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Shifting Paradigm in Higher Ed IT Orgs: Partners in the Academic Enterprise

For some time now, I have been contemplating the role of centralized IT in higher education. Many of these organizations have grown up in the 1990s, when disparate departments were merged together, budgets were centralized, and IT support, from the desktop to the enterprise system, was shifted centrally. Throughout the consolidation of central IT, the Internet explosion of the early 1990s, the wiring of campuses, the wireless-ing of campus again a few years later, and the massive initiatives to take student systems electronic, the dominant operating paradigm was one of customer support. Students, faculty, other administrative departments and their staff--all were customers of the central IT group, and the support delivered to them was the major business of IT. We were a service group whose work, while important in its own right, was largely secondary to the business of the university environment in which we operated. It was a culture that we largely perpetuated ourselves; this was the model that made sense at the time, and the place in which we saw ourselves in the context of the university environment.

Yet lately this role of service provider to customers has struck me as an increasingly inaccurate model for much of the business that g'es on in a central IT group. To be sure, the desktop and enterprise support activities still make up much of the day-to-day work that g'es on. But new, exciting models are now emerging that must be recognized, lest their importance get buried in the customer support/customer service model that seems ill-fitting in their cases. Many IT departments are expanding their scope across boundaries and effecting change on their campuses in new and innovative ways.

More and more, IT departments are being enlisted in large-scale academic projects on both ends of the teaching-research spectrum. Whether providing guidance for the integration of technology tools in a classroom setting, or creating a framework for a grid computing research project, IT practitioners increasingly find themselves in a position of partnership with faculty, students, and administrators. Put simply, the customer support sh'e no longer fits. Here is how some institutions are already changing the dominant IT paradigm on their campuses:

  • Purdue University, a once self-described “sleepy Midwestern college,” has emerged with many exciting new developments over the past few years. In its commitment to information technology as an integral part of its academic enterprise, it now hires scientists and other scholars into its central IT organization. These people have the academic understanding (and clout) with faculty to effectively partner with them on research and initiatives, and can serve as principle investigators on grants when the need arises. These scholars have the area expertise of a specific field or discipline, as well as the technical expertise required by IT, and can speak the language of both camps, earning the buy-in and trust needed on a faculty-based project, and the support of the IT organization and its considerable financial and technical resources. Under this model, IT can partner with faculty and scholars because they are scholars themselves, and acutely understand their research needs.
  • Penn State has committed to furthering information technology on its campus by providing a suite of services and expertise in its Academic Services and Emerging Technologies group. Beyond providing partnership to faculty and researchers in the arena of visualization and high-performance computing, the group also places heavy emphasis on emerging technologies:

    “Emerging Technologies investigates new information technologies with the goal of reducing the time to market for new information services which will help Penn State achieve its goals in teaching, research, and outreach in conjunction with the University’s mission. Current ET investigative areas represent a broad cross-section of IT areas. Some investigations are already in action, while others are on the drawing board or farther out on the horizon. As the territory for emerging technologies continues to develop at an accelerated pace, ET hopes to play a crucial role in helping to identify, prototype, and perhaps build those systems that will enable technology to serve the needs of Penn State students, faculty, and staff.”

By enlisting in-house expertise in this proactive way, Penn State’s emerging technology group can not only partner with faculty on existing research and academic needs, but they can actually anticipate them and vet them in advance. In effect, they have created an in-house R&D facility that insures that IT d'es not lag behind the needs of researchers, nor wastes time with technologies not up to the task at hand.

It is no secret across academic institutions that a critical mass of information technology expertise can be found in within the ivory tower. New collaborative models that reach across institutions and even into industry are responsible for the next generation of many tools that will be fundamental to the business of the university. Sakai, the open source CMS tool, and Chandler, the PIM being created with extensive input from higher education, are two such examples. At the recent EDUCAUSE annual conference in Denver, made up of participants largely from university central IT organizations, sessions on these topics were standing room only. In addition to original development work being done within central IT groups, great strides are being made in the arenas of advanced networking, grid, distributed, and high-performance computing. In many cases, these advances have even outpaced industry.

How can a central IT body prepare itself for the shifting demand in computing resources and successfully position itself as a partner with faculty and researchers? In many cases, this will first require a rebirth of the central IT organization itself. Organizations must be flexible, dynamic, fluid, and reward innovation. Traditional barriers to collaboration must be removed, and staff must be encouraged to explore, as time and job duties permit, areas of technical interest. My own organization, Duke University’s Office of Information Technology, is preparing for a move to a new facility within the coming weeks. In our case, this is much more than a change in scenery or an exercise in aesthetics. The new space itself is designed to break down the silos that have hampered communication and partnership in our own groups. It will unite many departments that have been dispersed throughout campus with little interaction with colleagues and place us in an environment that fosters informal information sharing and spur of the moment inspiration. The advances made in this new environment will be directly transferred into the work we do for, and with, other members of our university community.

Today’s central IT organizations must recognize the need to create a common dialog with their faculty partners. Speaking a common language means identifying staff members in the IT groups who can address research requirements, serve as principal and co-investigators on grants, create IT roadmaps in partnership with faculty, and develop programs and offerings that are both pedagogically as well as technologically sound. Central IT groups are uniquely poised to play a critical, active role across the academic enterprise, bridging gaps and creating links in research, instruction and extra-classroom academic life. Successful endeavors require a commitment on the behalf of IT practitioners and their partners. Critical to that success will be the effectiveness of the common language and shared points of interest identified by the faculty and researchers and their IT counterparts together. Shared projects with common goals for both parties will establish the lingua franca needed for effective initiatives. In this way, central IT bodies will make the natural shift from primarily support organizations to active partners engaged in the investigation and other activities of the academic enterprise.

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