Getting Out of E-Mail Hell

Getting Out of E-Mail Hell

Spam, recruiting, and scalability are all good reasons to reassess e-mail needs.

A primary mode of communication for conducting university business, e-mail easily ranks as one of the top 10 technologies faculty, staff, and students can't live without. According to the industry research firm Radicati Group (www.radicati.com), total global spending on messaging equipment by educational institutions reached an estimated $315 million in 2003, with around $139 million of this accounted for by North American institutions. Higher education probably accounts for 35 percent of these figures: $110M worldwide, and $49M in North America, say Radicati analysts.

Yet still, e-mail scores high as a top time waster at IHEs everywhere. Shuffling through unwanted messages to find the ones that matter is as frustrating for university denizens as for anyone. Combine that with organizing, responding to, and storing the daily influx, and message management quickly becomes a challenge on both the sending and receiving end of the e-mail chain. Certainly, e-mail is a legitimate form of business correspondence and must reflect the professional stature and cultural feel of a university, but in this day and age, a technology generally considered an asset can teeter precariously close to the edge of liability without proper integration and management. For IHEs, the daily issues and aggravations are many, but smart schools are assessing need carefully, before they invest in new product solutions.

According recent stats collected by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on any given day a whopping 40 percent of all e-mail moving through that university's server is spam, and a staggering 75 percent of all mail originating from off campus is considered spam.

At the University of Saint Mary,
building address-book lists and
tracking course e-mail
correspondence had become
overwhelming.

When it comes to determining what is spam and what is not, though volume e-mail often looks like spam, it is really the content that matters, say the experts. Most current spam filtering software looks for key words and phrases such as "mailing list," "no obligation," the word "remove" in the subject line, or even disclaimers such as "this is not spam." Then, based on the content of each suspicious e-mail, the system will attach a score that reflects the probability that the message is spam. If the score falls within a certain range, the message is directed to an alternate mailbox; if not, it is ushered into the user's inbox. The thing is, universities--bastions of free expression that they are--are less likely than other institutions or businesses to filter out seemingly offensive or undesirable content. They prefer to err on the side of less, not more, censorship. And that can make the life of an e-mail manager--not to mention the daily cleanup by all university faculty, staffers, and students--a nightmare.

"Universities are very reluctant to block a lot of anything coming in," says Anthony Comazzi, VP of Messaging Solutions for the Newman Group (www.nofailemail.net), a systems integrator with a focus on higher ed and a division devoted to messaging reliability and security. (Client IHEs include the University of Illinois, Philadelphia's Temple University, and Troy State in Alabama.) Yet, at the same time, Comazzi stresses, incoming spam can have a profound impact on storage resources and can literally block channels of communication, making it "an enormous issue."

Still, though most universities do try to filter a certain level of spam to a dedicated mailbox, they still rely on human filters--end users--to answer the question of "trash or treasure?" E-mail pros can't help but wonder when school administrators will reach their spam saturation points and holler "uncle."

On the flip side of the spam issue is that of targeted recruitment e-mails: those messages you don't want prospective students to think of as spam! Such messages must find their way through various spam filters (those of an Internet service provider and institutional servers, for instance) to land on the computer screens of high school students--along with the messages from their friends, links to the latest rock downloads, et al. Obviously, sending a legitimate, unsolicited e-mail to a prospective student takes great care and finesse, and should not even be attempted, say the pros, without first making sure the recipient indeed wants or needs to hear from you (whether he knows it yet, or not).

To increase the chances that those messages will get noticed, colleges need to deliver a coordinated marketing message over time and sustain successful one-to-one relationships with all their prospective students, says Kevin Montgomery, system administrator for the University of Saint Mary (KS). What's more, students who have expressed interest in a university should receive a personalized e-mail, never a form letter, says Montgomery. This can be more than challenging for an institution with thousands or tens of thousands of potential applicants, but such messages are much more likely to survive the perils of spam filters or manic e-mail deleters. Short of these measures, Montgomery says his school's policy is simple: "We don't send e-mail to people who have never expressed interest in USM."

