Be a Web Site Hero, Put Stars in Their Eyes(1)

CAMPUS WEBMASTERS ARE BRIGHT, CONNECTED, STRATEGIC THINKERS AND OUR COLUMNIST ARGUES THAT THEY ARE TOO OFTEN UNDERUTILIZED

A recently-published white paper, titled Her'es of the Web, says an awful lot of very nice things about college and university webmasters. It says that college and university web content managers are the hardest working web content manager[s] on the planet today.

That's probably true, and for more reasons than the white paper discusses. The white paper (which is partially an ad, but worth reading anyway) purports that the average college or university website contains 250 times as many pages than the average other website. Higher education websites make up less than .01% of all websites, yet they account for over 2.5% of all web content.(2)

It g'es on about how vital and important higher education institutions are to our society and individuals in it (no argument there) and makes the point that college and university webmasters play a vital role in perhaps the institutions most valuable learning-related asset (after faculty, of course). Later, it talks about how important it is to be moving to content management systems in order to handle all of those pages and their growing numbers, gives a few Do's and Don'ts about selecting web content management, and then ends with a product pitch. But, like I said, its an interesting (and quick) read.

And its right. College and university webmasters are super-talented, mostly reasonable, strategic-thinking, collaborative, and attuned to their institutions missions.

How do I know that with such certainty? Well, for five years now I have been the listowner of www.uwebd.org UWEBD, otherwise known as the discussion list for college and university webmasters. (Its not-for-profit, there's nothing in being listowner for me other than some work and a lot of pleasure at being connected with so many great people.)

These five years have been a pleasure. The list, which will shortly admit its two-thousandth active subscriber is simply the best of its kind, beyond comparison actually. I can say that with humility because it has nothing to do with me but to do with the qualities of the subscribers. It's an active list, something like 20-30 messages a day, and often about controversial topics such as--Who controls the website? Techies? Media Relations? Admissions? Marketing? as well as more mundane topics. But there has never been a single flame war. (Despite the fact that techies, marketers, PR folks, admissions folks, and many more, are all represented in UWEBD.)

Think about that. An old, big, active list that has never had a flame war! That tells you a lot about the UWEBD community. A recent post from Molly Ives Brower, at the University of Buffalo, also tells you a lot about UWEBDers:

I speculate that we populate the web so visibly because we were the first to discover it. This list on its own probably has more people who have been putting up web pages in some form or another for 10 years or more than just about any comparable web design list--because higher ed had the infrastructure first. We had e-mail. We had Usenet. We had Listservs about Star Trek (STREK-L), mystery novels (DOROTHYL), the 1992 presidential election, and every facet of librarianship. Many of us probably have the first issue of Wired and that first O'Reilly edition of Zen and the Art of the Internet around someplace (and we might have it printed out on greenbar paper too). Gopher was named for one of us, and the best Gophers were at universities (besides Minnesota, I still remember an amazing one at Washington & Lee, and I used to rely on the one from the grants office at UTK for information to put [out] a newsletter of funding opportunities for faculty).(3)

Traditional colleges and universities are such different animals than for-profit entities, or even from other not-for-profit entities. I was reminded of this last week during a panel discussion at the Education Writers Association conference. At the panel was a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, an attorney who is involved in the law suit against the for-profit Corinthian University, and a representative from a large, quite successful for-profit higher education institution.

Our institutions do not look at the quarterly bottom line and it is one of the reasons that what we do is so successful. It means we can plan, plan comprehensively and in an integrated way, and that we can take the time to nurture programs and resources without constant concern that if they don't prove their way in three months then well have to kill them. This is one reason that the infamous Harvard Review article, "IT D'esn't Matter," from 2003, has little application to higher education. (Even though it was taken as gospel by many big corporations, some of whom are now recognizing that to have done so was a mistake.)

Being so different, though, means lots of complexities (thus the integrated planning my employer association, the Society for College and University Planning, focuses on). And few people at a higher education institution sit in positions where they have to know as much about everything that is going on, and make productive, strategic decisions about nearly everything, as do webmasters. In fact, Id say that the three Ps: presidents, provosts, and planners, are joined by webmasters and CIOs as those who need to be the most connected and have the broadest understanding of a college or universitys mission.

So, my conclusion for this week: Webmasters are in fact her'es, more so than the authors of that white paper realize, because they accomplish important, strategically-aligned work in one of the most complicated and important working environments that exists.

My recommendation is that others on campus should realize these bright, connected, big picture folks are there on campus and put their skills to other uses as well. Some webmasters despair over the lack of strategic thinking on their campuses and desperately want to help make things better. Find them, use them!

  1. Just couldnt resist mutilating those lyrics from Foreigners Juke Box Hero; which can be found at http://www.lyricsfreak.com/f/foreigner/54920.html

  1. Her'es of the Web, by Lance Merker of Website ASP, Inc., at www.omniupdate.com.

  1. Molly Ives Brower, on UWEBD, May 10, 2005
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