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Background: I am a fourth year math graduate student in the US.

I currently have three active email accounts: personal (gmail), graduate university (windows live), and undergraduate university (also windows live). Shortly after I began graduate school, I set up the latter two accounts to forward everything to my gmail account. I vastly prefer gmail's interface to that of windows live, so I almost never even sign into the other two.

I coordinate a student seminar within our department, so I regularly send email messages to the department's list of graduate students. In an effort to prevent people from spamming that group, the department secretary must approve all messages before they are passed onto the list. After I sent a message last week, I was reprimanded for not sending it from a university account. This exchange led me to the following questions:

  1. Do universities/departments ever a formal policy in place about the use of "non-official" email accounts?

  2. Do people find it personally bothersome when colleagues don't use their university account for professional correspondence?

  3. Is there anything I absolutely should not send via a "non-official" account? (There's a good chance FERPA could be involved here...)

Any responses to these questions or related comments are much appreciated.

Note: I am aware that options exist within gmail that allow it to send email via another account that I own. It is likely that this will probably be my solution to this problem, but the question I'm specifically asking is about the ramifications of continuing to send mail without the use of this feature.

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    Not a gmail user, but I am pretty sure that the "option that makes it appear as if gmail is sending mail from another account" is just gmail actually sending emails via the SMTP server of the other account, just like any desktop mail client would too. – xLeitix Dec 9 '15 at 8:49
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    A word of warning: if you use your personal email address for academic stuff, you'll never stop receiving academia-related emails. If you choose to use your personal email for academic stuff (that would make it easier to deal with moving institutes), I recommend using an alias. – Moriarty Dec 9 '15 at 9:10
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    I only care about number 2 if the email didn't add enough information to identify the sender, or if it a situation where I really need to make sure I am replying to the right person. So, if I am asked "which day does Calculus I start", I don't care about the sender; if I get "when was our meeting?" is OK as long as you say who you are (and the meeting is not classified). If you ask about how you did in your exam, better use your official. – Davidmh Dec 9 '15 at 11:28
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    Exercise caution assuming gmail can "...send email via another account". I've seen a situation where I did this but one recipient only saw the gmail address and not the university address in their email system. Look up how email headers work for the details. – kabZX Dec 9 '15 at 12:11
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Do universities/departments ever a formal policy in place about the use of "non-official" email accounts?

Yes, at least in Europe most universities seem to at least frown upon using gmail etc. in professional contexts. Whether there is a formal policy against it will differ from place to place. I would not even be able to tell in my current university, as the thought has not really crossed my mind so far. However, our department head is occasionally reminding people informally that they are expected to be using their official mail addresses.

That being said, whether universities with a formal policy exist isn't overly important for you. You should primarily care whether your university has such a policy, and this we cannot answer for you.

Do people find it personally bothersome when colleagues don't use their university account for professional correspondence?

Yes, I personally find it somewhat unprofessional, although I have no particularly strong feelings on this. I do occasionally wonder why people who clearly have an official account of my university specifically choose to send emails to collaborators and students via an account like cookiemonster93@gmail.com. It can't be that they prefer the gmail user experience, because, as you say yourself, it is very easy to use gmail also with non-gmail accounts.

However, note that even using the gmail web client as a frontend for your regular university accounts may already be a breach of policy. At least here in Switzerland, universities are not happy about the mailings of their employees being uploaded to Google (but then again they certainly wouldn't use Windows Live either, so maybe your universities care less about data privacy than the ones over here).

Is there anything I absolutely should not send via a "non-official" account? (There's a good chance FERPA could be involved here...)

I'm not in the US, so I cannot comment on FERPA, but in my university basically everything that has to do with students, assignments, tests, or grades needs to be sent encrypted with the certificate that is bound to our university identity. This also automatically excludes sending it over a different mail address. Every "official" communication needs to at least be sent digitally signed using said certificate, which again excludes other mail accounts.

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    In my experience in Sweden and Spain, many people combine their professional and personal emails and no one seems to care. Furthermore, my two professional emails in Sweden are provided by Google and Microsoft. – Davidmh Dec 9 '15 at 11:30
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I would encourage you to use the university account for all university-related mail, especially when sending mail to other university accounts or lists.