Yet even if Admissions responds only to interested parties and personalizes its e-mails, those messages still can get snagged. That's because in addition to certain words and phrases, spam filters flag other message elements. These include:

Large font sizes

Colored text

HTML

JavaScript elements

Any data-entry form

Removal/unsubscribe instructions

A message where the "reply-to" address is different from the sender's address

Unfortunately, there is no standard constellation of things to avoid, and each anti-spam system has its own rules, which can change frequently with upgrades.

Recently, the University of Georgia found itself in a real e-mail crisis when a growing number of users (60,000) were relying on the school's e-mail system, and it became overburdened.

"We were in a position of throwing more hardware at a system just not designed for the work it was required to perform," says Bert DeSimone, director of Communications for Enterprise Information Technology Services at UGA. The university decided it was time to shop for a total solution.

After considering several e-mail systems, the school chose an integrated hardware and software system from messaging system provider Mirapoint (www.mirapoint.com). Now, says DeSimone, scalability is no longer a problem. What's more, students, faculty, and staff are all on the same e-mail system, and system reliability has been dramatically increased. Users can log on to the system anywhere, even on wireless devices, and virus protection and spam filtering are built in. (Mirapoint supports Netscape, Outlook, and other programs, easing migration.)

"We evolved from a simple,
feature-strapped send-mail
environment, to a full-featured
Web/POP3 system."
-Greg Price, Troy State

The same e-mail solution has also been deployed at Troy State University (AL), after an 18-month research and design process, testing 14 products. The new solution manages e-mail for the university's 20,000-plus users and is built around a central LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) server, a dynamic list management server, and gateway virus scanning. TSU went live with the Mirapoint system in December 2002, says Greg Price, director of Information Technology Management for Troy State, converting 5,000 users "seamlessly" in less than a day. Today the e-mail environment can scale up from its 20,000 users, says Price. It offers robust Web capabilities; POP3 access (Post Office Protocol version 3, which allows a client to retrieve a specific user's mail from the server); dynamic list creation; LDAP searches; LDAP-based authentication; virus scanning; and distributed administration capabilities. The solution "solved not only our e-mail issue, but helped establish a robust LDAP environment that has become the core authentication mechanism for many of our campus electronic services," says Price. "We evolved from a simple, feature-strapped send-mail environment, to a full-featured Web/POP3 system." What's more, he claims, e-mail-delivered viruses have all but disappeared. In the 12-month period prior to the new system installation, the IT department responded to over 2,000 helpdesk calls related to viruses. In the past nine months, that number has dipped to less than 50.

One of the reasons college faculty and administrators rely so heavily on e-mail is because it so effortlessly documents and stores communications--especially on-campus course interactions, distance education communications, and even sensitive performance discussions. But at the University of Saint Mary, the distance learning-based Master of Arts in Teaching program expanded so rapidly that it became difficult for faculty and administrators to communicate the way they needed to. Building address-book lists and keeping track of course e-mail correspondence, for instance, had become overwhelming.

After research and product evaluation, USM chose to solve its communication problems by looking at an even bigger picture--one that touched on almost every aspect of its course management needs. Instead of addressing e-mail as an isolated issue, administrators at USM opted for the Internet Campus Suite (JICS) from Jenzabar (www.jenzabar.com). The suite, they discovered, would eliminate the need to build address-book entries, because e-mail addresses are updated automatically and associated with their courses. And via a forum feature and a chat room option enabling instructors to keep virtual office hours for live topic discussion, the Internet-based suite made it easier for distance ed students to communicate with others involved in a course. By connecting front-end portals and academic systems with back-end administration functions, the suite offered myriad solutions to USM administrators--not the least of which was the full-featured, fully integrated Web mail program they had been searching for.

C.L.Gaska is a freelance writer based in Waunakee, WI. She writes about business, technology, science, and travel.


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