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Information technology, the backbone of colleges' network and security operations, faces the same wave of cuts as any other line in the budget these days, at least at institutions imposing across-the-board cuts. But rather than lament the fewer resources they have to work with, some chief information officers see the latest economic downturn as an opportunity to rethink their role and, in the process, revive an ongoing debate about what exactly they should be doing to serve the mission of higher education.

As budgets tighten, some CIOs are asking themselves where, to use the economic parlance, their comparative advantage lies, and whether the cuts serve as a chance to offload services available elsewhere -- by outsourcing e-mail and moving common tasks to the "cloud" of third-party, cheaply networked computers -- and concentrating on developing applications specific to teaching and research.

In other words, at a time when most students come to college armed with laptops, e-mail addresses and the expectations of savvy consumers, it's worth asking -- as some have been doing for years -- what college CIOs should offer beyond the typical corporate IT division's responsibilities, from network administration to virus protection, and tasks like security notification and analytics that have become standard on campus.

"I think what you have is a kind of perfect storm," said Lev Gonick, the CIO and vice president for information technology services at Case Western Reserve University. "It’s a confluence of technical trends that were and are being driven ... by a realization that the technology infrastructure in the cloud is becoming more robust and more reliable. As it does, it actually enables a commoditization of services, some of which were thought to be very special and quite unique to an enterprise like a university campus."

Like their corporate counterparts, colleges across the country are facing cuts in their IT budgets. According to the latest Campus Computing Project survey, 45.4 percent of public universities saw cuts in their IT budgets for the fall, almost triple the percentage of last year. There were also cuts this year among other types of colleges, but at lower rates; 22.8 percent of private universities had reduced IT funding, while 23.5 percent of four-year colleges and 24.6 percent of community colleges saw cuts.

And despite the "expanding tent of IT," as Kenneth C. Green, the project’s founding director, put it, the top priorities for CIOs this year, besides security, are financing IT and retaining staff.

Responses to these forces run the gamut from hiring freezes to delaying upgrades. Some CIOs are handling their cuts as any department would, while others are starting to act as if they're staring down the precipice.

"Now, more than ever, I think we have to focus on mission and purpose: what can, and must, IT do to ensure colleges and universities meet their academic and administrative goals?" said Warren Arbogast, the founder and president of Boulder Management Group, an IT consulting firm, in an e-mail. "I'm helping IT leaders who are dealing with all kinds of delays and freezes, things like: delayed raises, delayed project implementations, proposed job cutbacks and work furloughs, travel budget freezes, hiring freezes and spending freezes, which can often mean cancellations of much-needed large-scale implementations.

"So now is the time to be strategic and not fearful. Now's the time for innovative thinking, new ideas about re-thinking how to do IT on campus, resisting knee-jerk dollar-cutting responses that may seemingly work today but do little if anything productive down the road, and focusing first and foremost on the larger purpose of why IT is on campus in the first place: meeting the college's larger goals and mission."

Part of that discussion centers on which tasks IT should handle in-house as opposed to offsite through external vendors, a debate that's increasingly relevant as the budget calculus begins to force decisions on CIOs. E-mail is the most commonly outsourced application, handled for free by Google, Microsoft and smaller open-source providers such as Zimbra. But the scope of available functions that can be offloaded more cheaply to the cloud is much larger.

At this year's Educause conference, participants discussed outsourcing human resources applications, technology training, help desk services ... and in a few cases, even the entire IT infrastructure. In such a scenario, the college IT apparatus exists to house private data and intellectual property and to manage the various functions being handled in the cloud. Meanwhile, remaining resources can be devoted to developing applications specific to the mission of higher education, which these days can range from customized iPhone apps to specialized widgets for the Web portal.

"There were a couple points that stuck with me," said Kathy Christoph, director of academic technology in the Division of Information Technology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in an e-mail. "One was that several institutions that outsourced a suite of services often ultimately moved some back to campus. There seemed to be a sorting process that happened."

Of the available vendors, added Christoph, who led a discussion at Educause on outsourcing applications other than e-mail, CIOs especially liked other universities that offered particular services. UW-Madison, for example, hosts the Desire2Learn course management system for the entire 26-campus system, while Drexel University essentially serves as an IT vendor for other institutions. At the Educause session, some suggested that colleges would be more comfortable working with other institutions than with commercial vendors.

Among early adopters, CIOs argue that other services will go the way of e-mail, which just a few years ago most considered a vital function of campus information technology departments. Today, the proportion of institutions within certain sectors of higher education that outsource e-mail is approaching 50 percent, and Boston College last month announced what may be the final step: It will no longer offer students any accounts at all, providing only aliases that will redirect to their existing addresses.

At Case Western, for example, where the IT budget started contracting in 2005 as a "canary in the coal mine" but which grew this year, Gonick said he has developed the campus's capacity for transcoding and encoding searchable video content for instruction to the point where he sees it as a "center of excellence" that he hopes will host those services for other institutions at significant cost savings.

Outsourcing isn't the only option, either. Budget concerns may accelerate ongoing discussions about whether it's more cost-effective for campuses to migrate to open-source solutions -- which are free but entail start-up and administration costs as developers adapt code to institutions' needs -- which are rising in popularity in certain sectors, especially for course management systems. Gonick said that colleges will ask CIOs to justify their work in open source, in particular, and that "our best answer is to be able to demonstrate that our investment of talent is focused on these value-added services" -- in other words, "the things that are actually salient and special to the education, the teaching, the learning and the research mission...."

For now, Gonick thinks the so-called "shared services model" of colleges focusing on what they do best, and outsourcing the rest -- possibly to each other -- is a good bet for the future.

"We as a community should be ... approaching this set of challenges as opportunities to actually provide common services for one another, and ... this model of shared services has been going on for a good long time."

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