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For three days in June 2017, Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Mich., experienced a complete network shutdown.

The negative impact on the college was immediate. Students couldn't attend online classes or complete their homework assignments. New student applications and fall semester registrations couldn't be processed. Many functions of the college ground to a halt.

Wishing to prevent any future outages, Rose B. Bellanca, Washtenaw's president, commissioned a comprehensive review of the college's entire IT infrastructure and staffing.

Working with IT consultants CampusWorks, the college embarked on a two-year assessment of its IT capabilities and practices. Even with increased support for its IT staff, the review suggested, technical challenges facing the college continued to outpace its resources. Cybersecurity threats, aging IT systems, increased demand for online learning and classroom technology, and difficulty attracting and retaining IT talent are putting pressure on many colleges, not just WCC.

"The advances in technology have far outpaced what can be reasonably expected from our internal capabilities and continue to grow exponentially," Bellanca said in a May news release. "To do nothing in the face of the changing technology environment would be irresponsible especially with respect to consistent and increasingly sophisticated data security threats."

The college's proposal, presented to the Board of Trustees on May 21, is to contract with higher education software and IT service provider Ellucian to provide technology management services, including on-site support staff at the college. Under the proposal, which was passed in a 5-to-2 vote by the board June 25, Ellucian will be responsible for all current and future technology needs of the college. ​

Ellucian, perhaps best known for its higher education enterprise resource planning (ERP) system Banner, provides technology management services to more than 130 higher education institutions, including 90 community colleges.

The cost of the five-year contract with Ellucian will be approximately $5.2 million a year, which represents a $600,000 saving over the college's current IT spending, Washtenaw said in a news release. The deal is "all-inclusive, fixed and not subject to escalation."

The arrangement would obviate the need for 31 full-time staff employed by the college. All will be offered the opportunity to continue working at the college as Ellucian employees. 

Those who don't want to be employed by Ellucian will be offered a "transition assistance plan," the college said. For employees with at least 10 years of service, this would include a year's salary and medical coverage, down to six months for employees with five to 10 years of service, and three months for employees who have been at the college for less than five years, local news site MLive reported. All full-time employees will be offered career coaching through Right Management and an extension of their WCC tuition benefit for five years. The college has not shared any plans to compensate its handful of part-time IT staff members.

"This decision was made after a long and careful review and with the knowledge that many good people would be affected," said Bellanca. "We believe this proposal best balances the needs of our employees by providing an opportunity to join Ellucian's team with the needs of our students and community. It was a difficult decision, but one made in the best interests of our college."

In a three-hour board meeting on June 4, which included a presentation from Ellucian representatives, dozens of Washtenaw community members and several IT employees appealed to the board to reject the proposal, some sounding on the verge of tears at the thought of losing valued colleagues and friends.

Francisco Roque, a lead system engineer who has worked at the college for more than 20 years, called for more consistent leadership and direction of the IT department. In the past few years, WCC has had three different interim CIOs. The leadership of these "revolving CIOs" has resulted in some "big missteps" that were not the fault of the IT staff, he said. The current CIO, Peter Bosco, is an employee of CampusWorks and was formerly CIO of SunGard Higher Education -- a company that merged with Datatel in 2012 to form Ellucian.

Claims that the college's IT systems are "too complex for us to handle" are false, said Roque. "I've also heard that our IT systems include too many older or legacy components," he said. "But legacy issues are standard in any IT department, and with our decades of institutional knowledge, we understand these and their place at the college."

Network outages, like the one the college experienced in 2017 as a result of misconfigured hardware, can happen anywhere, said Roque. "My coworkers responded to our outage quickly, working nonstop around the clock both with each other and with vendors to resolve the issue and prevent it from happening again," said Roque. Other speakers pointed out that IT management partnerships are no guarantee of perfect service. Muskegon Community College, another Michigan college that has its IT managed by Ellucian, experienced a weeklong shutdown of some computer systems in 2018 after a security breach.

