E-Records Forum 2013: Implementing Gmail at UT Austin

This is the fourth post of a multi-part recap of the 2013 NAGARA E-Records Forum. Presentations from the E-Records Forum are available on the NAGARA website.

Before it was even 20 years old, the original, legacy email system at UT Austin was ready to retire. It was slow, didn’t have room to store much, and lacked many of the cool features that were common in mainstream email systems. Furthermore, Longhorns couldn’t continue to proudly sport a university-branded email address (like @utexas.edu) after graduation. The school decided it was time for a big upgrade.

In 2011, UTmail was introduced. The backbone of the new system was Google’s popular Gmail application which is part of the Google Apps for Education suite of services. But unlike personal users, the UT system couldn’t just sign everyone up without first negotiating a contract with Google. As IT project manager Dennis Klenk listed out some of the issues addressed during the negotiation process, we saw that what Google offers was often in direct contrast with UT’s needs, so compromises had to be found.

On the first point of accessibility, UT has a legal responsibility to make their email software accessible to users with disabilities. As a private entity, Google doesn’t have the same obligations, so they found middle ground by establishing that Gmail can be used with any email client, not exclusively through the Gmail interface.

When it came to deciding how and where to handle data, there were more contrasts. It’s no secret that many Internet companies are using the data that we provide by using their services. People on campus were concerned with giving Google access to their data, so UT tried to include “no data mining” in the contract. In response, Google said: we’ll tell you what we will do; we won’t tell you what we won’t do.  However, at least one benefit to using services for education is that there is no advertising. Furthermore, Google agreed that the university’s sensitive data would be stored only on servers in the United States.

A few of the other issues involved included how to capture the URL references that Google uses for their Service Level Agreements, finding common language to interpret FERPA laws that satisfied both lawyers and Google, and adjusting the governing laws and dispute resolution terms to suit both entities.

UT also offered some advice for other public institutions that might decide to contract with Google. They suggest tailoring the services to be offered to match the terms in the contract, keep options open and have an exit strategy, and learn from others by requesting public information for other agencies’ contracts.