Cloud computing and labor disputes: University locks striking profs out of their coursework and email

Robert Spahr, an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Department of Cinema & Photography, writes,

I wanted to let you know that we are not only in the middle of a labor strike, but most importantly, a public university has shown by their actions, the dangers of Cloud Computing.

The University has disabled faculty email, and locked them out of their personal work contained in Blackboard (a course management system) as well as censoring pro-union comments from the official University Facebook page.

Myself, and some fellow faculty and students quickly produced a blog and Twitter feed to combat this censorship.

Turns out the uni isn't just nuking pro-union statements, but any questions about the labor dispute posted by its students and other stakeholders.


  1. Good Luck with the labor action, as to the ramifications, strikes are not parades. 

    Uni gives you e-mail services for your work. No work = no e-mail. That’s entirely fair.

  2. This is the reality of cloud computing. As far as email if you deem it important back it up to a disk off of the cloud. Google Apps and Live 365 have POP and IMAP options for example where you can use that to download email and have it locally as well as on the server. Even if it’s not in the cloud but on a server that you do not own and you want to keep a copy of your email then setting up a local copy is important to do.

  3. Without stepping on the larger point that this is a shitty thing for the university to do, I’d say Dr. Spahr is actually demonstrating the benefits of cloud computing. What is a blog or a tweet if not a read-only document in the cloud? Thanks to blogs, I know about this now–and I never had his faculty e-mail address.

    Yes, the university can keep him from getting at his work, at least in the short term. But if it were on a single university computer, they could do that by physically locking the building, or seizing his university-owned laptop. So sure, this points out the wisdom of not putting all your electronic eggs in someone else’s basket (and of having redundant and independent backups of anything you can’t live without), but I think before all is said and done the “cloud” is going to work better for labor than management.

  4. Perhaps I am missing something here, and I in no way mean this to be a comment on the referenced labor dispute itself, but why would any employer continue to provide striking employees with access to employer-supplied resources, be they email accounts, other online accounts, expense-accounts, vehicles, etc.? If I am misunderstanding something please explain it to me.

  5. Notice to anyone doing anything anywhere academic:

    SD cards. Get them. Use them. Love them. 

    A 1 GB flash card can store all the keyboard input you will generate in your lifetime. This isn’t 1993 anymore. You should NEVER let others have a master delete key on the prose you write. 

  6. I agree with arfunk.

    It’s not uncommon that eployees on strike are locked out of the workplace during the strike. In an electronic world, locking them out of all electronic workplace related services as well, seems both logical and rational.

  7. I think that there’s also the question of intellectual property rights. It may be that at this university the work is the property of the university and not of the individual. I also don’t think that this is a “danger of cloud computing”, since this kind of situation would have been possible before anyone made up that buzzword.

    1. I think the uni would be within their rights to provide hard copies of any intellectual property which is not theirs but which is stored in their cloud.

      Strikes are playing hardball. Turnabout is always fair play.

  8. This is silly. The fact that they are locked out of resources belonging to a business they are striking against is a normal reaction. What business would let people striking have access to resources that belong to the business?
    For my part, I think of ‘Cloud Computing’ as little more than a marketing buzzword.

    1. They aren’t locked out of resources belonging to a business. They are locked out of resources belonging to a public institution of higher education. Being academics engaged in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge is an entirely different thing. Academia is not business!

      1. If academia is not business why are the high priests of academia in a union and striking? It *is* a business and this is how business goes.

  9. Arguably, the problem is that their computing wasn’t “cloudy” enough. . .  it was dependent on the university (Blackboard, for example, is licensed only through universities.)

    Only suckers depend on university supplied e-mail addresses and such.

    1. These folks are not necessarily suckers. Many older profs were ushered somewhat reluctantly into the e-mail era when university departments began to communicate primarily through that medium, rather than an office telephone or a letter in the mailbox. Because many universities require profs to use their university e-mail account for all official communication between them and students, administrators, etc., many profs use that account as their primary–and in some cases, only–one.

      They’re not suckers, many simply do not regard checking multiple e-mail accounts as common practice. We need to help them set up a Gmail account (or what have you) and teach them how to forward e-mails from their university accounts for ease of use. Unfortunately for them, this labor action has expedited the need.

      1. They’re not suckers. . .

        True enough.  My sympathy and support are with them.  I didn’t mean to belittle them so much as point out that there are many ways around these restrictions that they should be encouraged to explore.

        1. I totally agree. The sooner we help academics understand the range of options out there (e.g. alternatives to Blackboard, which is one of the worst platforms I’ve ever had the pain of using) everyone — students, profs, etc. — will benefit!

    2. When I was a STUDENT at SIU-C, I didn’t rely solely on my or addresses.  I learned too much about SIU-C to do that. :->

  10. By the same logic shown here in the many disappointing comments above, the U.S. Postal Service should own all mail sent to it, or by extension, Purolator etc.  Private work may in fact not be owned by the university, may in fact be an intellectual copyright for authors.   Universities do not necessarily own the work of the professors working there simply by dint of supplying equipment.  The Universities action here may be outright theft in fact.   This aside from the fascist moves made by a supposedly intellectual institution of restricting and censoring information.  Of course abuse of power comes as no surprise.

    1. There may very well be intellectual property that belongs to the professors “in the cloud.” But the university owns that little piece of cloud. When you stop going to work, they stop making their resources available to you. That isn’t fascist. That’s reality. The university gets to control its property, the professors theirs. 

      1. The university may be a business-like activity. It isn’t a business. This is a public school, therefore the administrators do not own the institution but work as caretakers for the public. The rationale for public education is the betterment of the body politic, not the creation of political fiefdoms.
        That said, an academic should know better than place all control to course materials, publications, and other IP in the hands of anyone else. There isn’t much to be done about email accounts or required course management systems, other than back-up what can be copied.

