Amherst needs to fix email's unreliaibility, NOW!

Seriously, this “gift that keeps on giving” is becoming more than the proverbial pain-in-the-ass; it’s downright problematic. In the past 10 days alone, email has been down at least six times for significant periods: last Sunday night, last Monday night/Tuesday morning, Wednesday night/Thursday morning, Thursday evening, Saturday afternoon and even Saturday night-and those were only the times that I actually tried to use it. I can’t even imagine how many other times the system actually failed people around campus.

But hey, why should that even be a problem? It’s not like email is important. It’s not like people could make an argument for email being the single most important medium of communication to academia. According to an article from last week’s Student, people suffered through periods of days when they couldn’t reach their email, with some almost missing information about potential interviews.

While I imagine those stories are few and far between, there are definitely more mundane, yet equally important, emails that are delayed, lost or otherwise rendered useless. That is where the problem lies: in its sheer breadth-the fact that these email outages literally reduce the productivity of a few thousand people on a regular basis.

In case the IT people didn’t realize it, the first week of classes is dominated by students trying to figure out what classes to shop, take or (if the class is closed) connive themselves into. The fickle functioning of email doesn’t exactly facilitate communication with professors at Amherst or other schools in the five college system. Moreover, for a good number of seniors (and juniors) this is an important time of thesis and comps activity. Oh yeah! Email might somehow factor into a thesis writer’s communication with his advisor, with libraries, with whomever; this might be a time for a student taking comps to fire off an email to a professor asking a question.

Some people think they have found a way around the solution (unacceptable as it sounds to me): use alternative email vendors. Now this is a great solution for communicating with the world at large; however it fails to solve the difficulties one would have talking to professors-or anyone on campus that doesn’t use a similar outside provider. The fact of the matter is that I had all four of my professors make a dig, or otherwise unflattering remark at email’s ridiculous unreliability.

Amherst is supposed to be a community of learning, excellence and ultimately successful growth; placing roadblocks in the way of students, staff and faculty, no matter how trivial, does not help achieve these goals. What’s more is that students who pay thousands of dollars a year to attend this vaunted institution feel entitled to functional email. I, for one, think that is a perfectly reasonable expectation.

I’m not sure why these and myriad other IT problems persist on this campus (although guesses abound). I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to the IT department which according to last week’s Student article is “work[ing] with specialists from Microsoft … sometimes working 24-hour shifts, trying to fix the system.” But I’m still confused. How it has all gone awry? Did they not test it prior to release? Might it have something to do with all the spam volume or the virus-infested emails that plague our campus? Whatever the problem is, Amherst needs to do what ever it takes to fix it, NOW! And ensure that there is never a repeat of this fiasco. Whatever it takes, whether it involves hiring someone new if it’s a staff problem, buying a new server if it’s a load problem or changing the structure of the system if it’s an organizational problem, it needs to be corrected.

Problems like this happen at other places, but they do not persist like our current email woes. It has been a month now. How is it possible that Amherst, a billion-dollar entity, with merely 2,000 email addresses has more email outages than other schools with tens of thousands of students? Than companies with literally millions of email accounts?

I don’t mean to sound overly harsh. The IT department has done a good job of solving the bandwidth issues that plagued Amherst from 1999-2001. They’ve modernized the computer labs and retired VAX. But as much as all of this that has been labeled “progress,” how far have we come when students routinely laugh with frustration over such lines as: “Hey, you’ll never believe this one … email is down again.” It doesn’t faze people anymore, and that’s simply unacceptable. Last week, I spoke to a graduate from 1998 and had to apologize about not getting her email sooner because it was being unreliable. She was genuinely shocked-claiming that email was never a problem when she was here. “I can hardly remember it ever going down,” she said.

But then I explained how generous IT has been to issue this treasured present to the College community: We have something to talk about, something to complain about, something to bond over. But, seriously, please, fix the damned email!