Global E-mail Lists and Reduction of Global Carbon Emissions

By Terry Calhoun

A month or so ago I was at the kickoff meeting for an interesting new initiative to get college and university presidents to commit their institutions to major accomplishments toward solving global warming. It’s called the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and I presume that you will all be hearing more about it as we move into 2007.

At that meeting, at Arizona State University in Tempe, I nearly made a suggestion that seemed at first to be a really good one, but then like a really bad one. It’s rare that I actually manage to keep my mouth shut under such circumstances, and I am proud that I did. On the other hand, I’m going to share the idea with you here, so that you can see just how bad it was, or not, so the effort did not last.

I had recently been reading a piece, originally in The New York Times called “The Green Diet” by Andrew Postman. In it, the author decried his own inability to make lifestyle changes that had positive sustainability effects and detailed his attempt at “weight loss,” where the “weight” lost was his carbon footprint from energy usage in terms of pounds of carbon.

It is an interesting article and I recommend it. If you are interested in your own “footprint” you might want to stop by and use the easy calculator here. I did it as I wrote this. I’m not much worse than the average American, but it takes 26 acres of land to support my habits. If everyone in the world lived like me, we’d need 5.7 planets to make it happen. Yikes.

Where higher education information technology comes in here is that the idea I had was to get, as part of each president’s commitment during the forthcoming ACUPCC, that his or her institution would allow an outside agency – the ACUPCC – to send a single mail message once a week to the institution’s “global e-mail list.” In other words, send it to every single faculty, staff, and student (and perhaps alumnus) with a related “.edu” e-mail address.

That e-mail would include one very brief, short “tip” that recipients could implement to reduce their own carbon weight, and thus that of their college, university, and/or community, along with a plea from the president saying that this is important to them and to their institution and planet.

Well, you can see why I managed to keep my mouth shut in that meeting. The thought of reaching all of those people every week so easily is pretty cool. The global e-mail lists, combined, of any large number of colleges and universities would easily reach into the millions of people, and thus have a huge potential impact.

On the other hand, institutions already struggle internally with how they do (or mostly do not) use those global e-mail lists for their own purposes. I’m a staff person at the University of Michigan and those global e-mails are not all that frequent.

The idea actually came to me because as part of another initiative I am working on, SCUP’s survey of provosts (4-year colleges) and presidents (2-year colleges) about the state of crisis planning and management on campus, I have been noticing the handful of companies out there which are selling colleges, universities, and K-12 districts instant communications packages for use in crises of various sorts, some based on text-messaging, some on e-mail, etc.

The recent reports on the decline of e-mail use among young people are a bit worrisome in that regard, as well as for my idea about weekly tips on reducing your carbon footprint. But far more of a barrier was the push-back I would expect from IT and communications personnel on campus, who I suspected would really not be happy with such an initiative.

Earlier this week, my suspicions about that were solidified when the EDUCAUSE CIO constituent group began discussing “Global E-mail Policy.”

Now, probably any president can get an exception to global e-mail policy made, but the discussion and policies shared in the first few parts of the CIO thread made it clear that this is not an easy thing to manage on campus.

  • One campus had decided to have a management forum where people who wanted to post to the global group could share their intended postings in one spot and then after some kind of leadership consensus process, the notes agreed-upon would be collated into a single e-mail message with many parts and then sent out.
  • At yet another campus, although the ability exists for users to abuse the faculty and staff lists if they wish to risk someone’s wrath, there is much greater protection for the student list – such that only a handful of people have the ability to send to that global list.
  • One campus delegates the authority to approve “global e-mail messages” to the appropriate deans if to a smaller-than-really-global list, or to the appropriate vice president, depending upon the subject matter of the message.
  • At another school, the IT staff aggregates students into a single list called a student hotline, which students can then unsubscribe from. A central repository collects all of the notices sent in by the variety of approved message sources (like the bookstore, athletic department, etc.) and then a single weekly e-mail g'es to the student global aggregate list.
  • At yet another school, the IT staff maintains such a list and uses it for technical communications regarding IT services. The college relations office then decides what other kinds of communications should be shared to the aggregate list.
  • One school has affinity groups that let potential senders sort and organize vast groups of recipients by various demographic information. Students can opt out of unofficial communications, and potential senders have to use up rationed “tokens” to send such messages. Additional tokens are very hard to get if you abuse them. The author of that message shared that a recent message sent to such a list was about “prostitutes,” which shocked people, until they realized that a spell checker had suggested that for a misspelling of “prosciutto.” Fun all around, eh?

In none of the cases that respondents have described thus far, d'es it appear that more than a couple of messages per week might be sent to the global list.

The fact that many do have some sort of mechanism for doing this, which might be penetrated by a weekly tip on reducing your carbon footprint has actually lifted the possibility – in my mind anyway – that the idea might work for ACUPCC. So I may have to write it up a bit more and make a real proposal.

What do you think? Is a weekly tip on reducing your carbon footprint/energy usage something that you think is okay for your institution to send out to the gobal e-mail list if your president agrees to sign on with ACUPCC?* I’d be interested in hearing from folks. Thanks.

* Note that this is not an official suggestion even, much less an accepted principle, of ACUPCC. Your president should consider the ACUPCC request, when it comes around, quite independently of this article.

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