Some colleges have second thoughts on Gmail

Sixty percent of colleges that outsource eMail services use Gmail, according to a 2009 survey.
Sixty percent of colleges that outsource eMail services use Gmail, according to a 2009 survey.

A small-scale backlash against Google’s free eMail service and applications has included at least three prominent universities this year, after many colleges had begun moving to the outsourced Gmail system to save money and simplify support.

The cloud-based eMail system has appealed to college students since Google launched its campus Gmail pilot in 2004, educators said, and Google officials maintain that colleges continued to adopt Gmail even as negative headlines circulated this spring.

More than 8 million K-12 and college students use Gmail and Google Apps, according to the company.

Yale University’s switch to Google’s eMail system was delayed in March when faculty members and administrators said they were concerned with the security of cloud computing, in which school eMail messages would be stored on off-campus servers. Some Yale faculty also expressed concern with Google’s large carbon footprint, caused by its many energy-intensive data centers.

The University of California Davis ended a Gmail pilot program for faculty and moved its 30,000 student off of Google Apps in May, citing similar security concerns.

UC Davis technology officials, including CIO and Vice Provost Peter Siegel, said in a letter to faculty that “outsourcing eMail may not be in compliance with the University of California Electronic Communications Policy,” adding that faculty who participated in a Gmail pilot said the campus’s commitment to privacy was “not demonstrated by Google and that the appropriate safeguards are neither in place at this time nor planned for the near future.”

The University of Massachusetts joined the anti-Gmail fray in May when IT officials there said they would completely phase out the eMail service, along with Google Apps such as Docs, Calendar, and Sites. UMass officials cited low adoption rates among students since Google services were made available through the university at the start of the fall 2009 semester.

Only 7 percent of UMass’s 20,000 undergraduate students switched from the university’s eMail system to Gmail, according to published reports and a university spokesman who confirmed those numbers.

University technology officials who have tracked Google’s educational programs said the company spurred these security concerns by launching Google Buzz this year, a social networking platform that all Gmail account holders were automatically opted into.

“That created quite a bit of vulnerable feelings when it came to security,” said James Wolf, associate professor at Illinois State University’s School of Information Technology. “[Google] really brought this on themselves.”

Google announced in January that it would make the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption—used by online banking web sites, among others—as a default setting on all Gmail accounts. In a May 21 blog post, the company lauded the security measure as “an important step forward.”

Wolf said Google’s security policy is one of the most reliable a school can have, so a faculty’s ideological bent might have played a larger factor than originally thought among campuses that have done away with Gmail and Google Apps.

“I wonder whether the concerns are real or whether it reflects the faculty’s general anti-corporate mindset,” he said. “If they’re really concerned with privacy, they would go with Google.”

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