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Talking with John Stuckey

Ubiquity, Volume 2003 Issue January, January 1- January 30, 2003 | BY Ubiquity staff 

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A conversation with the Director of University Computing at Washington and Lee University


A conversation with the Director of University Computing at Washington and Lee University

John Stuckey, Director of University Computing at Washington and Lee University, is the former Director of Computing for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon and Director of Academic Computing at Northeastern University.

UBIQUITY: You didn't start out in computing but now you find yourself Director of University Computing at Washington and Lee. How did you go from political science to computing?

JOHN STUCKEY: I first took informal courses in FORTRAN at the University of Kansas because I wanted to know about this new field called computing. Computers then were big room-filling machines thought to be used only by physicists. I transferred graduate schools and went to the University of Michigan a year later.

UBIQUITY: When was that?

STUCKEY: It was in 1969. I went to Michigan to continue grad school work in political science with a Russian and East European studies emphasis. I fell into a database project called "The Correlates of War," directed by J. David Singer, who just retired from Michigan's faculty, and Melvin Small from Wayne State. It was a study of 150 years of international war -- the period from the Congress of Vienna till the war in Vietnam that was then still underway. It attempted to measure and categorize conflict and other international phenomena and then look at possible causes, relationships, and consequences, and potentially to find ways to avoid war. I worked eventually into the position where I was doing much of the data management and analysis, and I came to realize that I was better at that and enjoyed it more than I did specifically substantive topics in political science, although I continued to work through a Master's degree. I found that I really liked helping people figure out what they could do with computer-manipulated data in the social sciences and wound up teaching the graduate seminars in social science computer programming and computer usage at Michigan. It was a great time to be at Michigan, the early days of MTS, the Michigan Terminal System, that pioneering academic time-sharing system. So many creative projects were spun off because of the new accessibility of computing.

UBIQUITY: You spent the years 1964 through 1967 in the U.S. Foreign Service. Talk about that.

STUCKEY: That was my original "what I want to be when I grow up" ambition and my first post-college career, but then the Foreign Service and I had different ideas about the best policies to follow in Southeast Asia. I had a training assignment in the Philippines and was then posted to Bangkok and later to Udorn, Thailand. At the time, the mission of the U.S. presence -- diplomatic and aid, as well as military -- was to generate popular Thai support for the Thai government. I thought it short-sighted to tie U.S. interests to a specific and not democratically chosen regime (the prime minister's previous title had been "general"). I also thought it wasn't likely to be successful. Within a year after I resigned, the Bangkok government had, indeed, changed. No one from the Foreign Service ever called to congratulate me on my prescience.

UBIQUITY: Do you regret leaving Foreign Service?

STUCKEY: No, except that I love languages, travel, and living overseas.

UBIQUITY: What languages do you speak?

STUCKEY: None really fluently, but French best, Russian next, probably. I still have some of the Thai I got in the Foreign Service. And I picked up some German in the late 70s when I worked at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (in what was then still called "West" Berlin) -- enough to find the bathroom and the train station.

UBIQUITY: Well, that's important.

STUCKEY: At times, it's downright vital. There was one more step in my getting out of political science. I realized in the early '70s that I was less and less engaged with political science as a discipline. I wound up administering Michigan's political science computer-assistance program and then moving to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research at the Center for Political Studies in Michigan's Institute for Social Research. David Singer said, on my departure from the graduate program, that he thought my trouble was that I had an "insufficient tolerance for ambiguity," which I've always viewed as something of a compliment. I tolerate ambiguity in a lot of contexts, but I liked the fact that when I was telling people how to use the computer, I knew that I could demonstrate unambiguously that what I said was true.

UBIQUITY: Do you still feel the same way about computers?

STUCKEY: What I do with computers has changed a lot, but it's still satisfying to be able to understand and explain to others how to communicate with computers to get the information they want.

UBIQUITY: You've always been in academic computing. Have you any thoughts about the difference between academic and business computing?

