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Records Management Program Procedures

4 University records retention schedules


4.1.1 The records retention schedule

A records retention schedule is defined as a document that identifies and describes the university’s records at the series level and provides instructions for the administration of those records throughout their life cycle. Each university unit generally possesses a single records retention schedule, and all of those schedules taken together are considered the university records retention schedule.

The records retention schedule details retention requirements and guidelines for a unit’s documents, information, and records, which are categorized into distinct records series based upon the business activities that they reflect. Furthermore, it contains information on what happens to those records during their life cycle, that is, from when they are created to when they are no longer used as active business records. Additional data concerning whether the records are considered vital records of the university necessary for its operations, whether the records are copy or non-copy records, and legal requirements affecting the retention of the records is included as appropriate.

Different enterprises, agencies, institutions, and universities construct their records retention schedules in different ways. Sometimes a college will devise a single document in the form of a large chart that lists records retention information for the entire entity. Other times, a university may create individual records retention schedules for the different constituent departments and offices that comprise that entity. The latter method is used to construct the records retention schedule at the University of Delaware. In doing so, a greater degree of customization for differences in departmental business practices is accommodated. This reflects a structural rather than a functional approach.

Copies of individual unit records retention schedules may be obtained by contacting UARM. At this time, they are not available online.

4.1.2 Records series

A records series is defined as a group of similar records that are arranged according to the retention schedule and that are related as a result of being created, received, or used in the same activity. Records series often reflect different business functions performed by a university unit. Records retention schedules are comprised of any number of distinct records series.

Essentially, records series are the building blocks of the records retention schedules …

4.1.3 Creation of new records retention schedules

Under ideal circumstances, new records retention schedules are created shortly after a new unit is created. Because UARM staff is not always informed of the creation of new units, those units lacking retention schedules should contact UARM as soon as possible so that one may be developed and implemented.

When a new schedule is created, UARM staff meet with the designated records management contact and any other necessary personnel from the unit, who are responsible for providing information about the records that they create and receive in the course of their work. This information should be as complete and robust as possible, including data about types of records as they correspond to individual business functions, volume of records and storage needs, applicable legal and regulatory requirements, confidentiality and security issues, and records required for emergency response and disaster recovery. UARM staff then will take this information and apply its knowledge concerning common types of records series, legal research, and retention periods to develop a draft schedule. Once that draft is reviewed and mutually approved by the unit and UARM, the retention schedule information is entered into a UARM database and the schedule is considered active.

Units possessing an active retention schedule then may conduct records management activities such as transferring records for storage or destruction. Records cannot be accepted for storage if a retention schedule for a unit does not exist, or if the series for the records is not included within that schedule.

Records series may encompass either physical or electronic records, or both as needed.

4.1.4 Revision of existing records retention schedules

The process for revising existing records retention schedules is similar to that for creating retention schedules. When a unit believes that a change to a particular records series or number of series is necessary or beneficial, the records management contact places a request with UARM, with explanations for why the changes are requested. UARM reviews this information and adjusts the schedule as appropriate, which then is adopted when mutually agreed upon by the unit and UARM.

Several different types of retention schedule changes are possible, such as the following:

  • Changes to the name of the records series
  • Changes to the retention period of the records series
  • Changes to the legal requirements applicable to the records series
  • Changes to the vital records status of the records series
  • Changes to the explanatory notes for the records series
  • Addition of new records series
  • Deletion of defunct records series
  • Combinations of existing records series

Alterations to records retention schedules may occur at any time, either on the initiative of the custodial unit or UARM, or during an audit conducted by UARM. The exception to this is that records series to which litigation holds have been applied may not be changed or deleted until the holds are lifted.

Records series may not be deleted if boxes of records governed by it are stored with UARM. Once retention for those records fully expires and the boxes are removed from storage, the series can be deleted.


4.2.1 Records retention

Records retention simply refers to how long records are kept. This usually is measured in years from a specified date. For example, records may be kept for five years from when they are created. Retention also can be triggered by specific actions and dates associated with them. So, it is possible to have a retention of “four years from the closeout of a grant-funded project” or “seven years from the graduation of a student.”

Retention refers to the total time for which records are retained as active records of the University. Since records may be stored in university units and/or by UARM, it is important to remember that retention reflects the total of that time. For example, records may be stored by a department for five years, then stored by UARM for an additional five years for a total retention period of ten years.

How the retention of university records is determined can be a complex task. A variety of internal and external factors must be considered, the most important of which are legal/regulatory requirements, business/operational needs, and preservation of records of historical importance.

4.2.2 Records disposition

Records disposition refers to the final manner in which records are dealt when they no longer serve their purpose as active business records of the university. Disposition follows one of two paths: records destruction or release of records to UARM for historic preservation.

It is vitally important to remember that disposition should be practiced in a consistent, defensible manner. This means that university records should not be destroyed prior to the end of their applicable retention periods without compelling justification, or retained for lengths of time after the expiration of those retention periods without similar justification.


University records may be designated as vital if they are necessary for the recovery of the institution in the event of an emergency, and especially those rights-and-interest records used to protect its assets, workforce, and students. Generally, this only applies to very high-level records and data systems. Examples of vital records are payroll records, insurance records, high-level commercial contracts and agreements, procurement systems, etc. Identification of records as vital within the records retention schedules helps university administration understand which records are needed under emergency circumstances, as well as helping UARM in understanding special storage precautions and records location information.

If a custodial unit believes that a records series should be designated as vital, it requests this change from UARM, which then will examine the issues and make a determination in conjunction with university administration as necessary.


The legal and regulatory requirements and guidelines that govern how records are administered, and especially the periods of time and conditions for which retention is defined, can be very complex and even contradictory. Understanding of these requirements and formalizing them within the records retention schedule generally is obtained through information provided by the custodial unit, from research conducted by UARM, and from the Office of General Counsel or other sectors of university administration as may be appropriate.

When gathering information about pertinent legal and regulatory requirements, units should understand that these may affect not only the duration of retention, but also the conditions of retention. In particular, units should pay close attention to information about the following items:

  • Duration of retention
  • Format of the records (physical or electronic)
  • Manner of storage
  • Manner of disposition
  • Access to records by authorized users (internal and external to the university)
  • Security requirements, especially for electronic records
  • Reporting requirements (internal and external to the university)

University units are encouraged to contact the Office of General Counsel for guidance prior to requesting series changes if they believe that legal and regulatory issues are pertinent to the matter.


Copies of record can be a difficult records management concept to understand. The term refers to the single version of a record, such as but not always the original version of that record, which is designated as the official copy for reference and preservation. Custodial units generally are those that are responsible for retention of copies of record, but those records may pass from unit to unit as needed.

An example is a student’s transcript. The copies of record for transcripts are retained and administered by the University Registrar. However, many university units retain copies of transcripts for their operational needs. These versions collected and used by those other units are not considered copies of record and those units ultimately are not responsible for their retention as is required of the custodial unit. However, they are responsible for complying with the university’s mandates and policies regarding information security and disposition of records as applicable to the content of those non-record copies.

Where the concept of copies of record is important is in legal proceedings and audits conducted by external parties and agencies. In many of those instances, non-record copies are insufficient for use as evidence.