Keep Personal Email Personal

Keep Personal Email Personal

IN HER OWN WORDS: Keep Your Personal Email Personal

Dr. Katie Rose Guest Pryal JD tells readers that most of us don’t pay attention when we use institutional technology to handle our private business.


We working women often find ourselves fitting the work of home into the margins of the work at our institutions. As we dash across campus to a meeting, we phone the pediatrician to schedule an appointment. While we’re waiting to meet with a student, we email the house painter to finalize a budget. We pay the power bill online using the browser on our work computer.

Technology is a great tool to help us make the most of those small margins. Technological methods of communication like email, text and instant messaging, often make the difference between meeting our nonwork obligations and failing to. Most of us don’t pay attention when we use institutional technology to handle our private business. I’m writing to advise you to pay attention.

Right to know?

Whether you work for a public or private institution, an employer almost always has the right to access your institutional email and to access data on institutional devices. This rule holds true for institutions of higher learning, as some Harvard employees learned last year.

And if you work at a public institution, you might have heard of the federal Freedom of Information Act (or “FOIA”) and the state-level statutes that parallel this federal statute. These statutes give members of the public the right to access the documents of public employees for almost any reason.

For example, the North Carolina Public Records Law covers “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics”—a broad swath of data. If any of this data was “made or received…in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina,” then the documents are subject to a public records request. (To compare, the New York law is very similar.)Anything you type into your institutional email account, text on your institutional mobile phone or save on the hard drive of your institutional laptop is potentially accessible either by your employer or under a state public records law. If such worries seem unwarranted, or even paranoid, consider the following.

First, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has already considered these risks. In its statement on Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications, the AAUP warns that our multidevice campus lifestyle can “blur boundaries between communications activities” that are for home and for work. Furthermore, “Digital devices such as smartphones [are] permitting users to create their own content but also to leave personal ‘footprints,’ which might be subject to surveillance”—surveillance by your employer, or by the public via public records request.

Second, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman condemned a high-profile public records attack against William Cronon, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin who published a letter criticizing his state’s Republican governor. After the letter’s publication, Cronon received a “demand for copies of all e-mails sent to or from Mr. Cronon’s university mail account containing any of a wide range of terms, including the word ‘Republican’ and the names of a number of Republican politicians.” This records request gives you a sense of how broad the requests can be.

Lastly, a colleague of mine was slapped with a public records request by a political lobbying group that disagreed with his extracurricular activist work. (And then, covering my colleague’s story, our local newspaper accessed emails of a variety of administrators across campus.) Once my own division was targeted, I knew I needed to learn how to protect my privacy.

Know your risk

You know those emails that your uncle constantly forwards to your family, full of inflammatory language? The ones you just delete without reading? Those are sitting in your university email account subject to a keyword search by (1) your employer, who technically owns your email, and (2) members of the public who make records requests. When they sift through your email looking for their keywords, they can find information about your children.

Your privacy is vulnerable. But it’s easy to protect it if you just take a few precautions.

• Email. The easiest way to protect the privacy of your email is to create an offsite email account for personal work. Gmail is a good choice. You can set your devices to gather email from both of your accounts. You’ll need to practice switching back and forth between your private email and your work email to keep your communications separate.

• Devices. When my colleague was targeted, the public records request not only asked for his institutional emails, but also any emails and messages sent from a device provided by the institution. Plus, at any point, your employer may access your institutional devices: laptop, tablet and phone. So, if you can afford to, purchase your own devices and use them instead.

If you can’t afford to purchase your own devices—or if you aren’t allowed to use them—use settings to protect your privacy. For example, always set your browser to clear history, cookies and passwords when you quit the program (and then always remember to quit the program when you leave for the day). You’ll need a secure way to remember your passwords, but you shouldn’t store your passwords on your institutional computer anyway.

It’ll take some time to build these new technology habits. However, after you’ve consolidated your private business on private platforms and devices, your private life will not only be more secure, but it will also be more portable, should you ever need to make a career change.

Dr. Katie Rose Guest Pryal, JD is an author and freelance writer who covers health, higher education, motherhood and careers, though not necessarily together. She’s active on Twitter (@krgpryal), Facebook (, and her blog ( She teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Good News for Private Sector Faculty Organizing

From Aaron Nisenson, AAUP Senior Counsel

Dear Colleague:

As you may have heard, there were three major developments from the National Labor Relations Board late last semester that positively affect the faculty’s ability to organize unions. In December the NLRB published decisions expanding the organizing rights of faculty members and allowing the use of employers’ email systems for union organizing, and issued new rules for union elections. I’m writing today to give you as an AAUP member information about these developments and their significance.


