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Nameless electronic messages let outrageousness reign

Imagine what things could be like if we returned to the elegance of putting pen to paper.

Something extraordinary happened to me last week. I received four personal letters.

I can't remember the last time this happened – perhaps about 1980. At that time I was with the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company in the Washington, D.C., office. The head of the firm, in New York City, was known for handwriting letters to colleagues.

Back then this didn't seem uncommon. In those pre-e-mail days, communicating by letter was quite routine.

When our daughters were at summer camp here in Maine, we looked forward to their letters, full of all of the details of camp activities.

Each day's mail was something we anticipated for just such connections with friends and family.

Then phones became more ubiquitous and cheap. Gradually, the letter gave way to the weekly call. Then came e-mail. You know the rest.

Most of my communication these days is by e-mail. The daily mail contains bills, advertising and at least two credit card solicitations.

One result of this has been the steady decline of the postal service.

Just as serious, the rise of e-mail has also led to a decline in the civility with which we communicate.

There were no cyber-bullies in 1980. E-mail makes it far easier to say things that would seldom be put in a letter and never said face-to-face. There is something about the medium that brings out the worst in us.

Now, of course, we have a new level of attack on civility with the online community. Online it is much easier to create a pseudo-identity. Unfortunately for some, this kind of anonymity is seen as a license to say outrageous things with impunity.

Several newspapers, including The Press Herald, have made online registration more stringent to provide a less caustic environment for give and take in their online editions.

Often comments regarding my column and others I follow are dominated by a few strident right-wing ideologues who drown out any moderate opinion.

The change in registration at The Press Herald seems to have improved the tone of recent comments, but pseudonyms are still allowed.

I would like to see all online comment subject to the same standard as a letter to the editor, with one's name and address included.

The comments I receive directly via my e-mail address tend to be much more constructive, even when the respondent does not agree with me.

The occasional letter, like the ones I received last week from Linda Perry, a retired teacher living in Portland, and Rich Pattenaude, chancellor of the University of Maine System, are like receiving a gift.

Both of these letters took issue with columns I have written recently.

However, they were so well-crafted and full of supportive example that I could not fail to be impressed. Ms. Perry challenged me to "become truly cognizant of how teachers handle the multitude of expectations in and out of the classroom, and how much real support they are given."

This is a challenge I will take seriously, in part because of the thoughtful way it was conveyed.

Chancellor Pattenaude gave me something of a tour de force sense of his priorities and the many initiatives UMS is taking to address some of the concerns I expressed in another recent column.

Not surprisingly, he disagreed with my assertion that the university system is fragmented and inefficient.

He characterized the situation as "decentralized but getting tighter all the time."

He also corrected my assertion, from the Reinventing Maine Government Report, that non-instructional payroll in UMS was significantly greater than instructional payroll.

Apparently the source of the data in question is a U.S. Census Bureau survey. UMS misinterpreted the guidelines of the survey and included a large portion of part-time faculty as "non-instructional."

This discrepancy has now been corrected and Maine is actually only slightly above the U.S. average.

Moreover, recent data from the U.S. Department of Education suggests that the number of UMS employees in "executive/administrative status" is only 2.5 percent, compared to a U.S. average of 4.6 percent.

The chancellor could easily have written an op-ed response making these points. That he chose instead to put them in a personal letter is a touch that I appreciate.

We will still disagree on aspects of higher education policy in Maine, but the framework for disagreement comes from a stronger base of mutual trust.

This week, before sending off a barrage of e-mail, think about at least one you might convert to a real letter.

The postal service will not be the only entity to appreciate your decision.