Michigan Follies Part 1: The Great E-Mail Fiasco

I’ve been waiting to tell a few of my U-Mich stories for quite a while now. The reason for the wait is that there are still a few folks around who I love who might not want these things brought to attention. And for that reason, I won’t be naming any names–either of the guilty or the innocent. Even if I knew who that was, and often I don’t! There are no secrets here, by the way, the entire matter was the subject of lawsuits and was eventually reported in the press. I’m not mentioning anyone because I’d just rather not remind them of some unpleasant times.

This story rises to some importance because of all the publicity around Hillary Clinton’s email problems. I write at least in part to demonstrate how silly a lot of this drama is.

First on a lighter note: e-mail or email? The answer is, depends when. I titled this blog entry with E-Mail because that was the “correct” spelling when this story unfolded. Over time, people got tired of putting in a hyphen, so now the “correct” spelling is email. Use whatever you like best! I certainly will.

E-mail was just getting off the ground as a major communications medium when I started my career at the U of Michigan. At that time, the servers were large and enormously expensive computers that were usually called “main frames”, words which eventually became hyphenated and then crushed to “mainframe.” I teach language, so these things are sometimes important to me.

Michigan was at the forefront of encouraging electronic communication and the IT (Information Technology) department was instrumental in convincing the university administration that resources should be committed to ensuring that all faculty and staff had access to such systems. The main e-mail server was a machine purchased from IBM at a cost in excess of $1 million.

Just before I arrived, the Amdahl Corporation donated a second mainframe computer to the university.

Now, one of the ways that this initiative for greater electronic communication could be fostered was to keep the institutional costs low, and one way to do that was to rebill services to corporations or the government whenever possible. If a faculty member was funding their research via government grants, it was completely legitimate for the university to rebill the costs of their time use of the computer to the government.

A problem was quickly identified. Since the Amdahl computer was donated, there was no cost that could be rebilled to anyone. A person I was later to call both my boss and my friend came up with a legal and legitimate solution. Anyone who had a grant was given an account on the IBM e-mail server whereas those who had no external funding were given accounts on the Amdahl (free) server. In this way, the university could recover costs that could eventually be used to purchase the next computer needed to run these systems.

Let me emphasize again that this is both legal and legitimate. No one questioned or got into trouble for this stage of development. But things began to go awry.

As anyone who has worked with soft money knows, grants come and grants go. In order to keep the system honest, periodic audits were necessary so that people who were on the IBM (and thus billed for costs) were moved to the Amdahl (if they lost their funding) or vice versa. That simply didn’t happen. The result was that after a few years there were people who were on the IBM who should have been billed but weren’t (because they no longer had grants) and people on the Amdahl server who were being billed because they had received grants. Note that in the latter case, the government was being billed for services the university was not paying for. And that is the heart of an administrative nightmare.

The government does not take kindly to being billed for services not rendered. My friend, the architect of this scheme, understood the problem and began notifying first his immediate superiors and then higher level university administrators of his concerns. You might think that the university would thank him and work towards fixing the problem, but you would dead wrong.

Shortly after he hired me, he visited my office to tell me that he had been fired. You might wonder what they could have fired him for. Believe it or not, they alleged that they were firing him for creating the very system that they were defending. If there was a problem, they said, it was his fault. And he responded the only way left to him on the advice of his attorneys–he filed what is called a “whistle blower’s” claim on the university. Initially the Federal government hadn’t wanted to do anything about it. It sounded to them like a difficult case to prove. But once the suit was filed, they joined it. Eventually the university agreed to pay over a million dollars back to the federal government, and my former boss received a large settlement. Large, but certainly not enough to replace the career that was now wrecked. And for what? Trying to do the right thing.

And what of the 10 administrators who knew of the warnings that had been provided over a year’s time? Those who ignored those warnings and told people to shut up? The warnings were provided in memoranda on paper, and the most senior administrator involved told the others to destroy the memoranda so that the government could not get them via the legal discovery process. Nine out of ten of the administrators did just that. Fortunately for my friend, one did not and so the government got the evidence. None of these administrators were punished. They all kept their jobs and life went on as if defrauding the government is all in a days work. Only the whistle blower paid the price for honesty.

The university got into all this trouble because of an underlying fact of technology. There are legitimate reasons for people (and institutions) to try to control their communications by keeping those communications in segregated systems. Now that there are a lot of free email systems out there, lots of people have multiple accounts and will use one or another email address to manage such issues. And it is simply inevitable that people will forget that they are one system and start a conversation on that system instead of switching to the “right” system. We now fully understand how difficult it is to “stay straight.”

So am I excusing Hillary’s behavior in the great email brou-ha-ha? No. She did the wrong thing. But we need to keep a sense of proportion about it. Did she recognize her error and apologize for it? Yes. Did her error result in any damage to the security infrastructure of the U.S.? As far as anyone can determine, no. And other than the investigative costs (which probably were substantial), her mistake was not costly. If you want to focus on the investigative costs, I suppose it might be reasonable to expect her campaign or private foundation to reimburse the government. But do keep in mind that much of that cost was driven by opposition party politicking. It would not be fair, I think, to hold her responsible for the portion of the investigation that was politically motivated. And figuring stuff like that out is about as hard as figuring out how to bill for email servers when one is purchased and the other is free.

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