Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Touching the Void: Fresno State Email User Problems

            For the last two or three months, various people in my family have asked whether I’d received their emails, and I have noticed that some of my emails have gone unanswered—into the void, you might say—but this summer having been more helter-skelter than usual, I just let it all go by. So when my daughter, who goes to Brown University, asked me why I hadn’t been returning her emails, I finally decided to get busy and see what was up. First I checked “spam.” Nothing in there. Nothing in “trash.” Nothing in “junk.” OK, I thought, I’ll go to the people with all the answers, and I called 278-5000: The University Help Desk.

            First, you get the recording: "Thank you for calling the Help Desk. Currently, there are no issues to report."
            “Hi. I’m Craig Bernthal. In the English Department. I don’t seem to be getting emails that people are sending me.”
            “What’s your user name?”
            “No. Craig B. C-R-A-I-G-B.”
            “What’s your name?
            “Craig Bernthal”
            “Can you spell that?”
            “Sure. Craig. C-R-A-I-G. Bernthal. B-as in boy. E-R-N-T-H-A-L”
            “OK. Now, what emails are you not getting?”
            I digested that one for awhile, but regrouped. “I’m not getting them from my daughter.”
            “And what’s her email address?”
            “Well, I’m not calling from my home, and I don’t know.”
            “Is it Google? Yahoo?”
            “Yeah. One of those.”
            “Well, we can’t get email from Google or Yahoo.”
            “You can’t?”
            “No. It’s because of the phishing.”
            “Oh. How’s that?
            “It all has to do with the behavior of our users.”
            “It does?”
            “They get phished. They give their account information out of them and then millions of emails go out from their Fresno State accounts. Millions.”
            "Millions of emails."
            "From the accounts of our users. They get phished. You know 'phishing'?"
            “I guess so. So, what’s the solution.”
            “There is no solution. It’s based on the behavior of our users.”
            “I’m sorry. When will it be fixed?”
            “I don’t know. It’s based on the behavior of our users. Google and Yahoo won’t send us email anymore. Millions of emails. Everytime they get phished.”
            “Can we get AOL?”
            “I don’t think so.”
            “So, let me get this straight. Because people using Fresno State email get their account information phished, and all of these emails go out, we can no longer receive email from Google, Yahoo, and maybe AOL?”
            “That’s right. It’s based on the behavior of our users.”
            “What’s being done to solve the problem?”
            “It’s our users.”
            “So, there’s no technical solution in sight.”
            “Our users have to change their behavior.”
            “OK. Well, ah—thanks.”

            So, fellow users of Fresno State email. Change your behavior! Because this problem is unsolvable by engineers or programers. Or shift to gmail, which probably won’t boycott itself because it’s been phished. My daughter tells me Brown University has gone to Google as its internet provider, and she has a second yahoo account, so that explains the void. But what does Brown have to say to Fresno State anyway?

            By the way, did Fresno State ever send an email notifying it's email users that they were off-line for gmail and yahoo? And how would anyone ever know?

8/8/12 addition: Since writing this blog entry and reading some of the email responses, I've been wondering how many other universities are blacklisted by Google or Yahoo and what the reasons might be. I have not been able to find data on that, but the University of Pittsburgh has had this problem, and their IT dept. published the following overview of blacklisting: University of Pittsburgh and Blacklisting. This indicates that forwarding email from a university account to a Google or Yahoo account is part of the problem, at least for Pittsburgh.

Other universities are confronting the "phishing problem," such as Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. Here is their IT page about the problem: Phishing at Queens University

Our campus does gives us advice about recognizing "phishing" email, including "do not post your email address on your website," which I can't quite understand, because we publish a campus directory with everyone's email address. Here is our page on "phishing": The Help Center on Phishing

How, I wonder, does Google deal with its own users being "phished" and their accounts compromised? It is hard to believe that our university has email users who are more gullible, as a whole, than that of other universities or of Google gmail users as a whole. It seems more likely that every university on the planet with its own email is subject to this problem and could expect some of its users to be taken in. How does any university keep its email in business?


  1. Last I checked, we are also being blocked by and

    In fairness, IT posted this a few weeks ago, immediately after I contacted them about reports I had been getting of my emails not being received:

  2. Yeah, in fairness, I think you're right. IT must go crazy with this stuff. Should Fresno State just use gmail? People have suggested it, I think.

  3. I'm adding in two comments that I received by email. The first is from Connie Hales:

    Thanks, Craig-- I've had an increasing number of outgoing emails bounce back as undeliverable for the same reason. Hotmail and Comcast are sometimes notifying me that my messages were undelivered, but most times I just don't know that the intended recipient didn't get the message. This is quite serious when professional correspondence and deadlines are involved.

    I suppose we can switch to using our private gmail accounts, but that undermines our professional affiliation credibility and mixes up work correspondence with private correspondence. Do we really have to submit papers and creative work to potential publishers/conferences via our yahoo accounts? Also--all of our publicity and professional contact materials (for instance) currently list the csufresno account(s) addresses, so folks will continue to try and contact us that way--and will believe that we are simply not responding.

    I could find nothing on BulletinBoard about this (which is now more time-consuming to search than ever) except a couple of warnings about phishing from Jim M. As far as I can tell, there has been nothing to let us know that we are being blocked from communicating with other servers.


    The second commenter requested to remain anonymous:

    Hey Craig,

    Corrine is the only one to address my immediate concerns: what email do I use? As a junior faculty, the only thing that legitimizes my submissions (grants, talks, papers, etc) is my email address. An "" address plus my official signature is absurd—made even more so by adding the new logo, which looks like I designed on the fly for the purposes of trying (and failing) to look legitimate. I am truly stunned that all forces have not been marshaled to fix this problem; once again it seems that very few on campus know or care what it is that faculty do.

    One might also note that the CSU, Fresno is no longer available to the community—who knows how many questions from the community have been blocked, resulting in the image that faculty doesn't respond to and therefore care about community concerns.

    Meanwhile, I'll be deciding from which of the various poor options to choose (gmail; yahoo [ironically appropriate]; moosehuntersusa).

  4. Thank you for writing about this serious problem with the state of communications at our campus, which has been simmering for a long time. I for one gave up on Zimbra a while ago and switched to the campus' gmail with the a few months ago. I haven't had any problems (that I am aware of) since making that switch. Perhaps an immediate step we can all take might be to make that switch. It is an official campus email address, so we may not need to worry about professional communication so much - even though it is fresnostate and not csufresno, but that's a whole other issue!