Underinvestment in IT could have negative effect on the University

By Johnathan Hettinger

The University is underinvesting in its Information Technology department, and it could negatively affect the future of the University, the University’s chief information officer told the Senate Executive Committee at its meeting Monday.

Paul Hixson, who has served as chief information officer for the past two and a half years, presented the IT strategic plan for 2014-16, highlighting the strides the University has made but showing this is a “critical time” for the University when it comes to investing in technology.

“We are currently underinvesting,” Hixson said. “We’ve identified five major areas that collectively represent about $7 million of recurring need that is not addressed.”

According to Hixson’s presentation, these five areas are an explosive demand for mobile devices; new security challenges; current under-funding of CITES “University-funded” services; strengthening campus leadership in online education; and preserving campus leadership in research.

An additional investment in IT could also make life easier for faculty, staff and students, Hixson said.

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The number of average daily wireless users has skyrocketed in the past two years, while infrastructure has only increased slightly, according to the presentation. If the current pace keeps up, the University soon won’t be able to support the number of mobile devices attempting to connect to the University’s Wi-Fi network, Hixson said.

On average, students are bringing 3.7 mobile devices to campus, Hixson said. When the University’s current infrastructure was completed, Hixson said he had never heard of iPads or iPhones.

The University has also seen an unprecedented number of online attacks in recent months, including a recent phishing attack of 2.2 million malicious emails in two weeks. While the University has been 98 percent effective in repelling these attacks, the 2 percent, or 44,000, that were able to get through resulted in the University being blacklisted by many other institutions for the two-week period.

With the University being on a blacklist, many faculty members were unable to communicate with researchers across the world.

“It’s unacceptable,” Hixson said, adding that it could be combatted with more investment in IT.

Faculty leaders seemed to take Hixson’s warning to heart.

SEC member Abbas Aminmansour called the presentation “eye-opening.”

“We cannot afford to look at IT as a luxury,” Aminmansour said. “We all depend so much more on it. It’s just mind-boggling. If we were to continue at this rate, the question is: Can we remain a leader?

“We really need to see this as a significant investment that we know we need to make now.”

SEC member Joyce Tolliver thinks it creates other financial questions.

“If we spend a larger proportion on IT, and it looks like we should, then we spend a lesser percentage of our budget on what?” she said.

The discussion follows a common narrative among University administrators at a time when the University faces much fiscal uncertainty. At the Board of Trustees meeting in September, Christophe Pierre, the vice president for academic affairs, said the University will likely have to look at the reallocation of its funds for future investments amid increasing expenses and stagnant revenues.

“This cannot be done in a vacuum,” Pierre said at the meeting. “It has to be done with deans, department chairs, and even more importantly, with faculty members.”

SEC chair Roy Campbell agreed that an investment in IT could be crucial for the future of the University but said he knows there are other critical areas that need investment.

“This is a part of the broader picture that we have to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this is the only iceberg that we’re going to meet in the next few years.”

In order to educate faculty leaders, Campbell said he will try to bring in other presentations to the SEC to help paint the rest of the picture.

Hixson’s presentation followed a presentation by Chuck Tucker, the head of the Massive Open Online Course Strategy Advisory Committee.

Tucker’s presentation focused on the University’s relationship with Coursera, as well as other massive open online courses. Tucker said the University has had success with Coursera so far, enrolling 323,857 “Courserians.”

The relationship with Coursera has helped brand the University and give people across the world a familiarity with the University, but Tucker said the committee recommends establishing a relationship with another MOOC host, so the University is not one-dimensional.

The committee’s recommendations also include continuing to not offer these courses for credit, though the courses could be offered for credit under “Coursera-plus,” but that venue would have to be explored further in the future.

Overall, the University has been pleased with its relationship with Coursera, Tucker said.

He said the main point of remaining discussion regards how faculty should be compensated for teaching MOOCs.

“That’s not going to be resolved very quickly,” Tucker said.

Tucker will give his presentation to the council of deans before making the presentation in front of the full senate in December.

Hixson said many of the IT investments he discussed were crucial not only to the success of MOOCs, but also to almost every other course taught on campus.

With so many mobile devices being used in the classroom, “when professors start to depend on that wireless infrastructure to teach, we have problems. It’s not robust enough and it needs to be,” he said. “We have to change the IT infrastructure.”

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.