Hope you enjoyed July 4th! As many of you know, I was born in Sri Lanka and lived there for 16 years as an Indian at heart. I moved to India and spent 6 years going to College. I then moved here 35 years ago, studied and settled happily. (OK, now you know how old I am!) All three countries celebrate independence day in grand manner. By the way, I feel bad for the occupiers (in all the three countries I lived, the British were the occupiers) because they don’t have Independence day as a holiday. In Sri Lanka and India, when I was growing up, the Independence day celebrations were a big deal. In the ’60s and the ’70s you still had many who directly experienced the struggle for independence and remembered the sacrifices of their own and others, and the celebrations were grand. As the time passes, the reason for celebrations change, naturally.
Some of us will be making the long trek to Middlebury College next week for a gathering of staff from six colleges - Amherst, Brandeis, Middlebury, Wellesley, Wesleyan and Williams. About 10-11 years ago, the leaders of IT from Wesleyan, Brandeis and Williams (WBW) decided to bring staff from each organization together for an informal gathering and exchange of ideas. It was a lot of fun and productive. Some of us have moved on to other institutions and wanted to start this expanded group. I will write about this meeting next week.
Based on what I heard at the CLAC annual conference last week and the agenda for next week’s gathering I see that many of us are really worried about our dependence on a variety of things. We seek independence and flexibility that may or may not exist and may come at great costs that we don’t have the luxury to fund.
There used to be a time, not too long ago, when the hardware costs were what the technology leaders in higher ed worried about. Whether it is acquiring mainframes from IBM or DEC or subsequently the mini computers in the late ’80s, these were major investments, that helped exclusively the business processes in the institutions. The early ’90s saw major disruptions when the personal computer revolution came about, and institutions were caught off guard on many fronts. Many institutions were not prepared budgetarily to fund computers for faculty and staff but most importantly, there were not enough staff to support them. The sad truth is that these “personal computers” were developed for “personal use” and the internet changed the game and the transition was ugly. The dissatisfaction amongst the faculty and staff was at an all time high and many leadership in IT organizations changed.
After 10, 15 years, we have forgotten all of these because hardware is cheap and has been commoditized. These two factors has given us the independence and flexibility we want. If a vendor does not provide me what I want, I have many others to turn to. Besides, I can swap hardware A with B with such ease these days, there is very little incremental cost to be able to do it. Virtualization is another huge game changer, which makes it incredibly easy to divide a single physical server into multiple virtual server. So, in general, we are satisfied with the hardware landscape.
The other major area that is vexing for us is software. You have heard so much from me on this, I will keep it brief. Basically, it is a huge mess for certain software and there seems to be no relief in sight. In the CLAC meeting, when someone suggested a possible collaboration amongst colleges to run ERP (eg. Banner) jointly as a way to reduce costs, a seasoned CIO quipped “I don’t see that happening in my lifetime”. I am a bit more optimistic than that. Most of our frustration stems from the fact that despite the fact that these software cost us a boat load of money, they don’t do what we want them to do. I do understand the struggle that the software vendors face in trying to satisfy thousands of institutions each with different expectations, but when I pay annually 4-6 times the full-tuition for students, I expect a lot more and I don’t necessarily care how the vendors accomplish this.
This is precisely why the fiercely independent persona in me loves open source. Of course, it has its own “dependence” – the worldwide community that develops these software and the fear of the unknown. What if the community stops caring about them and stops developing them? Indeed, it is a real issue, but think about it – it is “open” for a reason. If the software stops being supported, you have access to everything you put into it and you can chart the course at that point. This is next to impossible in case of commercial software. Moving from one ERP system to another is so prohibitively costly that with very few bold exceptions, no one dares to even think about it. Did I say I will keep it brief? OK, I will stop.
In similar vein, the journal publishers tie our hands big time. We don’t have much of a leverage to influence the rise in costs. Open access policies and open access journals are beginning to provide us with some much needed flexibility and independence.
The two items I discussed above are at the institutional level. Due to increased awareness and knowledge of technologies, every member of the community seeks technology independence in some sense. The whole BYOD (bring your own device) or the variance in terms of the operating systems and software that everyone wants to use poses new issues. Whereas we want to encourage these to a large extent, because this is essential for creativity and inquiry. However, we need to also think about certain boundaries.
Democracies are successful because independence is combined with certain constraints such as the laws, rules and regulations or else there could be total anarchy. Not everyone may necessarily agree with all the rules and regulations, but the expectations are that all citizens follow these for the collective good. The same way, we, as an organization, with consultation with the advisory committees such as the Advisory Committee on Library and Technology Policies and the president’s cabinet, create the boundaries and try our best to enforce them, all for the collective good of everyone. Of course, not everyone always agrees with what we do. We try our best to accommodate as many variations as possible and try to explain why we do what we do. I prefer to meet with those who feel that our decisions are adversely affecting their ability to conduct research or business.
As someone said “It is hard to hate someone in person”. And I would add “especially if the person makes sense”, even if we disagree.