        1. I see your point. On the other hand, the professors are striking against someone, and that someone seems to be acting on behalf of the body politic in its administration of the school. I think that doesn’t really change the analysis. The professors are the one group I *know* does not own that little piece of the cloud.

          In any case, memory is so cheap now that this should be a non-issue. If material in the cloud had been backed up, there would be no issue at all. Even material fed into Blackboard is usually (often, maybe) created elsewhere.

    1. I think the real outcome here is that professors everywhere are going to stop using university mail accounts.

      Until the Universities make it mandatory. Since you can’t demand to foster your vassals’ children anymore, institutions have to get create with hostage taking.

      1. You do realize that in most companies you are required to use corporate email for corporate business, right? There are about a million good reasons for this, and most of them apply to universities as well.

        Maybe they ought to just use their university email for work and private email for other email . . . 

        1. There are about a million good reasons for this

          …………………………………………………………………………..  …..  … ..?

          I don’t require all million of them, but not even one?

          1. (1) When you are acting in the scope of your employment the corporation is bound by your actions. The corporation needs access to what you “said” to people inside and outside the corporation. After all, you are acting on behalf of the company.

            (2) Similar but different, corporations are legally expected to have control over their communications. Because (despite what the Supreme Court says) corporations are not people, corporate communications are made via individuals. If the corporation faces either a lawsuit or a regulatory inquiry it is obliged to produce its communications. It cannot do that if they are all on your gmail account.

            That’s two for the price of one. Frankly, it strikes me as beyond question that when you empower someone to act on your behalf you want ready access to their actions. That is email in many cases.

          2. Actually, while there are reasons for why universities often require that profs use their e-mail clients, the first reason you give generally do not apply. Profs are generally not regarded as “acting on behalf of the company” — this serves not only to protect the academic freedom of profs, but also immunize the university from PR problems (see: the Ward Churchill case).

            You second reason is closer to the truth; interestingly, one of the primary motivations relates to privacy laws re: students.

          3. Yes, in many cases professors are not binding the university as a purchasing agent might be. They may in some H.R. contexts and others. As for the second one, things like grant accounting review are sometimes important motivators.

            The thing is, there are lots of different scenarios in a faculty body. A number of them raise issues that make it important to have access to email. It is impractical to make different rules for each member of faculty and update it continuously.

          4. Agreed, universities are not about to make case-by-case or department-by-department rules for what constitutes necessary use of their e-mail systems. Interestingly enough, in my experience adjunct faculty rarely have this problem as universities do not consider them real employees and therefore often neglect to issue them official e-mail accounts. Where I work, while I must send class-wide notices to students’ university e-mail addresses, if they respond using a personal e-mail address we can continue our conversation without a problem. And I have used my personal e-mail address as my primary contact for students for years without an issue.

  11. What about the other part of the story… the uni’s deletion of pro-union comments from their facebook page?

  12. I don’t understand what this has to do with “cloud computing” at all.  The fact that strikers are being locked out might be newsworthy (after all, outside academia this would be commonplace).  There’s nothing uniquely “cloud” about this though.  The localized infrastructure of any university could just as easily be locked down.  In fact, it might be easier that way.  After all, if all these professors were using e-mail accounts at Google or similar, would the ISP obey some order from a school official to lock them out?  Perhaps not.

    1. Exactly.  A half-witted sys admin could have it all locked out (with incredible granular control) almost instantly.  In fact, I’d bet that it is harder to work with external 3rd parties to effect the kind of changes that you want on these systems.

      The problem isn’t that the servers are off-campus.

  13. I’m actually a student at Southern Illinois University and I honestly did not expect a piece, not on the strike, but on the frozen Blackboard and gmail provided email accounts to come around.

    Here’s a few tidbits to add to the fire; on top of having their Blackboard accounts frozen, professors who have chosen to strike have had university officials with instructor privileges added to their blackboard classes.  As I was told, there was no warning or note for this, one theory is that they have been added to keep watch over the students as instructor level access gives power to monitor what goes through Blackboard.

    As for their email accounts being frozen, our emails are just what the whole university body uses, its what everybody uses because they are easy to track back to the person who sent it, there is no anonymity like with a yahoo address.  And yes, the instructors on strike have had to create new emails to use.

    The university Facebook page is a running riot, it you are to post anything that the moderators don’t like, they’ll remove your post and ban you.  Some people are having a fun time posting something and seeing how long their comments will last, as I heard in the hallway some aren’t even staying up for a full six minutes, then going in seconds and now commenting has been outright dissabled.  Our paper, the Daily Egyptian ( ) wrote a piece on this ( ).

    If you ask me, the situation has been handled poorly, but there isn’t a guide manual for dealing with social media and conditions like this.  I’ve posted this message with my own email account, with the way the university has been playing I’m wondering if I’m going to pick up any flack for this post.  Cheers!

  14. In other news, Universities stopped being tolerant or open to free opinions about a bazillion years ago. This is just one instance where the intolerance is happening to the profs and not the students in attendance. 

    And yeah, when you stop showing up for work, they’re probably going to take the keys and the email too. 

  15. “Myself, and some fellow faculty and students quickly produced a blog and Twitter feed to combat this censorship.”

    I am happy this person isn’t teaching English, or anything to do with written communications. Atrocious grammar.

    This person has never lost a job where within the space of minutes you may lose permanent access to the email system, your computer, all documents, contacts, etc. That teaches you to keep business and personal email separate, and to find ways to backup work content to your personal computers.

    At least this disruption is temporary. When he and his fellow teaching faculty go back to work, they will be able to access email and blackboard.

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