Two faculty unions are up in arms over a new rule that would allow Minnesota’s state colleges and universities to inspect employee-owned cellphones and mobile devices if they’re used for work.
The unions say the rule, which is set to take effect on Friday, would violate the privacy of thousands of faculty members, many of whom use their own cellphones and computers to do their jobs.
“[It’s] a free pass to go on a fishing expedition,” said Kevin Lindstrom, president of the Minnesota State College Faculty.
But college officials say they have an obligation under state law to protect any “government data” that may be on such devices, and that as public employees, faculty members could be disciplined if they refuse to comply.
“The expectations of employees haven’t changed,” said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU). “All that’s really changed is the language that we’re using to inform employees of what those obligations are.”
Faculty leaders say they’ve been fighting to stop the new rule since it was first proposed in December. It was approved, over their vehement objections, by Chancellor Steven Rosenstone on March 16.
For the first time, the rule spells out that MnSCU employees “may be required” to hand over their personal cellphones or mobile devices for a variety of reasons, from security concerns to misconduct investigations.
It also states that the employer may inspect, copy or delete any work-related information, such as text messages, voice mail and e-mails, if necessary for a “legitimate business purpose.”
“When this language came out, our antennae flew to the ceiling,” said Jim Grabowska, president of the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents faculty at the seven state universities.
He noted that members are still reeling from the 2012 investigation of Todd Hoffner, a football coach at Minnesota State University Mankato who faced criminal charges and lost his job after university officials discovered naked videos of his young children on a university-owned cellphone. Ultimately, the criminal charges were dropped and he got his job back after a two-year battle to clear his name.
“Hoffner blew up because all of a sudden private data became public,” said Grabowska. After that, he said, many faculty members “stopped using state-owned devices and went to their personal devices because, in part, of the chilling effect.”
That’s one of the ironies of the new rule, said Patrice Arseneault, a lawyer for the faculty union. “We thought the personal phones were perfectly safe.”
The union sent out an alert to its members, arguing that the new rule crossed the line. As one faculty member wrote in an e-mail, “No way I’m handing my computer over to anybody — without a court fight.”
Officials, however, insist that the rules are designed to ensure that the data are protected properly, as required by the state’s Data Practices Act.
“We’re not interested in rooting around on cellphones looking for employees’ personal data,” said Anderson, the MnSCU spokesman.
He notes that the new language largely mirrors a 2014 state policy that regulates the use of personal cellphones and mobile devices for state business.
“Our procedure really leaves it up to the employee as to whether or not they use their personal cellphone or their personal laptop,” said Anderson. If they do, they have to follow the rules. “We think this is pretty consistent with what you find with other state agencies.”
Christopher Buse, an assistant commissioner and chief security officer for the state’s IT services, said that Minnesota typically discourages state employees from using their own cellphones for official business. “It leans toward keeping state data on state devices as a first choice,” he said. But employees who choose to use their own must get permission, he said, and could be required to submit the devices for inspection. So far, he’s not aware of any situations where that’s happened.
But faculty leaders argue that many of their members, especially adjunct instructors, have no choice but to use their own phones and computers to interact with students.
“This is the great dilemma for us,” said Lindstrom. “If we come out with an edict that says, ‘Don’t use your personal devices,’ our members will say, ‘Well, how do we do our jobs?’ Because the colleges are not providing us with the technology to do our jobs.” If the schools offered to provide the equipment, he added, “I think you’re talking about an entirely different conversation.”
The leaders of the two faculty unions say they’re hoping to meet with top MnSCU officials next week to try to persuade them to change course.
Lindstrom points out that many college teachers make a point of sharing their personal phone numbers with students, so they can contact them after hours. They go “above and beyond,” he said, “to serve the students. And now this is flying right in their face.”