IT Budgets

Fueling Campus IT Innovation on the Cheap

Cutbacks, downsizing and realignment might just be a recipe for delivering better, more strategic information technology.

IT budget innovation

To read many headlines, one might be tempted to think this is a good year for IT budgets, with more money being found for IT security, mobility and cloud computing. That was the conclusion of a recent study by TEKsystems, which revealed in July that fully half (50 percent) of CIOs in the corporate sector say they now expect larger budgets in 2015. That number is up from 45 percent as we entered 2015.

But many college and university CIOs are bemoaning just the opposite — citing IT budget cutbacks, job downsizing, and the realignment of IT resources.

The campus IT department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is a case in point. According to Thomas Hoover, associate vice chancellor and CIO, and Susan Lazenby, manager of strategic planning and communication at the university, their IT budget per student is only half the average of other colleges and universities in their region.

"We should be spending $9 million on IT, but we have just over $4 million," explained Hoover. With a budget reality like that, "where to you go for innovation?" he questioned.

But innovation is the watchword for campus IT directors this year. There is a growing need to do more with less — to use IT to drive new efficiencies and cost savings. And the challenge isn't to just save money in IT, but across the university as a whole.

Cutbacks and Strategic Realignments

Hoover and Lazenby offered their thoughts on the subject at the Campus Technology 2015 conference this summer in Boston. In a session entitled "Prioritizing IT Budgets During University Cutbacks and Strategic Realignments," they discussed rising demands on campus IT departments from distance learning programs, mobile technology and IT security vulnerabilities.

Take mobile computing, for example: The University of Tennessee is no doubt typical of other campuses when it comes to the popularity of "bring your own device" (BYOD) programs. Lazenby said the university had 809 registered mobile devices on its network in 2009. By 2014 that number had risen to 14,906. And this year it has reached 48,000.

"It's Mount Everest, and only getting worse," Lazenby said. To meet the demand, she quipped, "You could put an access point on every student's head, and it still wouldn't be enough."

At the same time, many campus IT departments face declining staffs. Hoover noted that in 2012 the University of Tennessee employed 50 IT professionals at the Chattanooga campus. Job cutbacks since have thinned that number down to 35.

Adding to the pain: "On July 1, 20 percent of staff retired," Lazenby said. "We gave six month's salary to those who left, which means I have to wait six months to hire to fill those jobs."

But Hoover and Lazenby weren't in Boston to cry "woe is me." They wanted to spread the word that campus IT directors need to brace for rough economic times ahead, if they aren't already experiencing them.

The same message was delivered by Michael Kubit, deputy CIO at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who reported in another CT 2015 session that IT budgets are on the decline at a number of U.S. colleges and universities, while pressures on those IT departments are growing.

Learning to Live With the Pain

None of this comes as news to Ganesan ("Ravi") Ravishanker, chief information officer at Wellesley College, a small liberal arts college west of Boston. If Wellesley College sounds familiar, it might be due to one of its most illustrious alumni — Hillary Clinton.

With a large endowment and a number of highly successful graduates, it might be tempting to think that Wellesley College is insulated against IT budget cutbacks. Nothing could be further from the truth, insisted Ravishanker.

"My view on this tends to be very different than a lot of people," Ravishanker said of declining IT budgets and how CIOs can live with them. "When I bring this up, [many] say, oh well that's because you work at Wellesley and you have a large endowment. That is just not a valid argument because Wellesley is as stretched for financial dollars as any other institution."

Ravishanker had learned in previous campus IT roles never to take budgets for granted. "Yes, we have a large endowment," explained Ravishanker, who also serves as associate dean of WellesleyX. "But when I came in, my second year there was a 10 percent budget cut. Now there is another big belt tightening going on because of some major facilities planning, so it's not like I am floating in money."

Ravishanker also has no illusions that he is alone here. But handed lemons, he is trying to make lemonade — and use the reality of tighter budgets to drive new processes, efficiencies and, most importantly, attitudes.

"The whole notion of budgets not being enough is real and I don't want to minimize it," Ravishanker explained. "But I'm a practical person. I don't let that worry me too much. My view on this has always been one of how can we be creative in trying to use the available resources to deliver nothing but the best services."

Necessity as the Mother of Innovation

Budget cutbacks could actually be the best thing to happen to innovation in IT, according to deputy federal CIO Lisa Schlosser. FCW reported that at a recent CIO Symposium, Schlosser explained that budget tightening can be the catalyst that makes IT leaders rethink how they prioritize needs and allocate funds.

Asked how innovation can be done on the cheap, Schlosser said the key to securing funds for innovation projects is to start with small projects. Once those prove themselves, the CIO can go back to the funding well for more.

That makes sense to Ravishanker, who said IT spending should ultimately be determined by users, not IT staff.

"My philosophy, and our collective philosophy, can be found in the strategic planning document — the library and technology services plan — on the Wellesley Web site," Ravishanker stressed. "We are here to support the core mission of the college. What that translates to is that we aren't going to drive our agenda in a way that [depends on] the latest and greatest gadgets and software, etc."

So how do you do this strategically? Ravishanker said it starts by reducing the IT physical footprint: Rely less on data centers and more on cloud computing. "We're cutting down on data centers," he said. "We went from three data centers to one. Our goal is to have zero hardware footprints on campus."

Next up: a closer partnership with the technology stakeholders on campus — faculty, administration and students.

"Strategically our view is that we really need to be looking at technologies that help streamline business processes at the college. That requires a lot of collaboration, patience and cooperation with the business units," Ravishanker explained. "The technology changes easily, but we want to talk to them in ways that makes sense as to why it is that we want to do this. A big part of the strategy is moving to the cloud."

Staffing can often be a budget buster, of course, and Ravishanker has taken steps to realign IT jobs in order to get by with fewer IT pros.

"Net, we have less IT staff. However, if you really looked at my total number of staff there is some increase because the college centralized the technology support," Ravishanker explained. "The previous administration that managed technology had the view that 'you should figure out a way to do it.'" As a result, each of the college's business units had their own technology support staff.

"When I came in, I said, 'This is just not working because those people are independent, they are not in line with what we are actually able to provide support for,' and so forth," Ravishanker said. That reshuffling of IT job roles enabled the department to better focus on academic support.

Along with the new focus on academic support came improved relationships between IT and users. If innovation is going to truly take root, this relationship-building is critical, Ravishanker said. "These things don't just happen. You need to build the trust of the senior administration that, yes, this guy knows what he is talking about."

Ultimately, trust is key to facilitating change, Ravishanker concluded. "When I came to Wellesley I did so many changes within the first six to nine months, but the campus community trusted the direction in which I wanted to go. As I mentioned, the future is not the neatest and greatest technology and all the touchy-feely server rooms. Our future is about how do I use the technology in intelligent ways to enhance teaching and learning on campus."

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