Ryan Johnson, Published June 25 2013
NDSU president says his email account was 'compromised' several times by University System staff
FARGO – North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani said Tuesday that a preliminary evaluation of his email account found it was “compromised” several times this year by North Dakota University System computer accounts without his knowledge.
The issue came up as he offered his first response to allegations that more than 45,000 emails were deleted from his inbox on or around April 29 – the same day as an open records request from the Legislative Council on behalf of an unnamed legislator. The request sought emails from higher education officials and campus presidents that some believed were trying to undermine former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, whose contract was bought out earlier this month.
In a Tuesday email to students, Bresciani said NDSU had not yet verified that the emails were actually deleted, and if so, it was still unclear when. But he said a forensic evaluation of his account found “troubling” news – a variety of computer accounts controlled by the University System office in Bismarck had accessed his email.
“It is my understanding that these staff have full access and control of my email account,” he wrote. “You can imagine my chagrin at the discovery.”
Acting Chancellor Larry Skogen, who took over the position Monday following Shirvani’s early departure from the job, told The Forum that any email system has administrators who can access email accounts. But he said information technology staff is looking through evidence provided by NDSU to determine if Bresciani’s account had been accessed by the University System.
“Is it possible for it to happen? Yeah, it is,” said Skogen, also the president of Bismarck State College. “Has it happened and to what degree and by whom and is there an agenda? I want to clear the cloud that sort of hangs over this whole discussion, and I’d like to clear that cloud by finding out what the facts are.”
The issue came to light Monday with news of a June 20 letter from Legislative Council attorney John Bjornson asking Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for an opinion on whether NDSU violated open records laws by not providing the deleted emails.
Bresciani wrote in his email to students that he initially didn’t respond because he didn’t want to “dignify” the allegations, “hoping that my reputation for integrity or at least a recognition of some intelligence would render the assertion ridiculous.”
“More specifically, I assumed that the notion of one person deleting 45,000 emails in a single day (I’ll add that it was a day I was in scheduled public meetings from 8 am until late evening) would in itself sound suspect,” he wrote.
Bresciani said about 900 pages of his emails were provided through the records request and said the idea he had another 45,000 emails on the subject “seemed far-fetched.”
However, he said University System IT staff enabled a new feature in April that periodically “purges” emails from the trash folder. It’s possible, he wrote, the trash folder of his email account was cleared, and he said NDSU is working with Microsoft to determine if that happened.
The State Board of Higher Education voted June 3 to buy out the remainder of Shirvani’s contract after he served less than one year of a three-year contact, a $925,000 buyout that ended months of ongoing friction between Shirvani and a group of detractors that included some lawmakers and campus presidents.
Bresciani, for instance, said in his email to students Tuesday that the access University System staff had to his email account and the allegations that he had deleted emails to evade an open records request “took place during a less than commendable period for the System office” and that he thinks “nothing like this will ever be repeated.”
“In light of that I will choose to dismiss the above, regardless of the details, as an unfortunate artifact of the past,” Bresciani said in conclusion.
The Legislative Council made its initial records request April 29, asking for emails of each campus president from July 1, 2012, to April 28. The request came a day after The Forum published an investigative report gleaned from emails to and from several university presidents about Shirvani.
The Legislative Council’s request was eventually narrowed, asking for presidents’ emails from Nov. 1, 2012, to May 1 that mentioned Shirvani or several others involved in the dispute with the chancellor. NDSU replied with about 900 pages of emails, prompting Legislative Council to ask the University System if anything had been deleted.
General Counsel Claire Holloway responded June 17, writing that IT specialists found “a deletion of about 45,375 emails (about 4 gigabytes of data) from President Bresciani’s Outlook inbox that day (April 29).”
Skogen said University System staff is investigating the situation. He said the emails likely are still around somewhere, and IT workers are looking into the digital trail left behind even if they were deleted.
“I’m hopeful in the next couple days that we can answer all of the questions that everybody has about this so we can say where the 45,000 emails are at, what they contain, when were they deleted and by whom were they deleted, and we can answer all those questions,” he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587