Tom Ingram, staff
The University of Manitoba is adopting a new email policy. Starting Sept. 1, all communications between students and faculty or staff must go through official U of M email accounts. Students will no longer be able to use personal email accounts to communicate with professors, academic advisors, or other university employees. Additionally, the university will be implementing a new email system. All new addresses will be @myumanitoba.ca, existing addresses are to be migrated to the new system over the next year.
The old email system was pretty dire, but it had its uses. The university—and related organizations like UMSU—likes to send out messages about meetings, protests, lectures, and other things that only the most oppressively dreary among us can work up the energy to care about. There are some important announcements, too, but these are sufficiently redundant, so you can get by without them.
The old system provided a handy place to sequester these messages where you would never have to see them, which freed you to use your uncluttered personal email account for all serious interactions with the university. This new policy changes all that. Depending on how you care to look at it, it’s either annoying or malicious.
If university staff refuse to acknowledge emails sent from your private address, you will be forced to actually use your U of M email account. This means that the mounds of unsolicited messages the university sends will be unavoidable. It also breaks everyone’s workflow by forcing a new system into the mix. Two groups are likely to be hit especially hard: first, those few unfortunate souls who actually used the old email system as intended and had something invested in it; second, those in smaller faculties where there are students in constant contact with staff at varying levels of formality, and a large number of adjunct professors with only loose ties to the university.
An important lesson that service providers of all kinds have difficulty learning is that if you can’t do something well, you should at least do it consistently. If you’re not going to help your users out, the very least you can do is screw them in the same way every time so they know what to look out for. Like fast food restaurants trying to class up their menus with yam fries, the university has revealed with this policy change that it does not quite understand why we do business with them. They want us to interact with them on their terms, and think of them the way they’d like to be thought of.
It would be infinitely preferable to transfer all accounts to a new email system without mandating its use. The university contains a large number of people with widely varying needs, habits, and technical abilities. The only one who knows the best way to cater to the needs of any particular person is that person. Changes that take away options, when they’re not otherwise backed up by sound reasoning, are a bad idea.
Let’s take a look at some of the U of M’s reasons for this policy change. One central justification was concern over privacy. In particular, they want to make sure that outgoing emails reach the intended recipient and that incoming emails from students are actually from the person who purportedly sent them.
The first issue is rather strange because under the current policy, official communications are already sent to U of M email addresses by default. The only reason a staff member would use your personal address, then, is if you initiated contact and—presumably—proved your identity, making the whole issue irrelevant. The second issue is presumably meant to prevent cheating. But what’s to stop a potential cheater from giving someone else access to his email account? Or, for that matter, using his email account to send material he didn’t write? The additional security in this case is illusory, like locking the doors on a windowless Jeep.
There are a few other reasons for the policy change, though none so clearly thought out as those two. For instance, one concern is that the university cannot guarantee the persistence of, say, a Gmail or Hotmail address. A student might use an external account to contact the university and then deactivate it, at which point someone else could claim the address. However, since the university already defaults to using your U of M address for outgoing mail, it’s not clear how this would be a problem, except in the very unlikely scenario of a student deactivating their Hotmail account in the middle of a conversation with U of M staff.
Another concern is that external email addresses may be “inappropriate [ . . . ] or unprofessional.” This is another non-problem because there is an accepted convention that students are not expected to be as formal or professional as professors or university staff. Students do not ordinarily write exams wearing a gown and sword belt, and yet I am aware of no dress code amendment initiatives aiming to change that. In any case, it’s not clear what this concern has to do with streamlining processes or protecting students’ privacy.
U OF M UNABLE TO GUARANTEE YOUR PRIVACY
In fact, the new email policy will actively harm students’ privacy. The university already has large amounts of personal data stored on its servers. With this policy, they are asking for more. Their reasons for asking are dubious and they have no intention of protecting this data. According to a disclaimer that is shown when you claim your myumanitoba account, “The University of Manitoba cannot and does not guarantee protection against the possible disclosure of your data including, without limitation, against possible disclosures of data in accordance with the laws of a foreign jurisdiction.”
It is simply bizarre, in the wake of all the recent revelations about privacy and the disclosure of data, that the university would claim to be protecting our privacy by requiring us to store more and more personal data on their servers. In particular, a legal disclaimer like the one above is chilling, especially given that Microsoft—which operates the Outlook Web App—was the very first company to get involved in the NSA’s Prism program. It’s debatable whether the new email policy will actually make anything easier for anyone – though it’s very unlikely it will make things easier for students or faculty. However, it certainly is not going to protect anyone’s privacy.