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UI emails open, sort of

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University of Iowa emails are open to the public — but only for 14 days after being deleted.

By Katelyn Weisbrod
[email protected]

If someone is looking for an email sent through the University of Iowa system — a public record available upon request — it can disappear just two weeks after it is deleted by an official.

 Once that time period is up, the email is no longer held in the Deleted Item Retention Area.

The UI’s official records are required to be retained for a minimum of five years, including records regarding tuition and development grants for employees. Some documents are never allowed to be destroyed, such as UI payroll records.

Meanwhile, deleted emails are only retained for 14 days.

This protocol came to light after several public-records requests were submitted regarding the appointment of Bruce Harreld as the new UI president by the state Board of Regents.

Harreld was the only presidential finalist who had no background in academic administration. Many members of the UI community were upset that he was chosen for the job, and the appointment has led to several university groups to vote no confidence in the regents.

Law Professor Christina Bohannan, the president of the UI Faculty Senate, exchanged emails in early July with Harreld after he visited campus as a speaker at the the UI Hospitals and Clinics. Stephen Voyce, a UI assistant professor of English, has uploaded records released through records requests on his website.

According to an email exchange between Voyce and Bohannan posted on his website, Bohannan received a message from Harreld that led her to believe he would likely not become a candidate.

However, Harreld’s response was irretrievable when Bohannan looked for it, because she had deleted it. After two weeks, the email disappeared and was no longer public record.

But this isn’t unique to the UI.

At Iowa State University, retrieving deleted emails works similarly to the UI’s.

ISU Public Records Officer Pam Elliott Cain said she has never had a situation in which someone has requested a deleted email. Even if she had, she would not have been able to retrieve it, she said.

“Given that the search was just completed, and the president hasn’t even started work yet, it seems like questionable judgment, to say the least, to purge search-related records so quickly,” said Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. “Given the controversy surrounding the search, there will be legitimate questions about whether records deemed to be embarrassing or unflattering were selectively purged.”

All emails sent from the domain “uiowa.edu” are subject to public disclosure, UI transparency officer Ann Goff said. There are a few exceptions under the law, usually involving private records such as transcripts and medical histories.

UI Chief Information Security Officer Jane Drews said 14 days is the system’s default and recommended retention period, and its primary intention is to serve as a safety net. If people delete an email by accident, they have that period to undo the deletion.

Regardless of the rules for official records, there is no standard period that emails legally need to be retained.

“For local governments, there are some provisions in the Iowa Code that govern how long certain records have to be kept, but for government officials’ and employees’ emails, there generally is no standard records retention requirements,” said Kathleen Richardson, the head of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

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