Email privacy at universities

Administrators should set a clear and reasonable policy regarding email accounts.

Editorial board


On March 10, The New York Times reported that administrators at Harvard University secretly searched 16 resident deans at the school in hopes of finding out how information regarding a recent student cheating scandal was leaked.

The incident at Harvard again sparks discussion about the boundaries between universities and the email accounts they give to students and faculty. Harvard’s policy stipulates that the administration can search a faculty email account, but it must give notification either before or soon after the search takes place. This evidently did not happen, as the searches went on about six months ago, and most deans are just now learning of the occurrence.

Here at the University of Minnesota, email privacy for students and faculty is also far from absolute. According to an article published in the Minnesota Daily last year, University policy allows student, staff and faculty emails to be “examined.” Because the University is a public institution, staff and faculty emails are considered public records by the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. This policy is sensible enough and allows for a certain amount of transparency that should be expected of all government employees.

However, students are much less likely to understand the importance of keeping school email accounts professional. A Microsoft-sponsored survey found that 69 percent of college students didn’t realize their universities could access their emails.

The majority of students and faculty members likely have little concern about the University monitoring their accounts, as most don’t use them unless it’s school-related anyway. However, in addition to making students more aware about the nature of their accounts, the University should maintain a strict policy — one in which it adheres to, unlike Harvard — of only searching accounts for serious matters and providing notice well in advance rather than six months after the fact.