Trust, but Verify
In the IT game of Who Do You Trust? We may need more than a hope and a
However you feel about Ronald Reagan, there is no question that he truly was
a Great Communicator. Reagan (and his handlers) could create or turn a sound
bite into a phrase that would linger long beyond the moment. You may recall
that in 1987, Reagan, citing an old Russian proverb, told Soviet Premier Mikhail
Gorbachev that the foundation for the new
US-Soviet relationship surrounding arms control would be “trust, but verify”
(doveryay, no proveryay). In fact, Reagan’s comment to Gorbachev
has found life well beyond the context of the 1980s US-Russian discussions on
arms control: Google cites more than 16,000 references to “trust, but
Interestingly, in recent months I have been hearing that Reaganesque “trust,
but verify” theme, as senior campus officials discuss IT issues affecting
their institutions. For example, “trust, but verify” was clearly
the message that Miami University (OH) President James Garland
offered to the 200 campus IT officials from Ohio colleges and universities who
convened on his campus for the April 2004 Ohio Higher Education Computing Council
(OHECC) conference. In his welcoming statement to the OHECC audience, Garland,
a physicist by training, described himself as a “fan of good technology.”
But, the best technology, Garland observed, “is that which you don’t
notice, unless it is to admire its elegance or effectiveness. Unfortunately,”
he added, “we’re still noticing computers—and not for their
elegance or effectiveness.”
Who Can We Trust?
Speaking about his presidential colleagues and directly to the OHCCE audience,
Garland noted that a key challenge confronting senior campus officials is, “Who
do we trust about IT needs?” Noting that presidents and provosts
“often lack the technical knowledge to evaluate proposals,” he stated
that it is senior IT people who must translate technology options and vendor
proposals into real and effective campus solutions. Garland’s public statement
ech'es the growing number of private conversations (rants?) about IT issues
on campus and in higher education.
What, precisely, has fostered the “trust, but verify” mentality
among college presidents, provosts, and trustees, not to mention many faculty?
1—Tech consumes big bucks. Perhaps the most
obvious factor is that colleges spend lots of money on technology: hardware,
software, tech people, administrative systems, course management systems, digital
content, campus Web sites, and more. Moreover, the decentralized nature of much
of campus IT spending means that most colleges and universities probably need
a small team of forensic accountants to unearth exactly how much campus money
is actually spent on information technology.
That said, there are some general indicators for campus IT spending: data from
the Campus Computing Project (www.campuscomputing.net
as well as from the EDUCAUSE Core Data Survey (www.educause.edu/coredata/)
suggest that total campus IT spending now runs about 7 to 8 percent of institutional
budgets—almost double the level that colleges and universities spent on
IT in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Alas, I’m not aware of any reliable
campus IT expenditure data for the late 1980s. There are certainly “consensual
estimates,” but no hard data for this period.)
The ongoing investment in technology seems to lead
to still more investments in IT—without
documented enhancements in productivity,
enhanced educational outcomes, or reduced costs.
2—Tech consumes everyone’s bucks. The
forensic accountants we would need in order to get an accurate number for total
IT spending would find that there are technology expenditures across the campus,
not just in selected academic departments or for centralized IT services. The
physics department needs its own server, while the photography program requires
equipment for a digital darkroom. Individual faculty and individual departments
pay supplemental fees for online journals. Student labs and faculty computers
may be both a departmental expense as well as an institutional expenditure.
The emergence of internal service fees for network connections and user support
contribute to rising technology costs and growing frustration about campus IT
3—Missing bang for the bucks? IT spending in
the Information Age seems to run counter to the layperson’s “textbook”
understanding about the link between productivity and technology. In the Industrial
Age, investing in technology reliably led to reduced costs and rising productivity.
In the Information Age (at least in education and on college campuses), many
presidents and provosts feel that that the continuing investment in technology
for research, academic programs, and campus operations seems to lead to still
more investments in information technology without the documented gains in productivity
and educational outcomes, and without any reductions in IT or other costs.
4—Operating vs. capital costs. Because IT is
really an operating cost as opposed to a capital cost, the continuing (and rising!)
campus expenditures on technology required to support research, academic programs,
and administrative services are an ongoing irritant for many senior campus officials,
as well as for many trustees. The structural obsolescence embedded in hardware
and software, coupled with annual licensing fees for system software and digital
content services, means that colleges and universities are continually buying—and
often buying more—technology.
The ongoing investment in technology seems to lead to
still more investments in IT—without documented enhancements in productivity,
enhanced educational outcomes, or reduced costs.
5—Digital life in the new world order. Finally,
in the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, colleges and
universities (like corporations and government agencies) incurred significant
additional costs to address critical IT security and disaster recovery issues.
Is it any wonder, then, that Miami University’s Garland reports that
he and his presidential colleagues feel IT costs are “out of control”?
Admittedly, desktop and notebook computers cost significantly less today and
do more than the products we purchased five or 10 years ago. But campuses are
buying more computers, and more of other “stuff”—software,
digital content, user support services, etc.—as well as upgrading aging,
if not ancient, administrative systems (student information, finance, human
resources, etc.) that, on many campuses, may be a decade or more old (according
to the 2003 Educause Core Data Report Survey).
The lesson of the “trust, but verify” message may be a variation on the “do
more with less, and do it better” mantra espoused by many college presidents
during economic downturns. After all, in the case of IT, there’s no question
that we are doing more, and we often are doing it better.
Yet, in addition to our efforts to control costs, we also may need to manage
our IT aspirations and expectations. (One of the key lessons of the 1990s dotcom
economy, for instance, was that the Internet changes many things, but not everything.)
Consequently, for those of us who work in or with IT, the “trust, but
verify” message means that while we can still trust with our hearts (“I
believe in IT”), we will need to verify with our heads (document that
the technology will produce and perform as promised). Our goal should be to
align heart and head, aspirations with implementation.
To sum it up, we can certainly trust, but we also must verify.