Mira Lalovic-Hand, VP Information Research & Technology, CIO, Rowan University
The nature of university culture is automaticity, of academics, research, development, advancement and other operations. Conversely, they are quite unfamiliar with the information technology (IT) business practices, and are the falling victim of software and hardware vendors whose "our product does it all and with no work required" sales messages are leaving universities exposed to costs they cannot handle, security that was not addressed, risks to data security that may be greatly increased, systems that are not compatible, records that are in a vendor cloud and only retrievable for an additional fee, which departments do not have. Academics personnel in particular, are not aware of institutional implications as they relate to software purchases. The cost of actual software is a fraction of the total cost to the university.
How do universities handle the cost they cannot afford? We charge students more fees, and raise tuition. And how do students handle higher cost of tuition? They borrow from their future (student loans). This vicious cycle will not have an end unless universities change the way they work and embrace best practices of a centralized operation.
Embracing best practices is much easier to suggest than to implement. The very nature of every university is to expose the students to different ways of solving problems using multiple methods. However, the technology is where the trouble starts. Explosions of applications that employ those methods are aiming at the faculty, students, IT personnel, senior management, and the president, simultaneously. Decisions are often made based off of a single evaluation criteria, in isolation, too quickly, with a very little review and input from university’s own information technology department. The most common argument to any rejection of the new purchase order made by IT is—“so and so university has also employed this solution”. Short of writing a strategic plan, the IT team is likely to be overturned on the decision to buy new hardware or software, and is left to figure out how to reallocate current resources to absorb the price of the new technology. This is a dangerous road, and will not be sustainable for any tuition dependent university. The truth is, a well-balanced distribution of spending between hardware, software, workforce, facilities, consulting, and outsourcing is critical to support the technology environment portfolio and cut down on cost escalation.
“CIO needs to find effective ways to provide what is needed without wasting resources on untested, often unsupported technologies”
This is what a university CIO needs to be responsible for: to find effective ways to provide what is needed without wasting resources on untested, often unsupported technologies. In essence, CIO must be deeply involved with every aspect of the university operations. It must run a tight, cost effective ship. All Information Resources and Technology (IRT) should be under one central IT management. Schools and colleges of a university should leverage university IT infrastructure (such as: data center, end-user applications, support/service desk, network for voice and data, learning management system), personnel as well as the application that supports safe and effective technology environment portfolio.
Working together with your IT team is never more serious than now. In addition to these elements, the increasing number of cyber attacks on any large employee organizations are forcing IT operations to invest heavily in security systems. Lack of understanding of comprehensive nature of IT by the university community is changing, but not nearly fast enough. Security requirements and threats from outside demands the IT division to work closely with academics, admissions, research divisions, advancement, student life and others to instate best practices, which also provides fare less variety and flexibility in favor of cost savings and higher security. I am sure every academic department, for example, would find a good use to these serious dollar amounts that are now being directed to encrypting of mobile devices, and desktops.
Restrictions do not sit well with any university community. This is exactly how many universities end up hosting variety of redundant processes such as multiple admissions; classroom technology support, web services, multiple strategies, duplicated systems and departments often become competitors to each other. There is no better barometer for an academic institution’s health than a strong and capable IT system that supports and produces quality services. The recipe is very simple: employ best practices that lead to standards, then to consistency, and to quality. To accomplish this, there needs to be a strong university leadership support for its IT operations. Investing in a strong and capable centralized IT operation is going to pay off in the longest run. It will open up communication channels on all levels, provide stability for key operations, support growth and save the university money.