What happens to emails, other materials when a faculty member dies?


When a faculty member dies, what should the University do with their email — not to mention their physical mail, their class materials and any personal documents on their office computer or stored in a Pitt-based cloud account?

What should Pitt do with these materials when a faculty member leaves the University — voluntarily or otherwise?

What if a faculty member should develop a disability that doesn’t allow them to access their email — either temporarily or permanently?

Should the same procedures cover staff as well? What should the University’s policy be on document retention in general? Or privacy in general?

The University Senate’s Computing and Information Technology Committee began to take up these questions at its March 9 meeting, hoping to develop recommendations at least for handling the digital materials of dead, departed or disabled faculty, so that Faculty Assembly can discuss and advocate for them.

“For all of these things,” committee Chair Michael Spring told the committee, “there would have to be procedures, identification of responsible individuals, and procedure for redress.”

Spring said he learned prior to the meeting that, currently, once the University obtains a faculty member’s date of death, their email account will terminate in one year and their cloud storage materials will be deleted. However, the University depends on others — the deceased faculty member’s department or family, for instance — to provide this information.

The department or family can request an automatic response message be created for email accounts, giving correspondents alternative email addresses for personal or University business. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) would prevent family members from viewing and handling the faculty member’s email themselves, since it may contain student information.

Laurel Gift, assistant vice chancellor for compliance, investigations and ethics (which makes her the University’s privacy officer), believes that, should any new rules govern only faculty, Pitt likely won’t need a University-wide policy. But if new rules cover faculty and staff, the University’s policy office, with its lengthy process of policy formulation and approval, would likely become involved.

She suggested these questions also be taken up by a new University computer use and access policy committee, which is about to start meeting. The University’s information retention schedules are currently “a bit of a mess” and are unclear upon first examination.

“I don’t know who is responsible for record retention, and I don’t know what constitutes a record,” Spring noted, “so this issue … could potentially include all of Pitt.

“It may be that we want to do something quicker” than a three-year policy formulation and approval process, he said, such as a Faculty Assembly motion for “some interim directions” for these procedures.

“I think there’s a large philosophical decision the University needs to make about privacy,” Gift added, and it will be her job to guide this decision-making process, she said. “The University needs to decide: How do we value our community’s privacy?” Does the University say that all information on its premises and computers “is ours and we can do what we want? Or: it is yours and we won’t do anything with it?”

Chief Information Officer Mark Henderson suggested that, “It’s not an IT question … it’s a fundamental question as to how we move forward on several fronts, and it has implications for faculty, staff, students, research. Are we a Big Brother university? Are we the Wild West? Each one of those answers, and everything in between, has implications for how we move forward.”

After the meeting, Spring sent a letter to policy office head Thomas Hitter, suggesting that the committee’s concerns might encompass such data as “grades and change of grades, class lecture notes, computer maintenance records, phone logs, official correspondence, etc.,” and asked Hitter’s office for assistance “in further refining the ‘statement of the problem.’ ”  He and Hitter are in the process of setting up a time to discuss this question.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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