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September 23, 2011

In a speech to his campus last week, Southwestern University President Jake Schrum outlined a plan to restructure the university’s administration to improve the delivery of services to students and faculty and save money in the long run.

Among the options he proposed was a change to the information technology office and the library. Under the new plan, the departments would be combined into one administrative unit -- a model adopted by dozens of liberal arts colleges over the last 10 years.

While Schrum cited savings -- $250,000 immediately, and more over time -- information officers whose institutions have consolidated said there are significant educational advantages to the new structure. They argue that digitization of research materials, the prevalence of technology in the classroom, and changes in the way students approach information necessitate a change in the way higher education approaches both information storage and technology.

“It’s increasingly difficult to see where the demarcations are between IT and library functions," said Bob Johnson, vice president for student and information services and chief information officer at Rhodes College, in Tennessee, which consolidated the offices in the early 2000s. “Customers get better service when there aren’t artificial divisions, and you reduce the amount of internal competition and get better at providing services.”

Information technology services on many college and university campuses are decentralized, a function of the different roles such technologies play. Some tools are used for teaching and research, others for student services and administration. There has also been little consistency among institutions with regard to the structure of information technology. At some colleges the offices are overseen by academic administrators; at others they are overseen by the financial side of the university. Still others report directly to the president.

Institutions have made various attempts to consolidate disparate IT offices, though most did not include libraries. In the early 2000s, about a dozen liberal arts colleges began folding libraries and IT into one office. Since then, about 50 or 60 more institutions have adopted a unified structure. Most have maintained it, while some, such as the University of Southern California, adopted the model and then abandoned it.

W. Joseph King, executive director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, located at Southwestern University, has been working with colleges to implement new structures for years. He said libraries and IT are on a collision course. It will soon be hard to think of them as separate entities, he said, so the university structure should reflect that. “You cannot walk into a classroom without seeing a sea of laptops and iPads,” he said. “It’s clear that digital will be the major means of information access in the future.”

But Rachel Applegate, an associate professor of information and library science at Indiana University at Bloomington, argues that just because technology is playing a larger role in research does not necessarily mean it makes sense to have them administered jointly. "The most effective partners for libraries are the faculty," she said. "Being combined with IT means a reporting line that groups you with people who work in the finance area. It separates you from academic affairs.

"When you're reporting through the provost or academic affairs, it means you’re at the same table as heads of schools or divisions or academic units when they're discussing curriculum and changes in teaching and learning. You're literally at the table with them."

In merged offices, many roles have remained the same. Archivists' and network engineers' jobs have not changed dramatically, administrators said, but there are areas of overlap between the two divisions that make sense to combine, such as the front lines of student and faculty support.

Johnson said the major benefit of Rhodes's structure is the ability to cross-train individuals in research and information technology assistance to better serve students and faculty. He said administrators found that students often did not know where to go when they had problems and were bringing their questions to the wrong office. Unifying the offices made a one-stop shop for those issues.

Administrators at institutions that have consolidated said they have derived significant savings, but warn that budgetary concerns should not be the main factor behind restructuring. In an article on mergers in Educause Review, three university information officers wrote, “[M]erging primarily to save money or reduce staffing will present significant obstacles to success. These motivating factors almost always lead to a downward spiral in service quality and staff morale -- a situation that quickly becomes debilitating. As in the major automation projects experienced by many campus sectors in recent decades, little true financial gain is likely to be harvested in the near term. The real return on investment is realized in the long term, through more effective use of existing resources, increased capabilities, and cost avoidance.”

Mike Roy, dean of library and information services and chief information officer at Middlebury College, said the consolidated structure made it easier to shift resources from one end of the department to the other. College and university budgets have shifted resources away from libraries toward information technology offices over the years, he pointed out, sometimes creating tension between administrators of different branches. Shifting resources is easier when it occurs within the same administrative unit, he said.

In many instances, the change to a unified structure was precipitated by the departure of either a chief librarian or information officer. That was the case at Southwestern. In many instances, universities have saved a chief administrative salary by combining the divisions.

Some institutions have run into snags when trying to create a unified office. Prior to coming to Rhodes, Johnson tried to implement a similar administrative structure at Belmont University. He said the move created anxiety among librarians, who had faculty status there, about what would happen to them if they were placed into a new unit.

The unified model might not be appropriate for every institution, said Joyce Ogburn, university librarian at the University of Utah and president of the Association of College and Research Libraries. At Utah, which is significantly larger than many of the institutions that have adopted merged offices, the library has a significant corps of information technology specialists who help serve students and faculty with most front-line issues, while the central IT office focuses on the university's infrastructure.

But she noted that in the coming years, colleges will see greater integration of library and IT functions, regardless of what structure it takes. "In the long run there has got to be close collaboration, no matter what model we adopt," she said. "It behooves us to be working closely."

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