Fed Up With Forwarding: Email @ Amherst

Fed Up With Forwarding: Email @ Amherst

This week I’m going to write about old news. True, I could write about Facebook going public or RIM changing captains or Apple defending its manufacturing practices. I could list off another five tips or recommend a program or remind you all to back up your hard drives. But I’m going to write about old news because it’s about time it stopped being old news.

It’s about time we had better email at Amherst. The College still runs a Microsoft Exchange server, albeit one upgraded this fall. For students, email is the most important technological service at the College; it’s how we interact with professors, with friends, even with potential employers. And there are frustrating problems with the email service as it is now.

Mailboxes fill up fast. Unless users delete each of their read messages or archive every few weeks, a full mailbox is going to be frequent. Once that happens, everyone — friends and potential employers alike — is greeted with a disconcerting alert that their message will not be read because your mailbox is full. That looks bad, and preventing it takes more time than it should.

The interface is bad. I’m not going to get into specifics or debate intuitive software design on this one because the users speak for themselves. I have mere anecdotal evidence, but I suspect that a poll of Amherst students would indicate widespread dissatisfaction with Outlook Web Access’ interface. And even if the desktop application was that much better, it’s still just that: a desktop application, configured on your personal computer and not so helpful when using a public terminal or a friend’s laptop. A planned server upgrade will enhance the interface, but that appears a distant future for students.
“Well, wait a minute,” you protest, “can’t you avoid these problems by forwarding your mail to a Google account?” After all, it seems as though a lot of students do just that. But at that point, you’ve given up the game: if our provided email service compels students to jump ship, then that’s a clear indicator that our provided email service isn’t enough.

So let’s look for an alternative. I think the skeptic mentioned above is right and that we should move to a Google Apps account, which would include Gmail. The mailboxes are larger, the interface is outstanding and the feature set (attachments, embedded links) is both a little richer and a little easier to use for most. Hundreds of other colleges use it, so shouldn’t we?
But it’s not that simple. There are a number of concerns that crop up when considering outsourcing to a vendor like Google. We have valid concerns about security and privacy, about costs and retaining control of our own servers, about carbon footprint and so forth. Changing over an entire email service takes quite a bit of effort and a lot of planning.

Which brings me to what this column is not. It is not a critique of the IT department’s decisions or efforts concerning the complex questions about email services. It’s not a call for an immediate switch to Google or another outside vendor. It’s not even a call to overhaul the Exchange server somehow to cure some of its defects.

It is, however, a call for student action. I sit on the AAS IT Committee, and we often ask about switching email services. The word comes back that it’s complicated, it needs more thought and people are working on it. And this is important; I don’t doubt that at all. But if students want a better email service, then we need to do more about it. It can’t be just the three other nerds on the committee and I nagging IT to keep thinking about it.

Right now is the perfect time. We have a new president, the IT department finished an external review just last year and a CIO search committee is working hard to find our next Chief Information Officer. I would suggest that the AAS take up the issue on a larger scale, perhaps forming a committee or initiating meetings to determine what the concerns are and how we might expedite the process.

How we do so is a decision we can make together. But I think that repeated complaints about current email and isolated inquiries into a transition have gotten us nowhere. It’s time for a larger, concerted effort on the students’ behalf to explore the possibility of a better email service at Amherst.