Several faculty members spoke about the dedication of their IT staff. Mary Mullalond, an English professor at the college, said she was "very concerned" about losing staff with deep institutional knowledge, and expressed doubt about the "extremely swift" transition plan the college has proposed. Currently, the IT department trains faculty and staff members in various computer programs through the Teaching and Learning Center; Mullalond suggested it was unlikely Ellucian would be able to find someone to take over that responsibility by August.

Breege Concannon, a chemistry professor at Washtenaw, also had questions about how the transition would work. "Is Ellucian going to be here? Will I be able to call them up on the day before my lab and say, 'Can you come and update 24 laptops before tomorrow?'" she asked, adding, "I seriously doubt it."

It's not unusual for colleges, particularly ones with limited resources, to outsource some portion of their IT functions, said Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed. There is a long history of colleges working with companies like CampusWorks to find temporary IT leadership. But it's not clear that colleges are outsourcing IT management more now than they did a decade ago, said Green. "These things ebb and flow. There's not a lot of consistency to it."

Decisions to contract with an IT management company such as Ellucian are often driven by changes in leadership -- a new president wanting to rapidly improve services on campus, for example, said Green. Outsourcing IT management doesn't mean that everything on campus is suddenly done remotely, he said. Many employees may remain on campus but will no longer be employees of the university -- "much like campus bookstores or food services," said Green.

Washtenaw leaders have said that a big advantage of partnering with Ellucian is its expertise of its own ERP system, Banner, which the college already uses. It's possible that as an existing customer, Washtenaw might get a good deal on bundled services, said Green. It may also be easier for the college to request staff be "swapped out" if they don't meet performance targets, he said.

The conversation about whether or not to outsource IT staff is similar to the conversation about whether or not to move to the cloud, said Green. Many CIOs believe that moving from college-hosted applications to cloud services can save money in the long term, as they don't have to purchase their own hardware. But shifting to a subscription model means colleges can be subjected to steep price hikes, he said.

Chris Collins, senior vice president and chief customer officer at Ellucian, said technology management contracts vary. "Our contracts range from partial to full-support contracts, multiyear, at a fixed fee for the life of the contract," he said in an email. "This enables institutions to have better insight and surety regarding costs for IT on a multiyear basis."

"We see a demand for technology management growing," said Collins. "The trend we see in the evolving cloud environment is the critical need for data protection and cybersecurity, and the rapid pace of digital transformation. Today, schools need more flexibility and different ways to meet those challenges."

Kevin Davis, chief information officer at Davidson College, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina, said there are many IT functions that colleges can outsource.

"A number of schools have outsourced their residence hall internet service and cable/video services to companies like Apogee, for instance," he said. "Some schools have outsourced extended-hour support, especially where required to meet requirements around supporting online programs."

There is also "a fair amount of outsourcing of information security work," he said. Information security is a particularly "good use case" for outsourcing, said Davis, particularly for smaller colleges that may struggle to justify hiring someone to work on this issue full-time.

Davis believes the number of small colleges considering these options could increase in the future. "Smaller schools in rural or even suburban areas could face increasing pressure recruiting tech workers drawn to cities," he said. "Outsourcing can be an option for keeping key services operational in an environment where adding local staff isn't likely."

The notion of whole-enterprise outsourcing, as Washtenaw is proposing to do with Ellucian, is not something Davis feels totally comfortable with. Outsourcing specific services gives colleges more control to decide "what to locally source versus what to hire out," he said. By breaking IT functions into smaller realms, such as networking, security, application support or database administration, colleges may be able to more easily compare outsourcing costs and services, he said. This approach would allow colleges to keep more "high-touch" functions such as user support, instructional design and academic technology in-house.

"That said, there are plenty of cases of whole-function outsourcing in industries to firms like IBM and the like, so never say never," said Davis.

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