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Striving to Do More with Less, Again

June 2003: As we enter month 30 of the current (Bush II) recession and the last month of the 2003 fiscal year, many American colleges are behaving a lot like many American families. Across the land, families at their kitchen tables and campus officials in their offices and conference rooms are, in the words of the popular Christmas song, "making lists and checking them twice."

Let the politicians argue over who is naughty or nice in the current fiscal drama playing out in Washington and in state capitals. Elsewhere in the real world of declining dollars and hard budget deadlines, individuals and institutions are again engaged in a level of personal and programmatic triage that we have not seen since the last recession in the early 1990s (Bush I), or before that, the (Reagan) recession of the early 1980s.

Money is tight; future funding is uncertain, especially for public institutions. Hard decisions and tough choices lie ahead. Sure the campus community has been here before, but memories are short, while uncertainty, fear, and hyperbole are all high.

Money Cycles
This year there will be little or no budget dust for new computers and other IT goodies. Each office up the bureaucratic food chain has been carefully monitoring the money lying fallow since August, October, or January. There's a good chance that someone above you—a department chair, dean, or vice president—has been circling (coveting!) your budget and has plans to use your unspent funds to support other projects or to cover deficits in other programs and departments.

These money cycles seem almost biblical: six or seven years of plenty, followed by three-to-five years of significant financial problems. For those who work in (or like me, watch) IT in higher education, the triage-inflicted choices made during the down times are particularly difficult, often coming down to people vs. program vs. product decisions—who/which/what do we cut in the current crunch?

Consumer Expectations
People costs represent the largest proportion of total spending (including IT expenditures) across higher education. Additionally, large portions of higher education's IT product expenditures are really core operational costs: replacement computers and servers, network upgrades, software licenses.

The usually reliable buckets of new money available at the beginning of the fiscal year may not be there come July. Yet even as data from The Campus Computing Survey indicate that tech budgets are down, expectations about the technology infrastructure continue to rise.

Consider wireless networks. One catalyst for the explosive growth in wireless involves consumers who venture out each weekend to purchase inexpensive Wi-Fi routers and network cards.

For the growing number of homes with broadband, the in-house competition for the one, "crappy-copper" connection to AOL or an ISP has been replaced by "multi-user WiFi" that even mere mortals over age 40 can install in an hour or two. Consequently, many institutions now confront new expectations regarding network access from students, faculty, and administrators, prompted by their at-home experience with wireless.

And while Wi-Fi is moving quickly across the campus (and corporate) community, it may not be moving fast enough to meet these rising expectations.

The consumer experience also drives expectations for campus services on the Web.

For a growing number of students, ages 18 to 68, expectations about the range and quality of institutional services available on campus Web sites are based on their consumer experiences at Amazon, Abercrombie & Fitch, Charles Schwab, The Gap, Lands' End, travel services, banks, cell-phone providers, and, for some, AARP.

So even as data from The Campus Computing Survey indicate that the number of campuses offering online registration, course reserves, journals, fee-payment, and related academic resources and administrative services has doubled or even tripled over the past few years, the overall level of campus services on the Web often falls far short of the daily consumer experience elsewhere in cyberspace.

Consequently, as we begin Summer 2003, the campus community continues to confront growing demand for IT resources and services—rising expectations about infrastructure. These initiatives—wireless, services on the Web, and others—all cost money: real dollars, multiyear investments. Concurrently, we are also experiencing continuing uncertainty over financial resources for all of higher education, not just money for IT budgets.

Doing More with Less
Which brings us back to the mantra of many college presidents during the last recession: "doing more with less, and doing it better."

While "doing more with less" makes for a great sound bite, it d'es not play well on campus. Moreover, in the realm of IT initiatives, investments, and infrastructure, the campus experience of the past two decades should provide fairly compelling evidence that the textbook notions that link technology and productivity do not necessarily play out in academe, particularly on the instructional side of campus operations.

Is it too optimistic, too naïve, to suggest that "this too shall pass"? Past experience suggests that we should begin to see a financial recovery in the next year or two, and with it, money coming back into institutional budgets, including IT.

But colleges and universities will find it hard to serve today's students and their rising expectations for IT infrastructure and services with the promise of better budgets tomorrow.

As we have in good times and bad, people in the campus community "strive do more … and do it better." Money just happens to make it a little easier to do so.

[Editor's note: Casey Green will give a keynote, "Command, Control, and Curriculum," on Thurs., July 31, at Syllabus 2003.]

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