Report to the
Information Resources Council
of Skidmore College
 
January 25 - 27, 1998
Brian L. Hawkins

It was a pleasure to once again be on your campus and to see first hand the many accomplishments that have been made in the last five years. Skidmore truly has a remarkable story to tell with regard to the improvements which have been made in support of technology in instruction and research in a very short period of time. In reviewing my assessment from 1993, I had identified nine different areas of concerns, ranging from governance to capitalization. I was astounded to discover that virtually all of these had been accomplished. The initial planning done by the IRT made significant improvements to the overall technology environment at Skidmore, and this group created a basic plan and vision which was both attainable and sustainable. While the rest of this report attempts to identify some concerns, areas for possible improvement, and issues which the campus needs to carefully consider, the key point that should be underscored above all else, is that Skidmore has made tremendous progress in the overall information technology environment on campus. The College has moved from a position well behind its competitors, to a position that is with or ahead of these other schools in supporting undergraduate and faculty needs with regard to information technology. Skidmore should take great pride in these accomplishments.

Unlike many institutions, Skidmore is not in the midst of a crisis, trying to determine how to move into the mainstream with other schools in regard to the integration of IT into the fabric of the institution. Instead, Skidmore has moved into that mainstream, yet there is some very real controversy on the campus as to the appropriateness and extent of this movement. It is my professional judgment that having made this move, Skidmore is a stronger institution because of it! While there were some exceptions, on the whole I did not hear members of the community questioning whether or not this investment had basic merit, but instead, concerns have been raised as to the extent of the commitment and the processes surrounding the IT investments. As I discussed in a number of meetings and forums, it seems to me that Skidmore has reached a new level of development which requires a detailed examination of the current governance structures, especially as related to resource allocation for academic priorities.

Governance

In 1993, I suggested that you needed to develop a plan and gain some consensus as to where you were going as an institution, using some ad hoc process to start with. Skidmore did precisely that, establishing the Information Resources Taskforce (IRT) and later institutionalized that into the Information Resources Council (IRC). It probably would have been impossible to achieve much of what has been done without this focused commitment of a number of very interested and enthusiastic users. I should also note, that this level of accomplishment and institutional change could not have occurred without the support of the senior administration who clearly have felt that this investment was key to the strategic development of Skidmore as an institution. However, having noted both of these key factors, a change in the current committee and governance structure may now be in order.

My sense of the campus discussion about information technology was that some portion of it really wasn’t about information technology at all. Instead the discussion was about the desire to invest in other priorities within the College, or to object to the process (or lack of process as some perceived it) that led to Skidmore having its current level of IT support. Because Skidmore was behind the level of IT commitment of comparable schools a number of years ago, and because there was an interest on the part of faculty and administrators alike to more effectively integrate the technology into the instructional mission of the College, the ad hoc strategy was appropriate. It is my strong feeling that now is the time to modify existing structures or create new structures that allow for the consideration of information technology investments along with all other academic priorities. There clearly needs to be a much stronger academic voice in the direction of computing resources, and faculty need to be given greater ownership of and responsibility for the academic computing environment.

One of the more curious objections which I heard was that a significant part of the discussion revolved around the amount of money for computing that was going to the administrative or non-academic areas within the College. It seems that part of the concern was related to money going to CITS because as an organizational unit it reports to the VP for Business Affairs. While there was some recognition that the funds were going to purchase faculty machines and to provide support to students and faculty, this issue of organizational "ownership" seemed to affect the perceptions of some members of the community. While the investment has largely been in support of academic functions, the concern over reporting lines would have appeared to distort this perception. It is my strong prediction that CITS will report once again to the academic side of the house in the next five years or so. However, I think that it would be a serious mistake to try and make this adjustment at this time. With the Dean of the Faculty serving in the dual role of Dean and Acting President, and the prospect of Skidmore getting a new President in the not too distant future, now is not the time to start changing around reporting structures. It seems far more appropriate to wait until the new President is on board, and then let him or her create a structure that will best suit the needs of the College for the longer term. I think it would be a mistake to try to structurally address the current issues, but instead the campus should try to adjust the current committee structures to make necessary adaptations in the interim in order to provide greater academic input.

