Borrowed Gravitas

June 22, 2011

As far as using a university e-mail account for non-university purposes, not much, according to Elliot Cramer, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Administrators at Chapel Hill disagree. The university recently canceled Cramer’s UNC e-mail account, dropped his faculty web page, and barred him from using electronic library resources and other network privileges after finding that he had used his UNC e-mail account to “conduct business” for an animal rights organization with no university affiliation.

Cramer had also used his university e-mail account during a vicious war of words with another animal rights activist, who subsequently complained to the university, obligating an investigation. At one point, Cramer had included a link from his official faculty page to an external site detailing his conflict with the rival activist.

According to a letter from UNC-Chapel Hill’s general counsel, this all amounted to a “significant disruption experienced by the university as a result of Dr. Cramer’s use of a university resource,” warranting the retired professor’s banishment.

For the better part of the last decade, Cramer has run a nonprofit group called Friends of Orange County Animal Shelter (FOCAS), which collects donations on behalf of the shelter. As the listed contact for the group, Cramer had created an alias on the university e-mail system called focas@unc.edu. After the recent death of the group’s treasurer, Cramer says, this became the e-mail address connected to the group’s PayPal account.

Late last year, a fellow animal rights activist began accusing Cramer of improperly using his Chapel Hill e-mail address to solicit funds for FOCAS. “I’m SURE your UNC attorney’s [sic] will have fun with this if I share it,” wrote the activist, Joseph Villarosa, in a November e-mail to the former professor. According to that e-mail, Villarosa seemed to think that Cramer was still working at UNC, and running FOCAS on university time. He followed through on his threat, complaining to the university that Cramer was misusing a university domain name to promote personal fund-raising efforts.

“The nature of that dispute is of no interest to the university,” UNC general counsel Leslie Strohm wrote in an e-mail last week to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has taken up Cramer’s cause. “However, the university was first drawn into the dispute because Dr. Cramer used his ‘unc.edu’ email account to correspond with Mr. Villarosa.”

Strohm later added: “The University’s decision to disable Dr. Cramer’s network privileges was not a response to the content or viewpoint of Dr. Cramer’s speech, but a reasonable response to the actual and significant disruption experienced by the university as a result of Dr. Cramer’s use of a university resource.”

Cramer calls this explanation “absurd.” He thinks the punishment can be attributed to something else: “I think it was spite,” he says, for past disputes with administrators since his retirement in 1994.

In 2009, Cramer landed in hot water after making an impolitic remark about his marksmanship over e-mail. As the faculty adviser to a conservative political group called Youth for Western Civilization, Cramer was targeted by liberal activists on campus, who distributed fliers with his photograph and phone number and accused him of bigotry. When a student group member e-mailed Cramer to express concern for the former professor’s safety in light of the fliers, Cramer wrote back, “I have a Colt .45 and know how to use it.” (Both statements are true: Cramer owns that model of pistol and used to be a competitive marksman.)

Cramer copied the chancellor, as well as a student involved in protesting an event held not long before by the organization, on the e-mail. Neither thought it was funny. The chancellor asked Cramer to resign as adviser to the group.

This precipitated a media backlash that Cramer describes as “a huge embarrassment for the university.” He calls his present predicament “retaliation” for his being a thorn in the chancellor’s side. “I think I am seen as someone who doesn’t take shit from anybody,” he says.

Karen Moon, a spokeswoman for the university, says the retaliation thesis is “just wrong.”

“We acknowledge that employees may have some limited personal use of the network,” Moon wrote. “But Dr. Cramer had been retired for 15 years, and his use of the network was exclusively personal.… We chose to revoke that privilege because Dr. Cramer was drawing multiple university employees into his personal dispute with Mr. Villarosa." Inside Higher Ed asked Moon late on Tuesday to elaborate on what employees were drawn in and how, but did not immediately receive a response.

FIRE on Tuesday accused UNC of succumbing to the “heckler’s veto,” since university employees were drawn into the dispute on the basis of Villarosa’s persistent complaints. Cramer — who says he stopped using his UNC e-mail account to correspond with Villarosa last December at the request of university lawyers, and removed that account from the FOCAS website before the university decided to block his network access in April — should not be punished just because someone bullied university lawyers into doing an investigation, FIRE officials said in a release.

Cramer, meanwhile, says it is false that he no longer used his UNC e-mail address for official business. He has published a number of articles since retiring, and worries that having no university-based platform for scholarly correspondence or electronic access to UNC’s scholarly journals could harm his scholarship.

Chapel Hill’s policy on acceptable use of the university network says that users must not “misuse or appropriate the university’s name, network names, or network address spaces.” It says nothing about e-mail addresses specifically. Strohm, the UNC lawyer, did not in fact mention that policy in her letter to FIRE defending the action. She cited instead the university’s 1997 personal use policy. Oddly, Strohm omitted the line in that policy mandating that “the use [of university resources] neither expresses nor implies sponsorship or endorsement by the university.” Instead, she argued that Cramer’s misuse of university e-mail created a situation that unduly diverted university resources.

“If [the university] explicitly states that there is no personal business use of the name, then of course that kind of use would be a problem,” says Tracy Mitrano, director of IT policy at Cornell University. “If there is something along the lines of incidental use, then one should use good judgment.

“The most difficult case is where there is no policy,” Mitrano continues. “… Institutions should express the rules through policy, and more specific facts are needed to know how to think about this issue.”

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Cases: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Heckler’s Veto Results in Termination of Emeritus Professor’s Network Access