OP-EDS

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November 17, 2009

Outsourcing, not upgrading

Eliminating cMail is the wrong choice for NSIT and students.

Outsourcing is hip. My inside sources in the Administration building tell me that a number of new and cool press releases will soon be hitting the quads. The Transportation Office plans to trumpet their news: “Campus buses will be discontinued to better enable students to purchase their own cars, faster and slicker than buses, from South Side dealerships.” The library, budget crisis looming, says, “We will no longer lend books to students, since better, shinier, less worn books are available from commercial bookstores.” Campus police is closing up shop, suggesting we all buy bodyguards and handguns on the free market. And Networking Services and Information Technolgies (NSIT), not wanting to be left out and not content with having closed down the Harper and Crerar computer labs last year, is shutting down e-mail services for all current students.

Wait, that last one isn’t a joke.

As everyone has surely heard, last week NSIT announced what it called a “transition” in student e-mail services (I hope you all have your critical thinking caps on so your scalps won’t bleed as you scratch your heads over this one). NSIT may call this a “transition”, but a simpler and, dare I say, more honest description would be a “closure.” It is closing down its e-mail services for students and offering us nothing besides a choice of where to have our University account forwarded. This forwarding service, of course, is nothing new. It’s been around for years. As the Maroon Editorial Board observed last week, the existing cMail web interface is wretched, and I can understand why thousands of people are already forwarding their University accounts elsewhere.

But if 49 percent of students (according to NSIT) currently use cMail, and there are 15,149 of us students here, that makes 7,423 people, me among them, who are still using the service. That’s a lot of people. NSIT’s announcement in effect says to these people, “Sorry, we just couldn’t be bothered to improve our current services, so we’ve decided to give up altogether. Bugger off.” Frustratingly, NSIT appears to have made this decision without consulting its users, and its official explanation is laughable. “Maintaining an e-mail forwarding service”—says its website—“streamlines e-mail use for students, provides students with state-of-the-art commercial e-mail tools of their choice, and allows NSIT to be efficient with university funds.” But a moment’s thought shows that the first and second statements here are bogus, because as I just explained, the forwarding service has been around for years. And the last claim about money isn’t much better: When I asked the support people how much they hoped to save, they said they weren’t even really sure themselves. No doubt they will save something, perhaps by laying off some IT personnel. But they’re still planning to provide e-mail to faculty and staff, so there will still be a campus e-mail service. And it will still be paid for by our pricey tuition. It just won’t be open for our use. My fellow students, we are getting the short end of the stick.

Now as for the proposed alternative, I’m not going to claim that Gmail isn’t, for the time being, much quicker and slicker than cMail. But can we again think more closely about this? 74 percent of University of Chicago people who forward their e-mail use Gmail. Google these days has a growing monopoly on Internet search and advertising, and is creepily accumulating billions and billions of e-mails, IM logs, and search queries. Its dramatic market dominance means that other sites are hard pressed to provide similar services. Its service is only “free” because it is supported by ads, and it is accountable to no one on our campus. Google has no obligation to keep offering free services, and can delete our accounts if it suits its bottom line. Today Gmail may be good, but tomorrow? NSIT makes no guarantees. But what’s our other option—the clownish Yahoo interface? A paying service? The smaller free sites that can’t even match cMail’s current options?

NSIT, where are your wits? Your values? Your loyalties? The closure of cMail means that those of us who care about privacy and civil liberties lose our main non-profit, reasonably secure option for electronic mail. It means a major nuisance for 7,500 people (have fun transferring your old e-mails to your new account!). It means our university is giving us less service for the same money, thinking it can get away with false advertising, lame explanations, and no consultation. But I have a counter-proposal. Take a survey to see what current users want. If thousands of them want to keep using University e-mail services, the same as faculty and staff, they should have the option.

— Eli Thorkelson is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology.