Officials are backing away from a controversial rule allowing Minnesota's state colleges and universities to examine the personal cellphones of their employees.
The new rule, which took effect April 1, gave administrators the right to inspect privately owned phones, computers and other mobile devices if employees used them for work.
But after pushback from employees and state legislators, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system agreed last week to shelve the rule until a compromise can be worked out.
Under the agreement, MnSCU said it would not enforce the rule while an employee/management work group comes up with alternative language.
"They were aware of the fact that a lot of people were up in arms about it," said Ricardo Muggli, a technology specialist at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a union steward for the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, which represents some 2,000 MnSCU workers. "People felt that it was overstepping the bounds of privacy."
In March, MnSCU officials said the rule was needed in order to protect such "government data" as text messages and e-mails that may be contained on employees' cellphones or other devices. The rule stated that employees of all 31 state colleges and universities may be required to hand over their own devices for inspection and that they may be disciplined if they refuse.
In the weeks since the rule took effect, Muggli said, many MnSCU employees stopped using their phones for work — meaning that students and colleagues could no longer reach them after hours.
"People have said, 'Don't call me on my personal cellphone; don't text me'," he said. "There are quite a few people who are changing their behavior."
News of the cellphone rule also prompted a state Senate committee to call for possible hearings and a moratorium on enforcing the policy.
On Friday, leaders of six unions, representing thousands of faculty members and other employees, met with MnSCU leaders to express their concerns, said Jim Grabowska, a MSU-Mankato professor who is president of the Inter Faculty Organization.
"We were all articulating the same position — that this is intrusive and invasive and goes after personal data in a way that's unacceptable," Grabowska said. "When you are faced with six or seven different bargaining units … all expressing the same level of concern, then you may want to pause for a moment and say 'perhaps we need to make some adjustments.' I think that's exactly what happened."
A MnSCU spokesman had no comment Tuesday on what prompted the change in direction. The system has nearly 17,000 employees.
The unions have proposed a compromise to address both the security and privacy concerns, Grabowska said. It calls for employees to "make a good faith effort to provide a copy of business-related data that is on their device," if requested by their employers.
"This has always been our position," he said. "You want the data, we'll give you the data. But it's when you take the phone that we've got a problem."