University dean accidentally hits the ‘reply all’ button

Justice apologized for sending a private eMail to the entire graduate student body.
Justice apologized for sending a private eMail to the entire graduate student body.

Higher-education faculty and administrators got another lesson in the pitfalls of electronic communication and viral eMail messages last week when a University of Missouri dean mistakenly sent a message that referred to a student as suffering from “mental distress” to the campus’s 6,000 graduate students.

Graduate School Dean George Justice responded to an eMail message Oct. 13 about a Missouri student who had decided to withdraw from a graduate program, and instead of sending the message only to Chancellor Brady Deaton, Justice used the “reply all” function and sent it to every Missouri graduate student.

The student, who had withdrawn from the university, originally addressed her message to the graduate student body. No students received her message, however, because she wasn’t authorized to send a message to the entire list, Justice said in a follow-up explanation for the accidental “reply all.”

The eMail included the former student’s name and eMail address.

“The dean made an inadvertent mistake when sending an eMail that included personal information about a student; it was intended to be a private communication expressing concern for a student,” the university said in a statement last week. “Unfortunately, this error in electronic communication should serve as a reminder to all of us that we need to exercise extreme care in the use of electronic communication and that the message can become public.”

The university’s statement said Justice’s mistaken message would prompt a “review of our training for handling sensitive information” to make sure a similar slipup doesn’t happen again.

Doug Green, a longtime educator who has taught courses at Binghamton University and the State University of New York at Cortland, said there’s a simple strategy for avoiding embarrassment in eMail messages: “Don’t put anything in an eMail that you wouldn’t be willing to post on the wall.”

Stepping away from the keyboard until you’ve cooled off during a heated exchange, Green said, is also a safeguard against writing eMail messages that often require follow-up apologies.

Justice’s eMail mix-up is at least the third reported incident of electronic communication gone awry among college faculty and decision makers.

Scott Galloway, clinical professor of marketing at NYU’s business school, responded to an eMail message sent Feb. 9 by a student complaining that Galloway had dismissed him when he came to class an hour late.

Galloway, founder of personalized gift web site, responded with a 424-word message reminding the student that “there is a baseline level of decorum … that we expect of grown men and women who the admissions department have deemed tomorrow’s business leaders” and urging the student to “get your [expletive] together.”

“For the record,” Galloway continued in his eMail, “we also have no stated policy against bursting into show tunes in the middle of class, urinating on desks, or taking that revolutionary hair removal system for a spin.”

Few, if any, colleges and universities have spelled out eMail and text-messaging policies for faculty and staff, because there is an unspoken etiquette to which professors are expected to adhere, educators say.

The rise of eMail as a primary communication tool for teachers and their students has always raised the specter of unseemly eMail messages making their way to campus administrators, but the advent of social networking on sites like Twitter and Facebook means students can share private messages with thousands of friends and followers, who then can share the message with thousands more—creating an internet sensation.

The speed of electronic communication was demonstrated in March when a Georgetown University law professor told students that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would announce his resignation by the end of the day, according to the legal blog, Above the Law.

The law students texted and eMailed friends and family, and within minutes, gossip site trumpeted a headline about Roberts leaving the land’s highest court.

Popular sites like Drudge Report and Huffington Post followed suit, and Supreme Court spokespeople had to deny the rumor that started in a lecture hall.

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