Part of the problem appears to be that the IRC is not uniformly perceived to be a legitimate part of the governance structure. It may be appropriate to initiate the necessary discussions to deal with this concern. If nothing more, the IRC would probably be well served by trying to assure that its membership reflects the broad spectrum of Skidmore faculty. If the IRC is perceived to be a group of dedicated zealots, in the longer term, the initiatives to strengthen IT at Skidmore will not be well served. Attempting to make this group more reflective and representative, as well as more of a legitimate faculty forum seems like an appropriate strategy to pursue.

In addition to these changes in the IRC, discussions of the broad set of information resource issues needs to be included as part of the regular agenda of other committees on the campus that discuss budget allocations, strategic issues, etc. To isolate these discussions in the IRC is a mistake, and will only result in discord in the longer term. Another point that was raised in my discussions was that financial and resource allocation discussions are not part of the current discussions about strategic directions, etc. within the Skidmore committee structure. To create the more holistic set of discussions which I have advocated requires that the financial issues be part of these discussions. In order to understand the tradeoffs and the options, making the financial case is essential in order to have a complete and informed discussion. If too much money is being spent on IT, then questions like the following quite appropriately arise: What things would one stop doing? What repercussions and consequences would arise from these changes? How much money would be freed up, and what impact would these funds have on other priority areas? All of these are appropriate and legitimate questions to raise, but they require information, but more importantly a broad perspective about the needs of the campus as a whole.

Returning to the IRC itself, in addition to considering a more representative membership, I think it is appropriate to broaden the purview of this entity to include a broader view of information resources. While the library has been included since the inception of the IRC, it appears that only technology issues as they apply to the library are considered. In this era of increasingly blurred distinctions between some of the functions of libraries and IT organizations, I think it is appropriate to consider all aspects of information resources within this group, including the acquisitions budget, media services issues, classroom support, reference support, etc. In broadening this role, you probably reach four distinct outcomes that would be positive for Skidmore College. By moving in this direction, you add to the heterogeneity of the faculty who are interested in serving on the council; you expand the areas of opportunity for cooperation; you allow the academic leadership of the College to more clearly see the tradeoffs and issues associated with the total information support structure for the institution; and you more firmly ground the discussions in the resources necessary to support instruction and research, reducing the emphasis on the technological issues in and of themselves.

Two issues regarding the internal operation and subgroups of the IRC emerged from my discussions. First, the current IRM group is reported to deal reasonably effectively with the internal issues affecting CITS and the library. The suggestion repeatedly arose, however, that these meetings could benefit from additional structure, a more formal agenda, and focus on specific projects.

Skidmore might also wish to consider creation of a working group of IRC to advise the administrative side of the house as to technology priorities, training needs, etc. As the Oracle implementation wraps up its initial work, it seems appropriate to consider the creation of such an administrative advisory group. There is a need for administrative users at the College to discuss their problems; to assess the relative need for resource allocation and development among the various administrative systems; to identify specific training which is necessary; and to debate key policy issues regarding security and other critical administrative concerns. This group could also provide key advice as to priorities related to equipment replacement in administrative areas.

While not precisely a governance issue, one issue which arose has to do with defining and operationalizing the way in which IRC works and the way IT resources are allocated at Skidmore. This is a cultural issue related to the highly territorial nature of offices and departments, and the general tendency to focus on achieving individual or subunit objectives rather than on maximizing benefits to the broader Skidmore community. Machines were perceived as the property of a given department, rather than an institutional asset. As the computer replacement program for faculty continues, the College should examine ways to leverage this plan across departments, rather than to perpetuate it as an entitlement program bound by unit parameters. A leveraged strategy recognizes that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure and allows equipment to be moved from one area to another across departmental boundaries, in the service of Skidmore’s best interests.

Issues of Assessment

There were a number of aspects of the charge that was given to me that called for evaluating the return on investment of the funds expended on information technology. I do not know of any direct ways to evaluate this other than qualitatively, and that is why the previously described forums regarding academic priorities take on such importance. In a traditional, cost-accounting approach to cost-benefit analysis, most universities can do a reasonably good job of defining the expenditures, but are far more remiss in evaluating the benefits, such as an increase in the effectiveness of the learning process. Defining the "benefit" portion of this equation is virtually impossible in any quantitative manner. As I discussed in a number of my meetings, it is my opinion that the whole area of assessment of curricula and assessment of learning in our institutions will become increasingly important and demanded by our outside constituencies. However, I find it interesting that while there is demand by some to justify the effectiveness of the technology in teaching, there is not a concomitant demand for evaluating the effectiveness of teaching and learning more broadly. It is only in comparing these methodologies that any meaningful analyses can be conducted, and reasonable conclusions drawn.