STUCKEY: I've always felt that that there is much more collegiality and sharing of information in higher-education computing, that people there are more interested in sharing the benefits of what they've done, and getting credit and praise for it, than they are in being strictly competitive. The places that I've been associated with -- Kansas and Michigan and Carnegie Mellon and Northeastern and Washington and Lee -- are not trying to steal each other's customers so much as trying to thrive, excel, and earn a good reputation. Much of what I've found most productive and satisfying in my career has involved collaboration with colleagues from other institutions.

UBIQUITY: What do you think has been the biggest challenge that you've had in academic computing?

STUCKEY: I think it is that as you stay in the field longer -- and I've been fortunate enough to go into positions of increasing responsibility -- you do less of what it was that you were good at in the beginning. Thirty years ago I got started (in what was then not even seen as the profession it became) because I could write and help others write computer solutions to interesting problems and challenges. I don't devise many solutions to interesting problems using computers these days. I tend to work a lot with budgets and personnel and strategic planning, which are organizational matters. I think that's one of the things that happen as one grows older: if you stay in the same field, you see an opportunity to do things by putting resources in the right place and by helping the bright young people who have new ideas pursue them. Any success I enjoy today is less a product of my own ingenuity than that of the creative and innovative people I am shrewd enough to hire and manage. When they go on to be, for example, VP/CIO at Duke or a faculty member at MIT, I feel both humble and very proud.

UBIQUITY: Have you had many surprises in your computing career?

STUCKEY: Gosh, that I still had a job from time to time! Early on, it wasn't clear that "computer support" was something worth paying for. Also, frankly, I've not been good at prophecy; I didn't even foresee personal computers or the Internet, the two most important sea changes that have taken place during my career, although I'd like to think I embraced them as soon as they appeared. There are still surprises day by day, but they're not epochal. They're more, "Oh, I didn't know it was going to cost that much." And, "Wow, it's hard to manage people sometimes." And always, "Why didn't I know about that when the budget was being drafted?" I am still young enough, (despite my appearance) to know that the field has more surprises in store for me. Now, I expect them and look forward to them.

UBIQUITY: Ten or so years ago, people with jobs such as yours routinely complained that they were severely underfunded and that their administrations didn't appreciate just how important their organizations were and how much money they needed. Is it still that way?

STUCKEY: I'd hate to be quoted as saying that we have enough money or people, because that's not true. But in most higher-education institutions today information technology is not as resource-short as we used to be. We get a pretty good slice of the university's resources, because the university doesn't have a choice. When I came to Washington and Lee 11 years ago it was already the case that many people were using computers. Then it became the case that almost everybody used computers. Today it isn't just that faculty and staff use computers to do their jobs; today their jobs are largely conducted on the computer. If the network and the computing resources are not available, there's no way they can do their jobs. It's become a resource that is at least as important as heat and lights. The pressure of rising costs and rising expectations is straining budgets in very serious ways, and I can name five or six positions that I need to add to my staff. But I can't imagine that would ever not be true.

UBIQUITY: What kinds of positions are they?

STUCKEY: Because we have an aggressive PC-replacement system here, we've managed to reduce the number of people who are dedicated to direct PC user support. I think we've gone too far, and I need more staff resources out there. Data security, confidentiality, and protection from all the viruses and bots and attacks that are out there is increasingly important. I don't have anyone concentrating on that for more than a fraction of their time. We've installed a number of new classrooms with very impressive and reasonably easy-to-use systems to link various media and input sources and displays. They need constant tweaking and maintenance. Taking people away from other things to do that is costly to their other activities, but if the classrooms are not available every hour of the class day, then the terrific investment we've put in them is wasted. I could go on. I'd love more depth in my networking and server group. There are so many services the university would benefit from if my administrative systems group had more staff. Still, paradoxically, I feel that conditions are better than they were 5-10 years ago. I guess to sum it up, services are better and more reliable than they used to be, but the staff and I are always looking at that as a partial achievement of what is possible and desirable.

UBIQUITY: This would be a good place to tell us a little about Washington and Lee University.

STUCKEY: Washington and Lee describes itself as the ninth oldest institution of higher education in the country. It was established in 1749 as a classical school initially known as the Augusta Academy, named after the county it was located in. It later took on a new name, Liberty Hall, and moved to Lexington, Virginia, both steps honoring patriots of the Revolutionary War. Late in his presidency George Washington chose the institution to receive a gift of 100 valuable James River Company shares he had received from the Virginia legislature. In appreciation, trustees of the academy changed its name to Washington College. The University enjoys pointing out that each student still receives benefits from that Washington gift.

