Shadow faculty accounts conceal student emails
Published: Monday, June 18, 2012
Updated: Monday, June 18, 2012 08:06
For the past four years, students emailing professors with last minute questions or assignments may have had their emails lost in a cyberspace abyss unknown to faculty.
Some faculty members with email accounts ending in @usf.edu could have a second email account ending in @mail.usf.edu that they never check. But these shadow accounts still catch student emails.
Information Technology (IT) Executive Vice President Michael Pearce said IT migrated all student email accounts to Google mail in 2008. Faculty members who were once USF students or had Gmail accounts from another Google-based service provided through IT, such as a website or a blog, still have a mail.usf.edu account in the system.
IT sent a message in 2008, he said, to all faculty and staff who have both a mail.usf.edu account and an email account through another USF email system to make them aware that these accounts existed. But of the 1,247 faculty members affected, only half have ever accessed them.
Yet even now when a student begins typing their professor’s email address from their student accounts in the ‘to’ field of an email, Google’s auto-complete will often recommend the ‘@mail.usf.edu’ rather than a faculty member’s usual USF email.
Pearce said in an email to The Oracle that IT was notified of the problem two weeks ago, and that they are in the process of reviewing the accounts, and sending out an email to the affected faculty members to explain what transpired.
At the June 6 Faculty Senate meeting, Elizabeth Bird, an anthropology professor, said she had about 500 emails in her mail.usf.edu account, which she didn’t know existed previously.
“It came to light in my department that faculty are discovering that everybody has, sort of, shadow email accounts that are the same email accounts that students have,” she said.
Her shadow account included emails containing homework from students.
“Nobody in our department knew that these accounts existed until someone found theirs by accident,” she said. “Then we all looked in and thousands of emails since 2008, often from students, often important emails … It seems to me that this is actually an issue, because many of us have often accused students of not turning in papers on time.”
Vice Provost Graham Tobin, who teaches classes in the Department of Geography, Environment and Planning, said he also found missing student assignments in his mail.usf.edu account.
“I don’t know if this is a big problem or not, but after he explained, I went back and looked at mine and ... I had a lot from students from a class I taught spring of last year sending papers I’d accused them of not sending,” he said. “Fortunately it was a small class (and) I was in contact with them (otherwise) and so they didn’t get penalized.”
Pearce said IT apologizes for any migration-associated issues, and the email account can be easily removed. Faculty members can contact the IT Help Desk, who will advise them to remove the account.