated), and scorn from the entire country. Interestingly and importantly, it was ultimately the backlash from the faculty that seems to have made the greatest difference in U.Va.'s reappointing Sullivan as president. Among the similarities between the U.Va. and the UT situation, it is interesting that faculty at U.Va. learned of Sullivan's forced resignation on a hot summer Sunday.
Like our counterparts at U.Va., UT Austin faculty members, while famed for independent-minded behavior, are fiercely protective and proud of our university and the president who leads us. Although we have not been heard -- yet -- our voices will be loud, unambiguous, and unanimous in moving forward.
The forced resignation or firing of President Powers, if it happens, will irreparably damage UT Austin's reputation across the state and country, and around the world. His firing would destabilize an exceptionally productive and internationally respected institute of higher learning and research, resulting in a loss of productivity and ultimately, a decline in the quality of education for our students. We cannot believe this is a desirable outcome to leaders at UT System.
A case in point is the new Dell Medical School under development on the Austin campus. The university is in the critical early stages of establishing roots in the medical community, hiring a top-notch faculty, and attracting the country's best students. This will prove exceedingly difficult to achieve in an environment that may, to external appearances, appear hostile. We believe that Chancellor Cigarroa, a talented transplantation surgeon, will understand the consequences of a missed opportunity to build a highly innovative new medical school at the UT System's flagship university.
The July 4 Coup seems to us unmerited, unjustified, and unacceptable.
Andrea C. Gore, Hillary Hart and William Beckner
Andrea C. Gore, who will be chair of the UT Faculty Council in 2015-16, is Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Hillary Hart, chair of the council during 2013-14, is distinguished senior lecturer in civil, architectural and environmental engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
William Beckner, the 2014-15 chair of the council, is the Paul V. Montgomery Memorial Centennial Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin.
Controversial survey of political climate at University of Colorado finds (to no one's surprise) that conservatives are in the minority, but also found that 96 percent of students believe their instructors promote respectful classroom environments.
Brooklyn College professor accuses administrators, allegedly afraid of controversy involving the foundation of the brothers who bankroll many conservative politicians, of passing on a chance at millions.