The current dean of my law school published an editorial in today's New York Sun (subscription required if you want to read the damn thing), a curious choice for a bully pulpit if you ask me. As the dean says, "In a documentary
called 'Columbia Unbecoming,' a number of college students allege that they do not feel free to question the anti-Israel assertions of a group of tenured and untenured teachers in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, or MEALAC; the students say they feel intimidated, such that the classroom has become a hostile environment where their views are unwelcome." Clearly a public relations disaster. I can see why he wanted to engage in damage control.
Then the dean did what sounds like an innocent thing. He sent an email to all graduates, that is, alumni and alumnae, of Columbia Law School, with the entire editorial embedded in the email. In fact, I assume that the reason he reprinted his entire editorial in the email is that putting a link in the email wouldn't work because of the Sun's subscription requirement for Web access.
Perhaps you technology-weary can guess what happened next. Among the hard-working graduates of CLS were several lucky souls who were on vacation and had turned on out-of-office autoreply messages. Now, I just located the original message and hit "reply" (without sending, mind you!) to see how a return email would be addressed. It appears that, if one uses "reply" and not "reply all" that responses should go only to the sender. For some reason, however, those autoreplies, once they went back to the dean, were forwarded to the list. As were all the responses by all the people who became increasingly shrill as they received more and more and more email in response to the initial demands for removal.
Okay, let's analyze what apparently happened here.
(1) the dean either didn't know to ask, or didn't think to ask, how his "email blast" list was configured. He should have been the only person with posting privileges; in other words, since none of us asked to be on an interactive CLS mailing list, it should have been configured as "announcement only";
(2) a few folks were rash enough to use out-of-office autoreply messages in their software, which I put on a par with clipping one's toenails in a subway car;
(3) finally, when the "echo" phenomenon became evident, which was very soon after the initial email blast, people didn't have the self-control, or perhaps the understanding, to keep quiet and just...use...the...delete...key.
Which is why I came home tonight and discovered sixty-plus law-school related emails in my home inbox ::shudders delicately::.
So now the hapless dean has created a separate public relations disaster among graduates of CLS to add to his academic freedom problem. He has, however, also performed a valuable public service by identifying three classes of people who should have their email privileges taken away.
Mind you, I have no strong feelings about this issue.