While this broader assessment is needed on all of our campuses, the data which was recently collected at Skidmore in the faculty survey conducted by the IRC is worth special note. It is clear that there is quite varied sentiment as to whether the amount of funding that is currently being spent on computing resources is enough, too much, or about right. The current level of frustration on the campus indicates that this needs some serious discussion, but at the moment I have the fear that the discussion is being dominated by the extreme positions in this regard. One of the documents which was shared with me was the results of a faculty survey which had been conducted by the IRC, although as I understand it, these results had not yet been shared with the broader community when I visited the campus. If these data are perceived to be valid, they would indicate that there is a broad range of usage of the technology on campus, and that, in general, there is a high dependency on this technology by the vast majority of the faculty. While much of the discussion was dominated by those most in support of the technology, and those most opposed, it is essential to understand the views of the substantial numbers of faculty who are apparently in the middle-ground, representing the middle of the bell curve. As I examined the data, the level of dependency on the technology and the extent of use rivals that which I see among the faculty at Brown as of our last survey. This high level of usage does not necessarily suggest that the faculty are maximally using the technology, or that the effectiveness or "benefits" of using the technology have been fully accrued, but these data do present an image of a faculty dependent on the technology, and unlikely to want to give any of it up. It is these voices that need to be more actively brought into the conversation at Skidmore before any fundamental changes in the IT environment are enacted.

One final area, loosely related to assessment in the broadest of terms, that should be considered is the role of IT in the assessment of faculty performance. While visiting, I heard advocates suggesting that there should be a variety of incentives to encourage faculty to use the technology and to integrate it into their courses. There were others who expressed apprehension about reward structures (including tenure and promotion criteria) that valued the use of information technology as some sort of inherent good. Information technology is a tool, albeit a very special tool in the minds of many, that allows faculty and students to perform their jobs more efficiently and effectively. Since we don’t have detailed assessment tools to evaluate all of this, it is all the more imperative that IT initiatives be viewed along side of other initiatives, using the same criteria. If there are instructional grants, then the best efforts to enhance instruction should be rewarded, and no special favor should be granted for the use of a computer in this process. Similarly, if a course needs to be revised, that revision shouldn’t be rewarded or hindered because it uses technology or not. Tenure should be granted based upon the competencies of the faculty member, and the perceived long-term value of that individual to the Skidmore community, and their competencies with technology do not inherently contribute or distract from this longer term objective. It is my strong opinion that casting the use of technology into an artificial "halo" effect is as dangerous to the intellectual well being of a campus as arbitrarily condemning its use. In the current environment of external pressures on accountability, Skidmore (and in fact every institution of higher education) needs to discuss and define the central values which it holds dear, and the use of technology must be perceived only as means to accomplishing these broader and more crucial goals.

Funding

Part of my assignment was to comment upon the current level of funding committed to information resources in comparison with other institutions. I conducted a number of budget ratio analyses to give me an idea as to where the College was in terms of funding, staffing etc. While such ratios do not in and of themselves give a hard and fast "formula" as to what is called for, they can be useful as initial diagnostics. In general, most campuses spend an average of about 3 - 3.5% of their E & G budget on computing (academic and administrative, without considering any major capital funding). The analyses on the Skidmore data are shown below. These data omit any consideration of media services and telephone operations in order to create a comparable set of numbers. Additionally, with the recent FASB changes, the E & G number is a calculated figure which Vice President Broekhuizen provided.

 

1997-98

1996-97

1995-96

 
 

Budgeted

Actual

Actual

 

Computing

$1,652,980

$1,473,359

$1,231,891

 

Institutional E & G

$59,168,000

$57,522,733

$52,651,348

 

Percentage

2.79%

2.56%

2.34%

 


These ratios indicate a steady improvement over the last years, but they still indicate an average expenditure less than a national average and less than the average at comparable schools with which Skidmore competes. Having said that, it should be clarified that Skidmore has done much more with capitalization than comparable schools, making the support job easier than having to deal with old and unserviceable equipment. Furthermore, Skidmore appears to have leveraged the use of existing personnel quite well, thus making direct comparability quite difficult.

