Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2009

CAUT Warns about Threat to Faculty Custody & Control of their Files

<em>[Photo: 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation]</em>
[Photo: 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation]
Despite the longstanding practice in universities that academic staff have custody and control of their files and records, recent challenges have arisen following access to information requests.

CAUT has urged member associations to remain vigilant for any request individual academic staff may receive, whether in relation to access to information or otherwise, that would require them to provide the university’s administration with access to their documents, email, files or records.

In a nine-page memo, CAUT executive director James Turk said that academic staff custody and control of their own files and records is a vital underpinning of academic freedom.

The memo, issued to all member associations last month, noted that for that reason, “it has been the longstanding practice in Canadian universities that, with limited exceptions, documents and records in academic staff members’ files and offices, whether hard copy or electronic, have been in their custody and control — not in the universities’. In some cases, this practice has been codified in university policies.”

CAUT considers the exceptions to be restricted to documents an academic staff member received or produced in relation to an administrative function for the university, such as in the capa­city of departmental chair, graduate secretary or member of a university/ faculty/de­part­mental committee. Even then, only those records pertaining directly to those administrative functions would be in the university’s custody or control. Email sent to colleagues while chair, but not in the person’s capacity as chair, would not be in the university’s custody or control.

To illustrate what has been the practice, Turk asked colleagues to imagine coming into their offices and finding the dean going through their file cabinet or reading their email. “The typical response,” Turk said, “would rightly be outrage because your files and re-cords are your files and records, not the university’s.”

He added, “Similarly, if you retire or take a job at another university, the practice is not that you must leave all your records, notes and files — taking only pictures of your family and your coffee cup with you — as is the norm in most workplaces where the departing person is given a box in which to put personal effects.”

According to Turk, the fact that electronic records are on a university’s server gives the administration no more rights to them than they have to hard copy records stored in a university-owned file cabinet in a university-owned building where academic staff members have their offices.

“Access legislation does not extend or change what documents are in an institution’s custody or control,” Turk said. “Nor does it define ‘custody’ or ‘control’.

“Customary practice in each sector becomes a key basis for determining what is in any type of institution’s custody or control and what is not — thereby defining what falls under access to information legislation.”