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UNC Hussman email inquiry sparks privacy concerns, sees little progress


In the summer of 2021, the computers of faculty members at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media were searched.  This came after The News & Observer's publishing of a leaked donor agreement between the University and the journalism school's namesake, Walter Hussman Jr.

The publication of the agreement shortly followed the UNC Board of Trustees' initial failure to offer tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. She was hired to be the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the journalism school. 

The University said the donor agreement was confidential. The subsequent inquiry was conducted with the purpose of improving internal data security, administrators said

But, throughout the process, several faculty members said they were not fully informed about the scope and purpose of the inquiry, which searched faculty's computer files, emails and cloud backups.  

Deb Aikat, an associate professor in the journalism school, said it was "a witch hunt."

As of February 2023, there have been no updates to the University privacy policy. 

The inquiry

According to the donor agreement, Hussman donated $25 million to the journalism school in 2019 to be paid in installments. The money, it says, can be spent at the discretion of the dean.

Aikat said that, soon after the N&O published the agreement in July 2021, several journalism professors learned that someone had been accessing their computers — without their knowledge  — to look into the agreement's release.

“This is a total violation of not only trust, but it's a total lack of honesty, accountability and transparency,” he said.

UNC's current Privacy of Electronic Information Policy outlines the conditions under which the University can access electronic information, including emails and data housed on University-owned equipment. 

Donor agreements are one type of confidential data stored in the University's Database for Advancing our Vision of Institutional Excellence, or DAVIE, system.

“Last fall, Provost Chris Clemens charged a committee made up of faculty and staff to review the Privacy of Electronic Information policy and recommend changes, if needed,"  UNC Media Relations said in an email. "This process is ongoing and additional feedback is being solicited from across campus before any changes to the policy are approved."

Some professors allege that the inquiry was a means to find out who leaked the Hussman donor agreement. 

After seeing his own emails  — with identifying information redacted — show up in public records requests, journalism school associate professor Ryan Thornburg said he realized UNC would “leave no stone unturned” in the inquiry. 

“Everybody was wondering: ‘was it my computer?’" Thornburg said. "I did some nerdy stuff. I calculated what's the average length of the name of faculty at UNC. How many characters does each letter take up? How many names were there?”

Thornburg said he found that the University may have accessed over 20 individuals' computers during the search, a much higher number than faculty members had initially assumed. 

The inquiry raised questions regarding the privacy of faculty communications, Thornburg said, and impacts the integrity of the creative work that many journalism professors do alongside their teaching.

“I can't do the job the University is asking me to do, he said. "I can't do a certain kind of journalism if I can't promise sources confidentiality. If I can't promise sources confidentiality, then that limits the kind of journalism that I can do.”

Privacy implications

Thornburg said the privacy policy used during the Hussman inquiry has not yet been updated. 

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He also said it is important to note that the information obtained in the inquiry was not through public records requests.  Rather, he said, the University used an "administrative policy" to obtain information without notifying the faculty. 

The lack of University transparency in privacy policies has led some journalism professors — including Thornburg — to add disclaimers to the end of their emails to notify their recipients that information is subject to searches.

This change in approach to electronic communication is to help inform all parties involved, Thornburg said. He said his email disclaimer now includes a statement that informs email recipients that UNC employees' drives are subject to inspection by the provost and University general counsel at any time, for any reason. 

"Neither you nor the employee will be notified before or after such data is accessed," the disclaimer reads. 

Aside from adding a disclaimer to his own emails, Thornburg said the University should more narrowly and clearly define privacy policies. Such clarity would better outline the legitimate interests behind inquiries like the one at the journalism school, he said. 

“I think it's important to make people aware of the risks that they're taking so that they can make informed consent,” Thornburg said. 

He also said that he does not think any change in University privacy policies should be decided by “individual human discretion.” The current policy applications are overly vague, he said. 

"I think you've got a broad public acceptance that privacy doesn't exist anymore,"Thornburg said.