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Why the heck does higher ED need chief information/technology officers?

Ubiquity, Volume 2007 Issue August | BY John Stuckey 

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I've been thinking a lot recently about how pivotal the role of the CIO/CTO is in contemporary institutions of higher education. Given that I occupied that role, that's a self-serving notion, I admit, but let's see whether I can make a defense for it that's brief and/or persuasive. The role of CIO usually encompasses the CTO responsibilities I'll talk about; it might also include responsibility for such non-purely-technology areas as the library, the telephone system, printing/duplicating services, and a few other departments.

IHEs are of course not the only institutions that owe their fate and fortunes to digital information processing. In the space of less than a week while I was thinking about writing this piece (1) a storage device containing identifying information for all 64,000 employees of the State of Ohio, more than 120,000 participants in the state's pharmacy benefits management program, and about 230,000 recipients of uncashed checks from the state was stolen from the trunk of an intern's automobile; (2) the failure of computers that record planes' takeoff weight, balance, and fuel delayed hundreds of United Airlines flights for several hours; and (3) a controller failure made key computers of the Commonwealth of Virginia unavailable, creating a severe data-processing backlog in many government agencies and forcing the DMV to close its customer service centers. As one version of the old saw goes, "To err is human, but it takes a computer to really foul things up." Each of those nightmares is typical of daily, literal sleep-disturbers for those responsible for critical information systems.

Still, it's difficult to think of enterprises where the processing of information is more mission-central than a twenty-first century college or university. (Well, eBay, Yahoo!, and Google deserve consideration, I suppose. Stock trading, law firms, banking, OK, but cut me some slack.)

At its core, education IS, I think it's fair to say, the transfer of information to and the acquisition of information by students. Information is our product, our currency, our medium. More broadly, education involves information's discovery, generation, processing, organization, storage, transmission, and sharing. It's impossible for me to come up with an academic discipline that does not use information technology as a primary medium, and in many instances it is the medium of choice and necessity. Faculty members in diverse departments can be heard frankly describing the quality of the IT environment as a vital element in their innovation and success in both teaching and research.

Besides lectures and demonstrations, the traditional and still significant tools for information transmission were books, periodicals, and manuscripts, but the proportion of contemporary library and reference materials available in digital format continues its rapid growth. Simulations, course-management and -enhancement systems, collaborations, multi-media materials, web-aided research, communication with colleagues across campus and around the world, specialized and mass media-these are only a few of the most obvious of today's computer and networking tools of education.

If instructional and research uses of information tools are obvious hallmarks of institutions of higher education, uses in administration and management are no less fundamental. In department after department, the computer-based processing of information is what employees do, all day, every day. If that is obviously true in the Registrar's Office (class registration, course scheduling, room allocations, grades and transcripts, student advising) and the Business Office (accounts payable and receivable, the general ledger, and, oh yes, payroll), it is no less the case in Admissions (recruiting, advertising, receiving and processing applications), Alumni and Donor Relations (staying in touch, maintaining alumni records, soliciting and processing gifts), Finance, Human Resources, Public Relations, Institutional Research, and in the day-to-day coordination of all those activities by the institutions' senior management. Even in Safety/Security and Physical Facilities information tools are key to efficiency and success. Auxiliary Services (dining, catering, bookstore, other product-delivery services) use computers for planning, ordering, purchasing, organizing, record keeping, and the processing of point-of-sale transactions.

It's not just that computers are USED in these areas. The use of computers to manipulate information, I maintain, is what constitutes the work of many of them. For short periods of time, even electricity would be viewed as less critical if it did not put computers out of operation. Offices will continue to work temporarily without lights and HVAC, but if computers are not available, staff members are sent home. (In fact, in one case at W&L an office called us to complain that their computers were not working during a campus-wide power failure. We explained that the network and the servers, protected by our emergency-power systems were, in fact, still running and that it was the absence of electricity at their desks that was the problem. I regret to say that they were not mollified and still clearly blamed us.) Already several years ago it was made clear to us that the traditional academic "down" period between Christmas and New Year's was no longer available as a convenient time to replace and upgrade systems off line. Among the many around-the-clock and around-the-calendar needs people have for their networked systems, the prompt processing of gifts at the very end of the calendar year is imperative for proper tax credit to the donors. "The network was not available" is not something the IRS is interested in hearing.

Is it any wonder that CIOs and CTOs have sleepless nights? I have not even broached the nasty little detail that thousands of our student-customers daily connect their virus-ridden, worm-infected, highly contagious, and threat-filled personal computers to the campus network, which is expected to withstand that onslaught and, by the way, if possible, repair and update those very computers, thank you very much, while delivering reliable bandwidth adequate to their exponentially growing demands for educational, social, entertainment, and sometimes better-left-unmentioned applications.

In our colleges and universities, a fact of life (although a logical conundrum as an organizing principle) is that for every student, every faculty member, and every member of the staff and administration, his or her needs for information and networking resources are the uniquely most important needs those resources have to meet.

CIOs/CTOs are also managers of budgets that customarily consume upwards of five percent of their institutions' expenditures, futurologists whose plans must anticipate developing-but-not-yet-available technology, negotiators and administrators of some of the institutions' largest contracts, enforcers of copyright and privacy and data-security laws and regulations, managers of sizeable staffs of technology professionals, recipients of requests/demands for services and facilities, lobbyists for ever-more-scarce resources, CEOs of Internet Service Providers with what may be the world's most demanding and vocal client base, and occupants of the buck-stopping desk where blame rests when essential systems do not function as desired.

Is it any surprise that I can never satisfactorily answer my mother, born in 1919, when she asks what my job was? The strange thing is, that job was as interesting, varied, and challenging as it was crucial to institutional success. Perhaps that's why it didn't pay more.

(John Stuckey, now reading, writing, and traveling in retirement, did some of these things at Michigan, Carnegie-Mellon, Northeastern, and Washington and Lee and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin. He's an associate editor of and occasional contributor to Ubiquity.)

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