• Digital Tweed

    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.

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People Are Infrastructure, Part I: Outsourcing

In higher education as elsewhere, we often limit the public discussion about infrastructure to the things we buy (technology), build (offices, labs, and libraries) or need to update (plumbing, power, and networks).  Yet our people are a critical, if often overlooked, part of the essential infrastructure in higher education.

November 27, 2016
 

Two reports this fall about IT layoffs and outsourcing at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) – one in ComputerWorld (7 Sept) and in second in the San Jose Mercury News (3 Nov) – have elevated (energized?) the conversation about outsourcing at colleges and universities, particularly public institutions.

The UCSF jobs are going to HB-1 workers from India. The Mercury News reports that some 80 IT staff at UCSF, about 17 percent of the IT workforce, will loose their jobs.  Moreover, as is often the case in similar situations, many of the released employees are being asked to train their replacements, who in this instance work for HCL Technologies, an Indian company that won a $50 million UCSF tech services contract.  UCSF reports that the HCL agreement is expected to save the university some $30 million over five years.

For many on- and off-campus, the UCSF outsourcing announcement parallels similar initiatives affecting workers at all levels, including tech and also other professional and support staff, by many American corporations over the past decade. For example, recently laid-off tech workers at Disney World in Orlando filed suit claiming that Disney replaced US citizens with foreign nationals hired with H1-B  visas, which are intended to ease labor shortages in this country by providing permits to temporary workers with specialized skills. Similar complaints have been field against Toys “R” Us, New York Life, Southern California Edison, and other companies that have used foreign nationals hired under H1-B visas to supplant American workers.

Of course outsourcing is not new to higher education.  Colleges cross the country have outsourced their foodservice operations, bookstores, and IT help desk services for many years. Yet over the past decade we have seen the movement of outsourcing into core academic and institutional services, including online education programs (recruitment, program management, and even curricular development) and campus IT organizations (key/senior IT personnel who are employees of a tech services firm, not the college).

The UCSF announcement takes IT outsourcing into a new domain – beyond support personnel at IT help-desks or senior IT leadership – and into the core “middle ranks” of campus technology personnel.

Yet the irony of the UCSF agreement is that data from the 2016 Campus Computing Survey reveal CIOs and senior IT officials now report that “hiring and retaining is IT talent” ranks as their top IT concern over the next two-three years.  More than four-fifths (83 percent) of the CIOs and senior campus IT officers representing 339 two- and four-year public and private colleges and universities who participated in the fall survey view “hiring and retaining” qualified IT staff as their top IT priority.

The great concern for hiring and retaining campus IT talent comes as campus IT leaders also acknowledge that (a) IT salaries at their institutions are not competitive with off-campus opportunities (75 percent) and (b) “IT budgets have not fully recovered” from the budget cuts of the past the past four-six years (63 percent).

Moreover, more than a fourth (28 percent) of the institutions participating in the fall survey report having reduced IT staffing in the past year (2015-16) and almost a fourth (23 percent) cut funds for IT professional development.

The narrative that emerges from these data does not bode well for the campus IT infrastructure at many individual institutions and for much of American higher education: stressed and (reduced) campus IT budgets affected by the compounding consequences of annual budget cuts and mid-year budget reductions; continuing cuts in core staffing; reduced investment professional development; and significant off-campus competition for the talent essential sustain the campus IT infrastructure.

Adding to the irony of these dire data is that 89 percent of the 339 campus CIOs and senior IT leaders who participated in fall survey report that “the senior academic leadership at my institution understands the strategic value of institutional investments in IT infrastructure resources, and services.”

Admittedly, financial resources for key components of the campus academic infrastructure, including faculty and professional support staff, have been stressed in recent years, particularly in public institutions and especially in community colleges.  Moreover, the “do more, with less, and do it better” (or with better technology) mantra chanted by some college presidents during difficult financial times is simply a mantra, and not a strategy or a solution.

Too, outsourcing jobs from the core middle ranks of campus IT personnel to H1-B workers is also not a viable long-term strategy for the current IT talent needs and long-term IT personnel requirements across US colleges and universities.

And so at the risk of hyperbole, it is no understatement to say that there is a big problem here: higher ed is underinvesting in the critical people component its IT infrastructure.  And that continuing underinvestment, coupled with the continuing underinvestment in core academic resources, runs the risk of creating Potemkin campuses – a façaded, hollowed-out version of higher education where a deteriorating infrastructure is not able to provide essential campus resources and services for students and faculty. 

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