  • It looks more professional, anybody who answers to you is sure not to clutter your private inbox (although this does not seem to be a problem for you, the sender does not know).
  • The university spam filter should produce no problems whatsoever. This is not true with other accounts. Well, a good spam filter should let a well phrased gmail through, but you never know.
  • I've heard that some universities explicitly do not allow to forward mails from university accounts to any other provider. (In the end the university is responsible to ensure information security and if somebody forwards "business" email to some other account, the "employer" can not guarantee anything.)

The second point can be extremely important. If you send some "notice of removal" or some withdrawal from some exam you really, really want that this message does not end in the spam filter.

Personally, I keep private and professional accounts separated and feel slightly weird if I, accidentally, send a university email from my private account. Since I am aware that this can happen accidentally, it does not feel to strange to receive emails from personal accounts of colleagues but I usually assume that this was by accident. I have very few colleagues who use a non-university account for email communication (I guess less that 1%).

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One area not touched on yet is the open-record laws of wherever you may be. In the US, if you are a GRA or GTA and your university is a state-university and they classify you as a state employee (full-time or part-time), it is possible that your work-related emails could be subject to an open-records request (may be called a Sunshine law in your state).

There's a lot of maybes in there because it depends a great deal on the laws of the state and how you might be classified. But, as a student organization president when in undergrad, I had many open-records requests for my emails by the campus newspaper and a few others related to funding of events and budgets. The campus legal department made me turn over access to my account for review (we knew this was possible and so we maintained our own server/email addresses for organization business). It is possible that as a grad student, similar requests could be made and it is possible that you might be obligated to provide access.

Generally the scope of such requests is limited to content related to work, but having somebody go through your emails to decide what is personal and what is work related may not be desirable, and that may be enough of a reason to ensure all work-related emails go through a university account.

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As mentioned by a few, one of the most important considerations (from an American perspective) is that if you are at a public university your e-mails are often considered to be public record and may be obtained using a FOIA or (or at the state level, FOIA-like) request. Attempting to work around that to avoid public disclosure may itself by a legal violation. If as a student I got an e-mail from a professor from a non-university account with the worksheet, etc, that was needed, I could simply not do it and have relatively easy grounds to appeal a 0.

The annoyance, for me, in receiving e-mail from colleagues from the personal accounts is simply that I have filters to help me through the hundred or two e-mails I get a day. While Department_Head@myschool.edu gets flagged bright red and transferred automatically to a high priority folder, and students' e-mails go into a special folder based on class, an e-mail from lolzkats1993@yahoo.com for me will be stuck in the murky general inbox that may or may not be read for days or weeks (if ever).

But with FERPA an important consideration is disclosure of academic records. By using an e-mail system that lacks the blessing of the school IT / legal department, you could potentially be leaking those records. The bigger concern is for the flip side, though: sending e-mails to people that don't use their university e-mail account. Consider the e-mail from a student's personal address, we'll say, JaneDoe@fubar.com. Jane Doe is in your class. How should you respond? You should not disclose that the student is enrolled in your class, and you should definitely not give grades over that e-mail — you don't know if that actually is her account. It could be former abusive spouse trying to track her down, could be a private investigator trying to phish the information, etc. I always a respond to anyone in such circumstances:

Although I read all e-mail sent to me at this address, due to FERPA concerns, your e-mail appears to be one that, if you are a student, should be sent through your official university account to receive a response. If you are related to someone who is a student, you should contact the Dean of Student's office instead.

No one has ever gotten mad about it and all promptly e-mail me back from an official account, often thanking me for showing consideration for their privacy. For students who have had medical emergencies, etc, the Dean of Student's office can handle many things much better, and occasionally if it's an e-mail about an emergency or similar urgent situation, I'll add something to the effect of "but speaking generally, if a student were in X situation, I'd recommend Y".

  • You are so well organized! Very inspiring. By the way, +1 for the answer. – aparente001 Dec 10 '15 at 3:39

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