Another ratio which can prove useful in looking at how computing expenditures are spent is the ratio of staff costs to total costs in a computing organization. This value should normally be at a 70% level or even a little higher, as these new technical infrastructures are highly labor intensive, and require a level of personnel support which is comparable to the rest of the institution. Skidmore is presently at about 68%, and perhaps reflects what is perceived by some as an environment which needs more user support. I will have more to say about this later.

If similar ratios are applied to libraries, one normally finds with ACRL libraries, that library expenditures range between 4.25% and 5.5%. The figures for Skidmore are shown below.

 

1997-98

1996-97

1995-96

 
 

Budgeted

Actual

Actual

 

Library Expenditures

$2,051,525

$1,983,406

$1,741,881

 

Institutional E & G

$59,168,000

$57,522,733

$52,651,348

 

Percentage

3.47%

3.45%

3.31%

 


The secondary analysis with libraries is to look at the acquisition budget in comparison with all other operating expenditures (including staffing), with the acquisitions piece of this being between 35 - 40% of the total. Skidmore is almost precisely at that level. In general, these analyses indicate that Skidmore College is spending slightly less than their counterparts on information resources, with the potential need for additional staff in both areas, and the need to address the acquisitions issue in the next year or so. The library collection cannot be sustained indefinitely on a 5% increase, and the College needs to plan carefully as to where any investments in the information resource infrastructure might be appropriate. These analyses provide some quantitative indicators and some comparison bases, but ultimately it is the decision of the College as to how much is appropriate or adequate. As already discussed in this report, Skidmore needs to do some serious introspection as to the processes by which such decisions get made.

Other Issues

One of the issues which I had been asked to address is how Skidmore might better cope with the "support crisis" that is being faced in CITS, and indeed in virtually every central computing organization in the country. Over the last decade, all of our campuses have experienced explosive growth in the demand for technology support services and have resulted in a fundamental change in the nature of the support requirements, which have multiplied with the growth factor. The growth in need for support comes from the seemingly exponential increase in number of faculty, staff and students who are dependent on technology tools for their work, while the growth in support personnel has at best been a positive linear increase. This has resulted in what many have written and discussed as a "support crisis" in information technology, and there is evidence from my discussions that this exists at Skidmore as well. If one looks at the number of users and the number of support personnel, you are likely to find that CITS is supporting 4 to 10 times as many people today as compared with a decade ago on a per person basis, if Skidmore follows national norms. The only way to address these problems is with additional personnel, techniques to leverage existing staff (bulletin boards, databases on frequently asked questions, etc.), training of non-professional support staff on the easier issues to ease the burden and free up more technical staff, and to effectively use students. Skidmore is already doing many of these things, and because of the discussions previously developed, it is not readily apparent that additional staff will be forthcoming at any time near. However, as the College decides that they need additional support, I would recommend that these staff be based in academic areas, and potentially be employed by the Office of the Dean of the Faculty in order to better meet the curricular and pedagogic needs of the faculty. This provides a level of control within the academic arena, and begins to build a truly distributed support environment. I should emphasize, that any such personnel need to be closely coupled with the CITS group, be employed on the same pay schedule, and have CITS actively participate in their performance appraisal. All of these latter issues are necessary methods to create a coordinated and distributed, rather than ancillary, support system.

I would suggest that Skidmore conduct a thorough review of the current job descriptions of CITS staff by the personnel department, and that the compensation be compared with current market requirements. In doing a review of the salaries of CITS staff, I found a number of positions which I would be seriously concerned about addressing, if you intend to keep good people. In one particular case, I would suggest that your current pay is approximately 50% of the current market wage. While the investment in IT staff may be expensive, "rebuilding" a technical staff is even more expensive, as it adds the problems of salary compression to the equation. This review of salaries is especially important to do before any outside hiring or additions of distributed support personnel are considered. There was a time when colleges and universities could afford to pay less than the going market rates, as the operating systems and applications used within the academic arena were somewhat unique and specialized, and therefore there wasn’t direct market competition. Those days are over! When you are supporting Microsoft applications on microcomputers and Oracle databases to support administrative processing, you are in the middle of the mainstream, and your staff are fully part of a larger marketplace. Skidmore needs to assure that the compensation system for IT professionals is adequately rewarding these people in light of marketplace concerns, in order to hire and retain staff which can provide the level of support necessary for the College.

