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Groundhog Day

When it comes to IT budgets, the "new normal" is looking a lot like the "same old, same old."

The sound of wailing and the gnashing of teeth mean it's budget time again in campus IT shops. For many CIOs, it's like a scene out of Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray wakes up each morning to find that he is stuck in the same day. Budgets have declined or been flat for four years now. And Casey Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, told CT in a January feature, "2012: What's Hot, What's Not," that he doesn't expect any improvement this year either. It's enough to make the strongest IT leader follow Punxsutawney Phil's lead and hibernate for another six weeks.

Lying low is the wrong approach, though. In fact, the budget crisis rocking higher education is the perfect time for IT executives to raise their visibility on campus and reposition their organization. As Dian Schaffhauser details in "Succeeding in the New Normal," enterprising IT executives are shifting the university conversation away from IT as a cost center to a new perception of the organization as a money-saving efficiency expert.

Departments in every corner of higher ed institutions--from facilities to human resources--are under the cosh to trim budgets, and IT is perfectly positioned to provide them with tech solutions that can both save money and increase productivity. Budget pressures are convincing even some of the most die-hard traditionalists that it might be time to try something new.

Cocooned in our tech community, we sometimes forget just how rooted employees and departments can be in processes that date back 50 years or more. A friend of mine recently joined an educational institution to help with payroll. Her supervisor still maintains all her contacts on a Rolodex and prints every e-mail for her files.

While today's current budget woes may make such employees more receptive to change, it's probably not enough to clinch the deal. To succeed, IT leaders need to build a quantifiable track record that can convince naysayers and, more important, make supporters of top administrators on campus. And then they need to broadcast their successes from the rooftops. Nothing is more persuasive than success.

CIOs are obviously looking at improving the efficiency of their own organizations, too. How many IT groups today have lost employees or are reliant on staffers with less experience? In the same cover story, Tim Chester, CIO of the University of Georgia, gives some compelling advice: "The most important decisions that IT leaders make in this day and age are what you choose not to do." Trimming IT's catalog of services is a key first step in dealing with anemic operational budgets.

But IT shops are also coming up with innovative ways to secure additional resources. In "Means of Production," writer David Raths explores the possibilities of distributing homegrown products--commercially or via open source--to a wider audience. By going the open source route, under-resourced IT groups can gain access to a broad development community to help improve their product. By going the commercial route, universities can raise sorely needed revenues to offset budget cuts. Either way, IT groups are showing that it doesn't have to be the "same old, same old." From the winter of our discontent come the first signs of spring. Just ask Phil.

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