UBIQUITY: When did it add "Lee" to the name?

STUCKEY: After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was invited by the trustees to become president of Washington College. Although modestly objecting that he was not sure that would be good for the school's reputation, he was persuaded to accept the offer and spent the last five years of his life as president of the college. It was a period of very fertile growth; the law school was brought into the university, a journalism program was begun, the seeds were planted for a business school, and science fields were nurtured. Lee's wife by the way was a great granddaughter of Martha Washington by her first marriage, so there's actually a familial connection between the Washingtons and the Lees, as well as through the college. What survives here as Lee's primary legacy is what he did for the institution; that he is the most popular Civil War hero is a great historical bonus. By the way, we have a great museum to commemorate both aspects of Lee's reputation.

UBIQUITY: And what are WLU's strengths?

STUCKEY: The strengths are in many areas. In the liberal arts and sciences there's an increasingly national and even international draw of students and a top-20 national reputation. The School of Law is also ranked among the top 20 institutions in the country and is the smallest of the nationally ranked schools. The Department of Journalism and Mass Communications is a very powerful undergraduate major. It just moved into newly renovated quarters that are a model of modern journalism technology. Innovative programs are offered by a School of Commerce, Economics and Politics. We're a Division III NCAA school, so we're not distracted by athletic scholarships and high sports budgets and the distorting effect that they can have. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, there is an extremely strong athletics program, both at the varsity and intramural level, and many students participate in it. There's also a great new fitness center, which I selfishly appreciate.

UBIQUITY: Does the Department of Journalism now teach different things than it did 10 years ago?

STUCKEY: You could argue that at its base the content is still truth and investigation, discovery and reporting. But it's done in every medium now, including the Internet. And increasingly, the media are linked together. The stuff you write either is expected to go to all the different media or to be slightly massaged and then available to the Internet, to radio, to TV, to magazines, to newspapers.

UBIQUITY: How big is the school?

STUCKEY: We have about 1,750 undergrads and some 375 law students. A little more than 2,100 students in all.

UBIQUITY: It's surprising that a top-20 law school is associated with such a small college. Is there some history behind that?

STUCKEY: Its small size is related to its strength. It's not only small, but it has an extremely advantageous student-faculty ratio. There is a great deal of familiarity and mentoring between the students and the faculty. The students feel that they get a solid education and are not factory products.

UBIQUITY: Do you offer much science and technology?

STUCKEY: Yes. Six or seven years ago, W&L opened a magnificent new science center. There are strong offerings in geology, biology, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and physics and engineering -- the last one a combined program with both an academic and a professional slant. But I think undergrad students most often choose to come to W&L for the balanced offerings, combining the arts, the liberal arts, the social sciences, and the "hard" sciences. All of these programs, of course, today have an essential technology component.

UBIQUITY: What do you tell prospective students about the technology program?

STUCKEY: I tell them that while one could decide to come here for the technology -- because I'm quite proud of it, after all -- it's not the best reason to decide to come here. I would choose as a student to come here for the vigorous liberal arts or law environment, with unusual contact and support from the faculty, fortified by what I think is an amazing and appropriate and powerful technology environment.

UBIQUITY: What tends to happen to WLU graduates?

STUCKEY: Many of them go on to graduate school, but a lot find immediate placement in great career paths. The Williams School of Commerce, Economics and Politics, for example, tends to place a lot of people in Wall Street investment banking and stock brokering. Bill Johnston, who recently retired as CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, is an alum, as is TV's Roger Mudd and author Tom Wolfe. Law and medicine are also popular destinations. The late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell got both his undergraduate and law degrees here.

UBIQUITY: Commerce, economics, and politics is an unusual combination, don't you think?

STUCKEY: It makes sense if you think about it, because of the interrelationship of the government, the economy, and business. Those are the three areas that are focused on in the Williams School. In many places, they are studied as separate and unrelated phenomena.

