Separation Anxiety

Illinois decision to decouple IT chain of command from the academic one, and resignation of a displeased CIO, sparks debate on "centralized" technology.

April 28, 2011

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is proud of its standing as a leader in the creative application of information technology — a reputation that has earned the university, among other things, a reference in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey as the birthplace of HAL 9000, the sentient computer that revolts against its masters when they try to disconnect some crucial wires.

Fitting, then, that when the University of Illinois system informed Sally Jackson that it was rewiring the chain of command in a way the Urbana-Champaign CIO thought might threaten the mission of her campus, Jackson’s response was the same as HAL’s: “I’m sorry … I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Unlike HAL, Jackson merely resigned from her post as CIO. In doing so, she sparked a discussion among university technology officers about whether the centralization of IT decision-making in a system-level office, along with the removal of campus technology chiefs from the academic chain of command, might in fact weaken the ability of individual campuses to act on their own priorities when it comes to technology.

Under the reorganization, which was first reported by the News-Gazette, the CIOs at the university’s Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield campuses would no longer report to their campus provosts, but to a central IT administrator — who would in turn report to the system’s chief financial officer.

Running the IT chain of command all the way to the system office is a new tack for Illinois and by all accounts a rare one. But neighboring Indiana University has been doing it for nearly 15 years. In 1997, Indiana started having the CIOs at its Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses report to a central technology office rather than their campus chancellors. Last month, it extended that structure to its regional campuses as well.

About 40 percent of public universities plan to reorganize their IT units in the next two years, according to the Campus Computing Project. And with many states looking to cut costs, the University of Illinois might not be the only one to follow Indiana's lead.

Reorganization Pains

Jackson, who will stay on at Urbana-Champaign as a communications professor and associate provost, said the new structure would mean the IT agenda for each of the three University of Illinois campuses — which differ in size, strengths, and personality — would be set according to the priorities of the system collectively, thereby diluting the priorities of each campus individually.

“I’m not imagining that things are going to fall apart,” Jackson told Inside Higher Ed. “I’m just imagining that over time, the values people use to reason out what’s a good investment, and what’s not, will change.”

It is not a new position for Jackson. In an internal memo she penned last year, the erstwhile CIO wrote: “…[T]here is good reason to believe that giving the academic units as much autonomy as possible is a factor in research success, and inherent in this autonomy is the ability to invest in IT resources as needed, without the overhead of a campus-wide or university-wide governance process.”

Take the high priority Urbana-Champaign places, relative to its siblings, on research, she continued. “To be consistently successful in competing for external research funding, for example, individual faculty must be able to respond rapidly to calls for proposals,” Jackson wrote. “It is massively advantageous to be able to make decisions at the administrative level closest to the faculty researcher.”

Michael Hites, who began serving as Illinois’s first central CIO in February (his official title is vice president of administrative technology services), told Inside Higher Ed his job is to reconcile the collective interests of the system and the individual interests of the campuses to formulate “the most cost-effective IT program that we can.”

The decoupling of the campus-level CIOs and their local academic leaders, Hites added, does not mean the CIOs are forbidden from consulting with their provosts, nor the provosts from carrying technology requests up their own chain of command. It just means that “if we can create efficiencies by doing certain things together, now we have an avenue for doing those things in a more straightforward way,” he said.

Hites noted that the CIOs at Illinois’s Chicago and Springfield campuses did not share Jackson’s objections.

But some Urbana-Champaign faculty do. These include Joyce Tolliver, president of the Faculty Senate. Under the new system, “One of two things has to be true,” Tolliver said: “Either the portfolio of the [system-level] CIO involves academics and research, or the role of our campus CIO has been redefined in terms of day-to-day service provision. And neither of those things is acceptable to the faculty.”

J. Lynn Boyce, the vice president for information services and technology at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, said she too sympathized with Jackson. A bill in the Oklahoma legislature has proposed to vest IT authority for all state agencies in a single unit within the state finance office — with the exception of higher education. But while public colleges in the state remain untouched for now, the reorganization was a close call, said Boyce. If the exception were ever removed, she said would have the same concerns about the IT needs of her own institution.

“Our mission is so completely different from every other university in the state,” she said. “… If we lost any autonomy at all and were dictated to about products we had to use, it would be very difficult for us.”

Lessons From Indiana

Indiana faced similar worries when it underwent its reorganization effort in the late 1990s, said Bradley Wheeler, the vice president for information technology who now sits atop the IT chain of command for that system. But that resistance has faded as the benefits of managing technology at the highest level have become apparent, he said.

Wheeler points to Gerald Bepko, the former chancellor of Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Bepko, who described himself “fiercely partisan” in favor of his own campus, was skeptical of the reorganization at first.

“I was concerned over whether the focus of whatever merged would be a high-quality service to the academic unit,” the retired chancellor said. “Universities live and [die] on the success of their academic units… If some change in the structure was going to make us less responsive to those academic units, we would want to avoid that.”

But Bepko said he came around relatively quickly once the Indiana administration started throwing its weight behind grant applications and building projects for the Indianapolis campus — including a brand-new IT building and a school of informatics. “I think we all got better as a result of having a larger enterprise,” Bepko said. “There were economies of scale that we wouldn’t have had.”

A lot of the tension that accompanies such a move comes from the tendency to polarize the debate along the lines of centralization-versus-decentralization, said Wheeler. The key to resolving those tensions, he said, is for the central administration to operate the new system with an eye to nuance.

There are two main types of IT services, said Wheeler: those that work best when administrative authority lies close to the point of service, and those that work best when run from a central hub. Academic and research computing generally fall in the former category, since professors and researchers tend to be more likely to use technology well when the person in charge of IT is down the hall, he said. But this is not true of many IT functions, said Wheeler.

Universities “piss away so much money on low-value tasks such as patching servers, probing them to make sure the security on them is all correct, buying and procurement of new services and plugging boxes in closets or running little data centers in [various departments],” said Wheeler. Not only are those things cheaper and just as effective when run at scale from a central office, but they divert IT resources from the other kind — the high-touch academic computing support that faculty want, he said.

“There is no preordained outcome in any model,” he said. “You can make a variety of models work, and a variety of models could fail.”

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