We Have a Plan

Terry Calhoun, Commentator
Society for College and University Planning (SCUP)
University of Michigan

In this issue of IT Trends, Princeton Internet Guru Howard Strauss shares with us his observations based on a 216-year-old information technology plan—the U.S. Constitution.

A Guest Opinion by Howard Strauss

Given that more departments have found it valuable to hire their own educational technology support staff, larger centralized servers are being retired, and given that the proliferation of student-owned computers has reversed the trend of software delivered by servers, what role is left for a central IT organization?

Insight on the answer to this question may be found in the preamble of the Constitution of the United States (Sept. 17, 1787). It established some of the functions that a central government must provide, which are similar to the functions that a central IT group must continue to provide, even in the face of a secessionist movement on the part of university departments that IT groups traditionally supported. Here's the preamble and a quick look at its implications to central IT departments.

The Preamble
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Form a More Perfect Union Departments may be as independent as they want, but they need to all be connected to each other and to the outside world. Central IT still needs to build and run the overall network plan, creating the high-speed backbone, the redundant ISP connections, and the wiring to at least each building, if not to each computer within each building. The network also needs to include wireless networking, remote dial up facilities, and VPNs.

Another network that requires the control of the central IT organization is the telephone network, which increasingly has a great deal in common with computer networks. The potential integration of voice mail and e-mail, the movement toward voice over IP, and the increase in digital services and controls on the phone network make it a utility that requires central IT support.

The network has become so critical to the operation of a university that a central disaster recovery plan that includes the network and key services on the network must also be coordinated—if not controlled—by central IT. If CNN says there has been an explosion at Euphoric State, you can be sure that concerned parents will be calling the university. Many others will be checking the university's Web site. Both of these must remain operational—or get operational quickly—in the event of foreseeable disasters.

While every department might have its own Web site and even its own Web server, the central IT organization must provide a university presence on the Internet with a central Web site. IT must also provide network redundancies to ensure that at least one ISP remains connected to the university network and that there are alternate network paths to each building. The same is true of the internal telephone network. A disaster recovery plan must be centrally administered that plans for unavailability of phone network elements.

While some departments may have their own servers and their own instructional technology, the central IT department needs to provide those services for departments that do not, and needs to be a clearing house to enable the work done in one department to be shared with another.

The central IT department must also attempt to set standards for hardware, software and IT policies. This may not always be 100 percent successful, but having half of the university following some standard is a great leap ahead of total anarchy.

Establish Justice While we can have independent servers and departmental IT groups, the policies that determine what are acceptable and unacceptable uses of the facilities need to be centralized. Standard penalties and administrative actions also need to be established.

The central IT group must also deal with university-wide licensing and distribution of software. You don't get volume discounts when each department buys their own copy of a software package. Some licensed software needs to be distributed via key servers that limit the number of simultaneous users. This is another area for a central IT group.

Copyright enforcement and interpretation, intellectual property issues, Web accessibility policies, enforcement of FERPA, the Buckley amendment, and other IT legal issues all need to be dealt with by a central IT organization.

Insure Domestic Tranquility
IT departments offer financial applications, student systems, and other administrative applications that need to be done centrally. The entire IT business side of the university needs to be centrally administered.

Much of the student administration also needs to be done centrally. While individual departments might use a course management system in any way they wish, a central IT department needs to actually manage the CMS itself. At Princeton, we copy central student and course data to our CMS to put 100 percent of courses on the system at the inception of classes. Every student and every faculty member receives the same interface to all courses. This kind of thing can only be done effectively by a central IT group.

Universities also offer discounts of standard hardware to students and often to faculty and staff as well. Any place where there is a great advantage to having some standards requires a central group to develop and enforce those standards.

Provide for the Common Defense
Our networks and computer systems are under attack continuously day and night. The attackers are quite sophisticated, requiring a high level of sophistication and coordination to counter them. Hackers, viruses, spammers, and internal malicious or naïve users threaten to destroy our systems and data. Putting virus detection software on all computers is essential, as are local e-mail filters, but having central virus detection and central e-mail filtering provides another important layer of protection. When a threat is successful despite our best efforts—and some will be—we need a well-trained SWAT team on-call around the clock to jump in, restore the integrity of the system, and track the baddies down.

If we try to do security department by department, the nasty folks who would like to destroy our systems will have a much easier job.

Secure the Blessings of Liberty
We don't get the advantage of all the things that IT can offer if we can't get help when we need it. A central IT help desk or user services group is essential for making sure we can actually use all the IT offerings. We'd use the help desk much less if good IT training was available on-site or online. A central IT group can also fill that critical task.

The development of enterprise portals is the biggest change to the way we use the Web and develop systems for it. It also holds the promise of making all of our users much more effective and efficient and of cutting administrative costs in every university department. Every university needs an enterprise Web portal and they need just one and only one of them to get the maximum benefit from portals. Only a central IT group—with the cooperation of every university department who owns data—can build the single portal a university needs.

Some group needs to carry the news of IT to individual departments. No matter how big an IT group a department builds, it will not be aware of all the ways that IT can help it and all of the IT facilities that are in place in the university. It is never enough to build some new IT facility; it needs to be marketed to potential users—by the central IT group of course.

Finally, a central group needs to look to the future in a deliberate, planned way. To adapt to inevitable change and to take advantage of future IT developments there must be a central advanced technology group that is poised to turn the next development into the blessings of IT liberty for the future.

Signed By
All in all, there is a great deal of work to run a central government and a central IT group. But we should remember that the Constitution was signed by all the members after these words: "Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present …"

It was clear to the framers of the constitution that no central government was possible without the unanimous consent of the States. If the central government could not offer the States advantages that they needed and at the same time give them the freedom they wanted, then the central government had no chance of survival. The survival of central IT groups will depend upon the same kind of agreement with the independent university departments. Without such an agreement there will IT anarchy much to the detriment of the entire university community.

Guest Opinion by Howard Strauss (howard@princeton.edu), Manager of Technology Strategy and Outreach at Princeton University

Terry Calhoun, IT Trends Commentator (splendid@umich.edu), is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) www.scup.org.

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