DES MOINES—Iowa’s universities seem stuck in a snail mail world as the rest of the state has long transitioned to the digital age. Transparency and accountability questions at Iowa’s regent universities have lingered because state law does not specify requirements for email retention, allowing each university to set its own guidelines for destroying records.
Iowa hasn’t updated its guidelines on email records retention since 2002. The document still contains references to the decade-old reality that state officials once considered email a newfangled way of communicating, rather than the norm.
“Electronic mail systems, commonly called email, are becoming the communication method of choice for many public officials and public employees in Iowa,” according to the guidelines from the Email Working Group of Iowa’s Electronic Records Committee dated Dec. 31, 2002. “Email messages are often used as communication substitutes for the telephone as well as paper-based means of information.”
The State Records Commission ensures access to all state records, not just electronic files. The commission’s manual of retention schedules for state records is 702 pages long and written in language that only a bureaucrat or lawyer could decipher. As emails are not classified as a type of record (merely a medium), each email must be retained according the definition of its category under the manual.
The Email Working Group, in its 2002-era wisdom, directed each agency to establish their own procedures for email retention and train their employees based on the subjective standard of the “agency’s needs.”
“State government agencies that use electronic mail have an obligation to make employees aware that email messages, like paper records, must be retained and destroyed according to established records management procedures,” according to the manual. “Agencies should establish procedures and capabilities to facilitate email records management. Procedures and system configurations will vary according to the agency’s needs and the particular hardware and software in place.”
Despite the problems inherent in setting hundreds of different standards for myriad state agencies, the manual specifically counsels against a policy common at Iowa’s regent universities: purging email after 30 days if an employee deletes the email from his or her account.
“Purging all messages after a set amount of time [is] not [an] appropriate strateg[y] for managing email,” according to the guidelines.
Bill Monroe, the transparency advisor to Gov. Terry Branstad (R-Iowa), said that he discussed the universities’ email retention policy with Branstad Monday at their monthly meeting to discuss public records and open meetings policy.
“One of the things that the [Public Information Board] is going to be looking at is identifying issues that the legislature needs to take up,” said Monroe, a former chief of operations for the Iowa Newspaper Association and the chair of the nine-member Iowa Public Information Board. “Clearly, those [emails] are public records, and they should be kept for more than 30 days.”
Larry Johnson, Jr., the board’s administrator and legal counsel, analyzed retention policies for state departments and found that retention schedules for agency emails range from six months to permanent archival.
“Sometimes the Regent institutions are kind of off on their own set of rules,” said Monroe, who pointed to the dispute journalists had with universities before they recognized that their fundraising foundations were subject to public records laws. “They’re part of state government, and they need to be treated as such. They’re not above that.”
Monroe, a journalism graduate of Iowa State University and a former Iowa newspaper editor, plans to request meetings with members of the Board of Regents to discuss transparency issues. The Public Information Board, which Monroe chairs, is also scheduled to discuss the issue at its next meeting Jan. 17.
Iowa State University purges deleted emails after 30 days, would charge $100k to restore them
As TheIowaRepublican.com reported Monday, Greg Geoffroy, a former ISU president and chairman of the advisory board of the Harkin Institute of Public Policy, systematically purges his email account—avoiding public scrutiny of his decisions as chair of the institute.
In April 2011 Ruth Harkin, a member of the Board of Regents, rushed the institute to vote on the institute despite Republican requests for more time to debate. Republicans voiced concerns that allowing an Iowa politician to establish a state-based think tank while still in office and up for reelection would pose a conflict of interest. Ruth Harkin has helped raise more than $1 million from labor unions, corporations, foreign nationals and other interests with business before her husband’s personal office and committees.
In response to a public records request from TheIowaRepublican.com, ISU lawyers said that restoring Geoffroy’s emails beyond a 30-day period would cost about $100,000. Furthermore, ISU lawyers said that Geoffroy could purge his email account regularly because they only contained so-called “transitory” emails.
“Dr. Geoffroy’s practice has been not to retain e-mail of transitory value, consistent with ISU’s Records Retention policy,” ISU general counsel Paul Tanaka wrote to TheIowaRepublican.com in response to the public records request. No third-party oversight at ISU exists for determining whether a record has historical or transitory value.
Tanaka pushed back on TheIowaRepublican.com’s characterization of the Harkin Institute as an academic unit fostering a “culture of secrecy.”
“Your suggestion that Dr. Geoffroy cooked up a policy on transitory records so he could delete e-mail, and the suggestion (today, “Gov. Branstad criticizes secrecy at Harkin Institute”) that ISU’s policies are unusual are  troubling,” Tanaka wrote to TheIowaRepublican Tuesday. “All you need to do is do a search on Google for the terms ‘records retention transitory’ and you will find hundreds of entries related to state and federal governmental policies that deal with transitory records. The fact is that it is common to allow deletion of transitory records as the need for them passes… You do your readers a disservice by suggesting that our policy is unusual or that such a policy is part of a ‘culture of secrecy.’”
Nonetheless, Iowa State’s records retention policy allows the record holder, such as Geoffroy, to determine for himself whether a record is historical, which means it should be archived for public scrutiny, or transitory, which means that an official may legally delete it.
UNI also purges emails after 30 days
The policy at the University of Northern Iowa also allows university administrators to wipe email records after 30 days if a faculty or staff member deletes an email from their account.
“UNI does not have a specific policy related to retention of email,” UNI spokesman Stacey Christensen said in a statement to TheIowaRepublican Tuesday. “Retention decisions reside with the recipient of the email. Once deleted by the recipient of the email, there remains a 30-day window during which the email could be recovered. After that 30-day window that email is permanently gone and can’t be recovered by UNI. Since we use Google for our email, we suspect they might be able to recover the email, but there is no known mechanism available to UNI.”
University of Iowa has 14-day purge policy option
University of Iowa spokesman Tom Moore pointed TheIowaRepublican to the university’s records retention policy, which was revised in Sept. 2012, but the document does not specify a length of time to retain email backups. An information technology policy listed at the Chief Information Officer’s website seems to confirm that University of Iowa officials also allow purging of their records after 30 days:
“The frequency of backups is determined by the volatility of data; the retention period for backup copies is determined by the criticality of the data. At a minimum, backup copies must be retained for 30 days,” according to the policy, which was drafted in 2002 and last revised in 2005.
“University of Iowa employees are required to treat e-mail as any other information and abide by the records management policy. When it is appropriate to delete e-mail, the deleted e-mail is moved from the user’s active e-mail folder into a holding area for 14 days,” Moore said in a statement. “The e-mail in the holding area can be retrieved by the user or e-mail system administrators. Individual accounts can have holding area retention set at timeframes other than 14 days depending on their individual needs.”
Recent university scandals raise accountability questions
The regent universities’ policies on email retention are troubling because they could thwart future investigations into criminal activity or mismanagement by administrators. For example, police and prosecutors used decades old emails from Penn State University administrators to determine that the university broke the law by failing to report allegations of sexual abuse by then-assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
In 2003 then-Iowa State University assistant basketball coach Randy Brown was charged with possessing child pornography and obstructing justice after investigators discovered explicit images of children downloaded to his work computer.
Iowans shouldn’t have to wait until a sordid scandal allows investigators to restore university officials email and electronic records. However, under current policy, that’s the reality.
[note: this post has been updated to add information]
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