How a University’s Mission Affects Its IT

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You’d expect a university’s reputation to affect many aspects of campus life: its student body, course offerings and campus size. A university’s reputation also can fundamentally shape the function of its IT organization.

More and more, CIOs at colleges and universities are aligning their IT infrastructures with their institutional missions, meaning IT’s role varies depending on whether it operates in a public research institute, private research institute, liberal arts college, community college or Ivy League university.

This trend probably is best understood by looking at two different kinds of institutions: a large public research university and a small, private liberal arts college.

At the large public research university, most of its budget comes from state funding, grants and awarded contracts.

“We’ve seen something in the order of $300 million in contracts [and] awards to work on global health issues, for example,” said Ron Johnson, vice president of technology for the University of Washington. “That’s a significant amount of money, and it represents not just dollars [but] the significant importance and promise of working in those areas.”

The challenges for the IT organization in these cases can be eclectic. Naturally, the researchers here need access to the latest equipment and resources. For example, oceanographers and marine scientists at the University of Washington are studying the genes of creatures that live in extreme environments, Johnson said. To accomplish this, they are placing biosensors at the bottom of the ocean and discharging robots that can collect biological data.

“Our challenge as IT people is to understand how to function in a revolutionary set of technology marketplaces that really are not at all like traditional IT,” Johnson explained. “When you look at the research world, it’s been transformed of late by what’s called e-science, or cyberinfrastructure. And the opportunities for effective competition in the future really are rooted in our ability to undergird effective e-science.”

In contrast, technology at a private liberal arts college focuses on improving the undergraduate education.

“If you take a big research university where three-quarters of its money comes from research and maybe three-quarters of its energy is devoted to it, at a [liberal arts college], you have 100 percent focus on what creates a high-quality learning experience,” Johnson said.

Joel P. Cooper, director of information technology services at Carleton College in Minnesota, said his charge is to provide Carleton students and faculty with the best possible classroom experience.

“Students, faculty, staff, alums, friends of the college: These are all aspects that help to make Carleton go,” he said. “In terms of priorities, [I] try to make sure that I’m doing the right thing. So if it’s about student computing, then I want to key into that: We talk to the student body about that. If there are faculty initiatives, then we want to be aligned with those so that we’re supporting what the faculty are trying to do in terms of integrating technology into their classes.”

The challenges of IT in a liberal arts college also are different from those of a big public research institution. A greater emphasis than ever before is being placed on assessing effectiveness, Cooper said, and IT departments need to be able to demonstrate they’re operating in the most effective and cost-efficient way.

“There’s a lot more emphasis on, ‘How do you know you’re being successful?’” he said.

So what does this mean if you’re an IT student or considering a career in educational IT? First and foremost, do your research and figure out what appeals to you.

Ultimately, IT organizations in colleges and universities are all about advancing education.

– Agatha Gilmore,

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Agatha Gilmore


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