IRT pondering switching e-mail to Gmail

Despite the national trend, St. Thomas has no plans to outsource its e-mail, but is taking a look at the possibility.

“We’ve been studying this for a little more than a year internally,” said Sam Levy, vice president of Information Resources and Technology. “We wanted to see how this would develop, what [other college and universities’] experience would be with it before we made the switch.”

The trend of colleges and universities using an outside e-mail service has picked up recently as institutions are looking for ways to cut costs. Already, 145 colleges and universities nationwide have switched to Google’s free e-mail service, which is the most popular, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The University of Minnesota and Macalester College have both switched to Google’s Gmail as their e-mail provider. Yet the University of Minnesota’s program is voluntary; students can still use Gmail or the school’s e-mail service, GopherMail. Macalester switched only after its server crashed and workers were unable to get it up and running again.

It comes down to saving money

“When you maintain e-mail and related services internally, you have servers that all of that has to run on, people to maintain those servers,” Levy said. “So you have operating costs associated with that.”

Outsourcing e-mail to Google allows schools to cut those costs and save the money or reinvest it into the school’s network. In addition to the cost-saving aspect of outsourcing, many students and faculty already use outside e-mail providers, Levy said.

“I’ve been asking students for four years whether they have e-mail accounts other than their St. Thomas account,” he said. “The number of hands that come up grows every year.”

But not all students use outside e-mail.

“I only have my St. Thomas account,” senior Caitlin Madzo said. “I use it for everything – personal and school [related] – and I have no problem with it.”

Too good to be true?

Considering that many students have e-mail accounts and the fact that Google’s service is free, the choice to outsource may seem relatively simple.

“On the face of it, it sounds almost like a no-brainer,” Levy said. “Why wouldn’t we do that? Here’s the difference with Google; it’s ‘free.’ That’s their way of getting everyone into Google. The question is: ‘How long will it be free?’”

This is especially important because Google makes most of its money from advertising, something Levy said wouldn’t be part of any deal St. Thomas might make with Google.

In addition, ownership of content stored on Google is a concern.

“Let’s say you’re using Google apps and Google’s storage,” Levy said. “So you have all your stuff basically sitting on their storage area and network. Well, does that belong to you or to them? Because you aren’t paying them, they aren’t getting any revenue from it. How is it still yours?”

Like the ads, any agreement St. Thomas might make with Google would protect the interests of students and faculty regarding ownership of information, Levy said. But it’s an unanswered question at this time.

“It’s a question of accountability,” Levy said. “We are accountable [for] your stuff, including student records, transcripts [and] academic portfolios.”

This accountability still applies even if Google provided St. Thomas’ e-mail and accountability is ultimately what it is all about, Levy said.

“There is a sense that some people would say, ‘I don’t think [Google] is going to be as accountable to me as the people who are right here at the institution,’” he said. “Whatever we would do with Google, we would sign an agreement with them that would guarantee the recovery of information of students, faculty and staff here.”

Getting a read on the situation

In addition to the internal study by IRT, a pilot group of students will use both Gmail and St. Thomas’ e-mail this spring and provide feedback for the study. If the feedback from the pilot group was favorable, St. Thomas might allow students to use Gmail while still offering its own e-mail service, Levy said.

But in the end it all comes down to cost.

“We have a pretty good idea what it will cost us now,” Levy said. “What we don’t know is the costs we are going to incur … There are always trade-offs with these things. It would be premature to talk about costs at this stage because we just don’t know exactly.”

Matt Wolfgram can be reached at

One Reply to “IRT pondering switching e-mail to Gmail”

  1. I’ll be honest: I’ve been forwarding all my UST email directly to my Gmail inbox since I started as a freshman. It’s annoying at times — the forwarding process typically strips out the original sender’s email, so I spend a lot of time looking up UST email addresses in the directory, but it’s very worth it to have all my email coming into one place, which is an account owned by me which I can continue using indefinitely. That’ll save a lot of hassle when I graduate from college; no sending out emails to all my colleagues to tell them my address has changed. I would love to see the “Gmail Option” come to fruition.

    It helps that — no offense to IRT — Gmail has used its stellar hiring pool and enormous economies of scale to make Gmail the finest-tuned piece of email software on the planet. It’s reliable, efficient, somewhat extensible (thank you, Greasemonkey!), and some of those features in Gmail Labs are downright game-changing. UST email, by contrast, still has a bit of trouble remaining online throughout campus during the day, and its interface is basically a stripped-down Outlook, which is the opposite of awesome. So, definitely, there are huge practical, daily benefits in a relationship with Google.

    That being said, Mr. Levy’s quite right to be skeptical, because he can’t just be concerned about the daily, practical benefits. He has to be concerned about possible disasters, including privacy of content and backup in case Gmail fails. The cloud is useful, but you can’t trust the cloud. (I wonder whether some variation of Offline Gmail has been considered, so UST students could access their most recent emails even if the service temporarily — or permanently — goes down.) I hope that these concerns can be resolved to IRT’s satisfaction, however, as moving UST over to Gmail would be a great leap forward, not only for the school’s budget, but for user satisfaction.

    Ooo! And can we get a UST purple-and-white Gmail skin? ‘cuz that’d just be awesome.

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