UBIQUITY: Well, you make WLU sound like the perfect institution. That having been said, let's give you a brand new job. And let's give you the assignment of spending a fairly large amount of money that some gracious billionaire gives you to found a completely new institution, in a state of your choice, and for a mission of your choice. You can make it small or large. What would you do? If you had to rethink, with a completely blank slate, or empty blackboard, what would you do? Would you replicate WLU, or would you do something else?

STUCKEY: I've always had great respect for the humanities and arts and social sciences and sciences -- the traditional liberal arts. As far as undergraduate education is concerned, I would concentrate on variety, rather than early specialization. There probably are some advantages to size that make it easier to provide both more academic choices and more infrastructure resources (like libraries and information technology) at a larger institution, so I might choose to make the new place a little larger. I might try to unite the objectives of Northeastern and W&L, the high standards of the latter and the egalitarian aspiration of the former.

UBIQUITY: Are there no problems?

STUCKEY: I'm not going to talk about the problems in a negative way. There are always resource limitations, and my statement about size indicates that if we were a little larger we could provide more program diversity. I am in fact fortunate enough to be associated with a project that has elements of your hypothetical question: the American University in Cairo, which is building a new home for the university. The project is to design and realize a new home for the university in a totally new area on the edge of Cairo, and to consider from the ground up how to integrate technology's role in education as intelligently as possible -- not only in the buildings, the hardware, and the network, but also in the curriculum and the culture of the institution. It is an amazing effort, and I'm very impressed by it. Given the enormous potential benefits of education and technology that success could bring not only to the students of the university (which is already a very impressive place) but also to Egypt in general and the prospects for peace and development, it's hard to imagine a more exciting possibility.

UBIQUITY: Can you talk about the WLU networking environment?

STUCKEY: We're fortunate, being in Virginia and eligible to participate in NetworkVirginia, that we can afford a full DS-3 connection for our primary link to the Internet, so we're not short of bandwidth, as so many places are. In fact, we've even got a fallback DS-1 from another carrier and a couple of dedicated DS-1s for specific purposes. We've got a gigabit backbone and 100 megabits to the desktop wherever we need it. We reach every student room and have for many years. Reaching the fraternity houses that belong to the university but are not on contiguous university property was something of a challenge since we're not in a metropolitan area, but we overcame that with a wireless solution we're proud of.

UBIQUITY: Has the staff at WLU embraced the use of technology?

STUCKEY: For as long as I can remember every faculty and staff member who can possibly use one has had a computer. Those computers are kept on a well-funded replacement schedule that makes sure that the systems don't grow old in the tooth and are appropriate for their need. Faculty, student lab, and staff computers are powerful and efficient. Because of the traditions of the university dating back at least to Lee, we have a very strong honor system. Our labs are available 24/7 around the school year, unmonitored, and we've had almost no loss of equipment over the years. At any hour of day or night, one can find a lab machine for doing one's work.

UBIQUITY: And of course the students expect to use computers.

STUCKEY: Of course. Nearly 96 percent of our students have a computer of their own. In fact, 13 percent last fall reported having more than one computer. Our recommendation for the last few years has been that they bring and use a notebook computer. That not only provides the portability that everybody appreciates, but it also allows students to take advantage of the growing wireless network that covers most of the academic areas of the campus.

UBIQUITY: Let me ask about the three last institutions you were with. You went to increasing areas of responsibility. You were Director of Computing for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon from '80 to '87, then you were Director of Academic Computing at Northeastern, and since 1991 you've been Director of University Computing at Washington and Lee. What is the difference in those institutions, with respect to computing technology?

STUCKEY: When I got there, CMU was launching the Andrew Project, a joint venture with IBM to design a prototypical computing environment for the future. It was a visionary environment based on the prediction of every student having a computer that would became part of the student's social as well as academic life. In 1980, when the then-provost described the vision, it was thought to be Buck Rogers stuff. IBM didn't introduce its first PC until the next year. It was an amazingly fertile time to be at CMU with people actively and creatively thinking about the future and what might happen if these little computers actually came into common use and had a network to link them. None of that was a reality when they started thinking about it. While I was there, the future became the present. From CMU in Pittsburgh I went to Northeastern, which is a large urban university (it's in Boston) devoted to inclusive education, offering a college opportunity to students who might not otherwise have had one. The co-op program, combining study and work experience, was pioneered there. From there I came to Washington and Lee, which is smaller and more cohesive, with extremely high admissions standards and faculty quality.

