The Seminars in Academic Computing: A report on this year’s conference in Snowmass, Colorado

Each year, high up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, a small conference of educators meets to discuss issues common to those involved with academic computing. The first conference, held in 1970, was initiated in by a handful of individuals who had determined that directors of academic computing needed a training seminar, because most had been recruited from faculty with little management experience. Since then, the conference has run each summer and now provides not only executive training, but also a forum for professional communications and a key meeting around which some of the most important and far-reaching initiatives in higher education technology develop. The combination of leadership representation and small size makes SAC a powerful and strategic conference.

In 1997, the Seminars on Academic Computing became a CAUSE affiliate, and it became an EDUCAUSE affiliate the next year with the consolidation of CAUSE and EDUCOM. EDUCAUSE vice president Richard Katz spoke about the transition and about the nature of SAC: “For me SAC is one of the most important conferences within EDUCAUSE and in the higher education constellation of conferences; first, because it’s quite small and the setting contains and constrains the size—I think the capacity is about 250-300 people—and second, SAC was created by the community, for the community, and has been operated by the leadership of higher education technology for its purposes. And it has really remained true to that.” Katz noted that initially, there was some concern that the historical reason for being and the spirit of the conference might be compromised in the affiliation with EDUCAUSE, mostly because of the large size of EDUCAUSE and of some of its other conferences. But such fears proved unfounded. Katz explains, “We at EDUCAUSE have always felt that the best way to make these affiliation relationships succeed is to honor what made them successful in the first place, and second, to remove from the shoulders of those who have made [the conference] a success the myriad logistical minutia that successful conferences are all about. EDUCAUSE exists in part to deal with those kinds of things.

Today, SAC is structured in three parts: a University Executive Seminar, a New Directors Workshop, and the Directors Seminar—the main event. The 17-member SAC program committee selects topics and invites presentations for the Directors Seminar with input from others, including SAC board members. “This is a conference of volunteers”, says Paul Gandel, current SAC board chair and dean of university libraries at the University of Rhode Island. “The reason the conference exists is because people want to come here and exchange ideas.”

The program committee, which is representative of the range of SAC attendees, reflects upon the topics of immediate interest on their campuses, thereby developing highly relevant program topics. This year, topics ranged from wireless technologies, to security, electronic portfolios, eLearning systems, portals, bandwidth issues, video-over-IP, open source, and legacy systems, to budget cycles, decision making strategies, career moves, and developing leadership. Many of the papers from this year’s conference are published on the EDUCAUSE Web site at www.educause.edu/conference/.

Every year, the Clair Maple Address is the featured plenary session. Opening keynoter Graham Spanier, president of Penn State University and this year’s Clair Maple speaker, reminded attendees that universities need to understand their customers better, and that “The expectation levels of both faculty and students have dramatically risen as technology has changed educational opportunities for everyone.” This theme was reflected in numerous other presentations as technology leaders recognized the demands created by a changing technological environment.

Some sessions attempted to capture or characterize some of the areas where technology needs to be especially watched or researched. A panel on the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) asked attendees to suggest some of these potential research areas, and a session titled “What Technologies Should We Watch?” also solicited input from attendees.

The value of SAC g'es well beyond the formal sessions. Attendees are continuously involved the exchange of information, and breaks and evening time when attendees can get together are as key to this process as the published sessions. Many groups, including other EDUCAUSE affiliates and groups with interests in specific technology projects or areas—examples are such areas as OKI, PKI, or broadband costs—plan their meetings surrounding SAC, given the number of their members attending the conference.

SAC serves a dual function, both as a forum for experienced CIOs, as well as a place for newcomers to get their—footing. This year, one of the “newcomers” was Julian Lombardi a new assistant director of learning solutions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a veteran biology faculty member of 13 years, a developer and early adopter of technology for education, as well as an entrepreneur in technology for knowledge architecture and complex self-organizing systems. Lombardi attended the University Executive Seminar as well as the Directors Seminar. Lombardi’s goal was “...to listen and try to gain an understanding of what the issues are.” The strategy worked for him: “It was very satisfying to see that the thought processes that go into a lot of the decisions that are made are so well-crafted and well-defined.”

“SAC works”, says Gandel. “Someone once described it to me as magic. Who would have thought that three computing directors saying, ‘Let’s get together this week’ back in 1970 would have created something that would continue this long. You don’t find many things that just keep going, based essentially on interest.”

SAC generally meets in late summer, around the first week in August. Next summer’s dates are August 1-6. For further information, visit www.educause.edu.

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