Person reaching for trash bin and digital storage media

ITS Retention Policies: How to decide how long we keep stuff?

What is a retention policy?

Everyone who is a member of the College community creates a “digital footprint” during their time at the College. This means the work they have stored on ITS servers, their surveys in Qualtrics, their work in ArcGIS Online, and any data and other work that is for a shared collaborative purpose, as well as their personal work that is stored in ITS systems. A retention policy is simply a standardized approach to how long to preserve and store the contents of that footprint. While someone is working here, we generally keep all work stored on College IT systems preserved, unless the individual involved, deletes things themself.

Why should we have retention policies?

Retention policies offer clarity to our community about how long content will be preserved during their work here, and for how long, when they leave. This offers clear guidance and helps to preserve the privacy of work. It also helps to reduce ongoing costs to the College for maintaining the storage and systems needed to host data. For any individual, the load may not be that much, but as each class graduates, those numbers can grow to be significant. It further helps to reduce the complexity of what we maintain. As folks leave the College, we don’t have to remember what belongs to whom, after those limits are exceeded. And these limits allow for the resources of the College to be directed to those who are here, actively engaged in the teaching and research that the College supports. Having reasonable policies allows both the coherent transfer of resources that should be transferred, as well as the preservation of the privacy of that content that should be kept private.

There are legal implications to having retention policies. While there are occasionally times when the content created by someone must be preserved for legal cases, content that is beyond our standard retention policies is also generally beyond the reach of legal processes too. So someone who has moved on should not need to worry about that potential invasion of their privacy. The College cannot be asked to produce content that has already been deleted according to reasonable policies. We always preserve what we are required to preserve, and the appropriate College offices are regularly consulted for anything that is driven by legal requirements.

On the other side, we want to maintain access to the content that we’re required to preserve for the ongoing operations of the College, and for the active needs of the students faculty and staff. For example, we must preserve access to course content in Moodle that students may need to prepare for honors exams! Similarly, we want to preserve work of members of an office that needs to continue even when the person who originated the work has left. And we never want to interfere with the ongoing research of the academic members of our community. By having retention policies in place, we can help folks remember to have those necessary conversations with their research assistants as they approach graduation.

Who does this impact?

At some point, these policies impact everyone. But for the most part, it’s primarily about when to remove content created by folks who have left the institution. The other critical impact is to colleagues and faculty who’ve collaborated with students on research projects. When a student leaves, it’s important for faculty who’ve collaborated with them to talk with them and us about preserving the content that the student has worked on at the behest of the faculty member, to support their research. Ideally this is all worked out between the faculty member and the students who’ve participated in their research projects ahead of time. We always want to be sure that the ownership and decision making about content is in the hands of those with the authority over that content.

Similarly, when staff leave positions a the College, there may be work that is associated with their individual identity that should really be the possession of the group or department with which they were working. Again, the ideal situation is that those questions have been asked and addressed before that person leaves. It’s important to recognize, however, that such prior arrangements are not always possible, or sufficiently planned in advance. In such cases, we are forced to consult with department heads and those with authority over those areas, rather than making such decisions ourselves.

What systems are you talking about?

We regularly think through how we approach the retention of information on all of our systems, and consult with a broad range of the members of the campus community to establish the policies that are required. Whether you’re concerned with the course material on Moodle, the surveys you have created on Qualtrics, the maps, and stories you’ve created on ArcGIS Online, the video content and recordings you have in Panopto, or the web content you have on our servers, or just the data stored in Google Drive or other resources of the College, we are developing and establishing policies for all of our systems. There are a surprising number of digital systems here at the College that store various forms of information. It’s useful to think through your own footprint, and to consider whether you really need to preserve something.

Can you contribute?

Of course! We welcome comments, suggestions and considered opinions about what these policies should be. They are created to serve the common good and preserve individual and collective goals. If you feel something needs adjustment in how our policies are set up, we want to hear that feedback. In setting up retention policies, we are always balancing the need for efficiency and costs, against the ongoing needs of the faculty staff and students to preserve information appropriately.

Over the coming months, you will likely see us publish more information about our ongoing work to establish retention policies for ITS systems. When you have questions or concerns, please speak up and ask!