UBIQUITY: How have the computing environments and your job changed?

STUCKEY: From an architectural point of view, computing went from sharing access on mainframes and minis to isolated PCs, then to locally networked PCs, and now to a more fully networked environment. At Carnegie Mellon it was a question of trying to see at that reasonably early date, in the early '80s, the applications for the humanities and social sciences for the technology that was then beginning to be available. It seems to my aging memory not that long ago that the use of computers by non-scientists was seen as a questionable activity and one that many people thought was inappropriate. I can easily remember when the use of computers for word processing and document preparation was seen as an outrage by the traditional scientific and engineering users of computing, understandable in an era when cycles were expensive and scarce. At Northeastern, resources were quite scarce, and in fact the university while I was there got into serious financial difficulties, but I admired the traditional mission of the university: bringing the benefits of education to a population that otherwise might not have been able to think about going to college. At Washington and Lee, the satisfying thing for me has been that because the community is excellent, reasonably small, and well defined, it's possible to have a significant impact and to see that impact and have it appreciated. When the environment is too large, you're not sure what contribution you are making, and things seem to change at a glacial pace. Here, I feel I can help my staff make a real difference, quickly and visibly.

UBIQUITY: What about distance education? Have you had any experience with it, and what do you think of its future?

STUCKEY: There's an important role for distance education, but it has to be defined carefully and be relevant to the mission of the institution. I'm talking about that form of distance education that is an asynchronous experience -- students not together in the same classroom at the same time, with dialog and reading and evaluation activities conducted largely over the Net, for example. There are other forms of it. I think it is an excellent complement to the more substantial elements of a complete education, and I think it has a real role in technical education but a more limited supporting role for a liberal education. In a way one can see the Internet as a vast distance-education opportunity, although the responsibility for organizing and focusing its information depends on the user's initiative.

UBIQUITY: Does WLU offer distance education?

STUCKEY: There's not really a distance education program as such at W&L, and that's not accidental or because of a shortage of resources. It's because the education that we provide is very personal and residential and a complete experience. I have great respect for distance education, but to me the essential question is, is distance education complementary to the sort of education that you are offering to your students? Today, W&L wants its students to be here in Lexington, an integral part of the university's cultural and social as well as intellectual life. Our technology isn't intended to replace that experience but to supplement it. We have a great number of international and other programs that take faculty and students off campus, and networked communication is the primary means of maintaining contact and educational continuity. Of course it's the rare course today that doesn't make use of e-mail and Web pages and other digital tools outside the formal classroom.

UBIQUITY: Who is the president of WLU? He's new, isn't he?

STUCKEY: Yes, he is. Our new president is Tom Burish, the former, decade-long provost at Vanderbilt. He brings a kind of energy from that large and diverse university that is making people sit up and take notice here. I think he's going to be very good for us. He's a voracious reader and pays attention to every aspect of the university's successful operation.

UBIQUITY: What's his background?

STUCKEY: He's a highly regarded psychologist with national recognition in his field. Of course, I could be biased. He got his MA and PhD from the University of Kansas, where much earlier I got my BA.

UBIQUITY: Is there anything else you want to add to our interview?

STUCKEY: I want to say one thing, and it's going to sound strange, but unlike most of the people you interview for Ubiquity, I don't do significant things myself. I am proud of my work and what I've been able to accomplish, but my job and its satisfaction are to make it possible for other people to do creative and productive things, using the resources and the environment that I and my staff provide -- and that's been very fulfilling to me. A departing employee at Northeastern said that one of the things she liked about working with me was that I gave people the opportunity to succeed. I was humbled and honored by that statement. Actual success, of course, comes from her and others like her, and it's never guaranteed. She could as easily have said that I provided an opportunity to fail, but then I probably wouldn't be mentioning her comment to you now. As a manager and service provider, I don't succeed or fail as a loner but look for achievement in the success of my staff and clients. I succeed if the staff enables the clients -- students, faculty and administration of the university -- to succeed. It's not sexy, but it's true.

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