The National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1935 to administer the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the primary law governing relations between unions and employers in the private sector. The act guarantees the right of private sector employees to organize and to bargain collectively with their employers, and to engage in other protected concerted activity with or without a union, or to refrain from all such activity. (The unionization rights of public-sector faculty members are governed by state, and sometimes local, law.) In recent years, however, the courts and the NLRB have defined most tenure-line faculty at private institutions as “managerial” employees who were not necessarily entitled to the protections of the act, and they have also exempted faculty at religious institutions from the act’s protections.

Organizing Rights of Private-sector Faculty

In Pacific Lutheran University, the NLRB modified the standards in two key tests used to determine the eligibility of faculty members at private-sector higher education institutions to unionize under the NLRA.

First, it addressed whether certain institutions and their faculty members are exempted from the NLRA due to their religious activities. The board ruled that in order to qualify for a religious exemption, the university must both hold itself out as “providing a religious educational environment” and also hold out the faculty members seeking to unionize as “performing a specific role in creating or maintaining the school’s religious educational environment.” The board found that the faculty must be “held out as performing a specific religious function,” such as integrating the institution’s religious teachings into coursework or engaging in religious indoctrination (emphasis in original). This would not be satisfied by general statements that faculty must support religious goals. This new standard should expand the number of faculty who have the legally protected right to unionize at private-sector religious institutions.

Second, the board created a new standard for determining whether faculty members are managers and thus are excluded from the protection of the act. Under the new standard, the board will “examine the faculty’s participation in the following areas of decision making: academic programs, enrollment management, finances, academic policy, and personnel policies and decisions,” giving greater weight to the first three areas. The board emphasized that to be found managers, faculty must in fact have actual control or make effective recommendations over policy areas, rather than mere “paper authority.” This new standard should simplify the determination of whether faculty are managerial employees and ultimately expand the number of private-sector faculty members who have the legally protected right to unionize.

For a more detailed discussion of this case, including the amicus brief submitted by the AAUP, see

Use of Email for Union Organizing

In Purple Communications, the NLRB significantly expanded the right of employees at private-sector institutions to use their employers’ e-mail systems for union organizing and other activities. The board ruled that employees who are given access to their employer’s e-mail system for business purposes must also be allowed to use that system on non-working time to engage in a wide range of protected communications, including union support and comments critical of the employer’s employment-related policies and management decisions.

More information is at

Election Rules

Finally, in December the NLRB issued revisions to union election rules that should vastly simplify and expedite the election process. Previously, the results of elections could be tied up for years in pointless litigation, delaying the results of a democratic process, a situation that would be intolerable in any other context. Under the new rules, the parties may file documents electronically; the time frames for identifying issues, providing documents, and making arguments are shortened; and the number of issues that can be litigated prior to holding an election are reduced. Cumulatively, these changes will likely reduce the time from the filing of a representation petition to the holding of an election to between ten and twenty days.

The new election rules also require that employers provide the union with personal e-mail addresses and phone numbers for employees. This is particularly important for reaching out to contingent faculty, who often perform most of their work off campus.

I hope you find this information helpful. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.

Best wishes,
Aaron Nisenson
AAUP Senior Counsel

Additional Information on this can be found in a February article from Labor Notes- a progressive online labor magazine Private Sector Faculty Get Green Light to Organize

Centennial Contest Extended


Dear Colleague,

As we reminded you last week, in celebration of the AAUP’s centennial this year, the AAUP Foundation is sponsoring competitions for undergraduates and graduate students for essays and artwork.

We’re writing to let you know that the deadline has been extended to March 1.

The theme of both competitions is “Academic Freedom: Its Concept, Its History, Its Successes, and Its Failures.” In both categories and at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, prizes of $1,000 are available. The awards are made possible by a donation from the late Patricia Fox Haig.

The centennial contest is open to all students enrolled at accredited institutions of higher education in the United States. All essay and art work submissions must address the theme “Academic Freedom: Its Concept, Its History, Its Successes, and Its Failures.” Submissions must be sent to by midnight (EST) on March 1, 2015. Up to two entries may be made by any one student. All entries must include the student’s full name, mailing address, and e-mail address as well as the name of the institution at which he or she is currently enrolled and the category (undergraduate or graduate student) of the entry. By submitting an essay or work of art, the student agrees that the work may be published if it is selected for an award and that the student will not be separately compensated for publication.

See the full contest rules at

The submission deadline is rapidly approaching, but there is still time for you to encourage your students to enter the contest.

Thank you!

Did you know that you can support the AAUP Foundation while shopping on See how.

The AAUP Foundation is organized to fund the charitable and educational purposes of the AAUP, including supporting principles of academic freedom and the quality of higher education in a free and democratic society. Visit the AAUP Foundation website and Facebook.