One of the most delightful experiences on my visit to Skidmore was the opportunity to meet with the students who were involved with the RESNET project. These remarkable young people were irrepressible with their enthusiasm and innovativeness. Clearly this project has gotten off to a great start, but a number of areas in need of further consideration arose. Clearly the use of students in this effort was both effective and cost efficient. However, for the ongoing support, a larger student support group is likely to be necessary. Because these young men were so helpful, it sounds like they have become the primary recourse for assistance, and they are becoming overwhelmed, aren’t getting paid for this extra demand, and – as students – find saying "no" rather difficult. You might want to think about working with your residence life staff regarding training for other students in the dorms, or some other strategy to spread the demand, keep the costs down, and provide local support that does not inundate the central CITS group.

Another set of observations about the use of students in support of computing services that should be noted relates to institutional policy. As I understand it, students are not allowed to work in CITS or other computing support capacities during their freshman year (or at least during the first semester) because they instead must work in food services or other "essential services." This policy prohibits capturing the best and brightest technical talents and getting them hooked into CITS-work right from the beginning of their Skidmore experience. You may well wish to consider changing the policy and including CITS as an "essential service" as the use of students is still your most cost effective use of resources in meeting the growing demand of an ever expanding user population. Finally, although I realize that this is highly related to campus financial aid and employment office policies and procedures, I was told that the maximum a student can earn at Skidmore is $6.90 per hour. By having this cap on employment pay, you are probably losing some of the best talent which could be available to the campus, as students can earn more money developing web sites and doing other technical work elsewhere. You may wish to consider an approach similar to Brown and elsewhere, where a program of training and testing of student employees has been developed, to be able to compensate students adequately, and to retain their talents for the institution.

While the campus should take considerable pride in the level of capitalized infrastructure which it has attained, it is amazing to me that you do not have an inventory of the equipment which has been purchased. It seems highly appropriate that the senior management of the institution identify a mechanism for a complete inventory to be assembled, and that some office within the College be charged to regularly update this listing, as new equipment is purchased and old equipment is removed. Failure to adopt such a policy and implement an appropriate set of procedures allows for hoarding of old equipment, loss to theft or neglect, and other waste of this important infrastructure and the investment which Skidmore has made. This is an asset which needs to be managed just as other assets within the institution.

One final issue which I was asked to address was whether the current separate structure of CITS and the library was appropriate or whether a combined structure should be considered. I feel that there is adequate cooperation going on between these two critical units, and through the IRM that additional areas of cooperation and streamlining were going on. These discussions should continue, but there is no pressing need to call for or to justify their integration at this time.

Conclusion

The information technology environment at Skidmore is very strong, and it reflects a dramatic improvement since my visit five years ago. The investment in computers, software, and the campus network represents the successful implementation of a technology plan with a vision.

In the review I conducted five years ago, I raised the concern that Skidmore, like most institutions of higher education, had not created a systematic capital replacement plan for its technology infrastructure. Failing to have such a capital plan which is built into the base budget allows a campus to fall into the trap of deferred maintenance which so debilitated campuses across the nation with regard to their physical plants in the last decade. If the institution is going to commit to a given level of infrastructure (be it for buildings or electronic infrastructure), it must simultaneously commit to replacing it in an appropriate and timely manner. While there is certainly room to discuss the specific length of the replacement cycle, or the number of machines which fall under such a plan, it is not appropriate to deal with funding this infrastructure in an ad hoc manner. Skidmore has done a superb job in building these inevitable costs into an ongoing budget plan and should be congratulated on its long-term and strategic view of this resource.

One final observation seems to be in order. Skidmore probably has a higher percentage of its classrooms outfitted for computer projection than any school of which I am aware. The investment in the classroom resource is important, because if the faculty cannot count on properly equipped classrooms being available, the extent to which their efforts to enhance their courses using the new technology will be significantly curtailed. Both the number of classrooms, and the quality of technology support in these rooms is quite exemplary. While some faculty still indicated a desire for more human support in the use and maintenance of these resources, and while carrying through on the plan to increase the number of available telephones to call for help is appropriate, Skidmore is doing extraordinarily well in this regard.

Hopefully, these observations and recommendations will assist the Skidmore College community in discussing and defining the role of information resources on your campus. I wish you well in your planning, and of course I would be happy to elaborate on any of these points if you would like me to do so. Best wishes, and thank you for the opportunity to meet and work with you once again.