Email “Auto-Purge” Violates University System Retention Policies

Higher Ed Tuition

Since the scandal over NDSU President Dean Bresciani’s deleted emails erupted, with Legislative Council accusing him of deleting emails to avoid a public records request (potentially a felony, if true), Bresciani and his media people at NDSU have been trying to claim that it was the fault of an auto-purge system that was implemented by the university system earlier this year.

But, according to university system policy, the auto-purge system violates retention policies:

FARGO — A new automatic purge function that North Dakota State University officials say may be to blame for more than 45,000 of President Dean Bresciani’s emails being deleted violates the school’s own policies for how long records should be kept.

All emails sent and received by school administrators can’t be deleted for at least one year after the current fiscal year ends, according to the school’s record retention schedule.

But the new function dumps any emails more than a month old in an account’s trash file.

NDSU’s interim chief information officer, Marc Wallman, said school officials haven’t followed their own policy for keeping emails, in part because they weren’t aware of the policy.

“That’s never been our understanding here,” he said.

It’s worth remembering that President Bresciani wasn’t the only university system president from whom emails were requested. Similar requests were made to other presidents who had no problem coming up with the emails (I’m assuming based on the fact that Legislative Council hasn’t had to go to the Attorney General by them). So everyone else in the university system seems to have been aware of the retention policy, except Bresciani?

That seems unlikely.

Also, the idea that emails can be “retained” for public scrutiny for up to a year in the trash bin is ridiculous, nor does it pass muster at other universities. “At UND, [spokesman Peter] Johnson said the Outlook trash bin isn’t adequate,” reports Kyle Potter for the Forum Communications. “If your intent is to keep it, that’s not the place to store it,” Johnson is quoted as saying.

Indeed.

The only way Bresciani’s emails could be auto-purged is if someone put them in the trash bin. Putting emails in the trash bin is not how you keep them available for public scrutiny in accordance with open records laws.

I suspect NDSU is claiming ignorance about the university system’s retention policies to give Bresciani an out when it comes to the criminal implications of the code. At this point, I thin it’s inevitable that the Attorney General is going to find an open records violation, but this muddying the waters around the retention policy will likely provide just enough plausible deniability to avoid charges.

Of course, then there’s the question of what was in the emails.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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