CITES town hall meeting: ‘It’s not just about e-mail’

By Andrew Maloney

Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services officials are discussing the possibility of outsourcing University e-mail services.

The thing is, e-mail itself is only part of the focus.

“It’s not just about e-mail,” said Randy Cetin, director of systems and technology services for the campus IT department. “It’s about all the other stuff that comes with it.”

According to CITES, around 25 percent of students forward e-mail from their University-provided Express account to an external provider such as Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft. This has caused some to wonder if the University should switch from the Express service to a different provider.

Officials say a 6 p.m town hall meeting in Gregory Hall Monday will help them gauge the level of campus interest in the matter.

“The students we’ve talked to, most are interested, but we don’t know if it’s enough for them to actually come out on an evening to a meeting hall to talk about this,” said Kelly Bridgewater, CITES customer relations coordinator. “If we have a lot of interest, we’d be happy to hold more.”

One question that CITES has encountered involves the cost of making any kind of transition. Cetin said he has taken note of financial estimates from other universities that have considered outsourcing.

“Cornell estimated it would take them 11 months and $192,000 (to outsource). Another one, I think it was USC, they estimated 8 months and 30-plus staff at about 4,000 hours of time,” Cetin said. “In that regard, it’s not free, unless you’re not paying people to do the work.”

At Northwestern University, where student e-mail is provided by Google, officials say having a different provider is a more modern alternative to university-provided service.

“The current university e-mail systems predate the era of mobile handheld devices,” said Ronald Blitz, technical analyst for Northwestern’s Technology and Support Services. “The Google applications experience is obviously different. (Students) get a physical mailbox with a tremendous amount of space for storing e-mail offered to them, and plus the applications are something they can use for collaboration with other classmates.”

Google Documents, for instance, allows users to collaborate on a word-processing task over the Internet. But while students can obviously do this even if there’s no outsourcing, making Google the e-mail standard at the University could make that kind of application more of a mainstay in the classroom.

“There’s some really cool stuff in terms of collaboration tools, and instructors may find that it’s a great opportunity to share and disseminate knowledge,” Cetin said. “If there’s features within (Google’s) Gmail like the photo-sharing application or the chat service or Google Docs, they could make use of that.”

Concerns about privacy may also have to be confronted, though at Northwestern Blitz indicated that he hasn’t really encountered any grievances.

“Graduate programs that were research-oriented, they felt uncomfortable about knowing that some of their materials might be on Google servers,” Blitz said. “But I’ve seen barely a complaint. For the general student body it hasn’t been an issue at all.”

But while other aspects have taken some of the focus, sending and receiving messages is still a concern. One option that was discussed was allowing students to choose their own e-mail provider and simply register it with a University NetID. Yet, Bridgewater notes that there are some flaws in this consideration as well.

“Problems come about in terms of standardization and reliability,” Bridgewater said. “If you have a Google account and I have a Microsoft account, and our friend has a Yahoo account, and one of us sends an e-mail out, you may get it immediately. And our friend may get it an hour from now. Maybe two hours from now. Maybe not at all. So, those costs that we might save may be reintroduced in missed opportunities and missed deadlines, and gosh, that’d be a terrible thing to have happen.”