Mossberg calls centralized campus IT a “poisonous force”

Many writers in the blogosphere have commented on The Wall Street Journal‘s Walt Mossberg revealing of his pre-release iPhone to leaders of higher education at a recent forum hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education. But while any iPhone news is big news nowadays, another aspect of his presentation may have even more significance to those who have an interest in educational technology, especially as implemented at colleges and universities.

During a speech at The Chronicle’s President’s Forum, Mossberg used harsh but pointed words to express a sentiment shared by many academics (but rarely expressed so publicly). In typical Mossberg fashion, he described centralized information technology departments, such as those often found in larger colleges and universities, to be “the most regressive and poisonous force in technology today.”

That may be overstating the case a bit, but not by much. I have worked with numerous campus IT departments over the past thirty years, and I know that most people who work in these departments try hard to provide a valuable service. But the problem Mossberg touched upon typically isn’t the fault of those who work in campus IT departments. Rather, it’s mostly because the primary rationale for centralizing technology efforts is rarely to support eduction, but to save money.

Unfortunately, centralizing technology doesn’t always save money, at least not at the micro level. I don’t know how often I have found that the contract price negotiated with vendors for technology exceeds the price a consumer could get at retail. To give a simple example, one of the secretaries in our Dean’s office recently asked where she could get a USB “thumb drive.”  I was able to pick up a 1 GB drive for her the next day for under $20.  Another secretary in the same office ordered a 512 MB drive from central purchasing for $50, which arrived a week later. I can think of many similar examples of price and delivery disparities, from printers to hard drives to software to computers.

Because IT departments usually negotiate contracts well in advance of the time of purchase, vendors can give the appearance of a deep discount at the point of negotiation. But a few months later, when purchases are actually made, what once seemed to be a bargain becomes a bloated price. “Locking in” a price for technology may help with budget forecasts, but it can also preclude taking advantage of rapidly falling prices in the marketplace.

This problem is particularly acute in academia, where internal purchasing decisions can be very cumbersome. It’s not unusual at our institution for weeks, even months to pass between purchase requisition and product delivery. That’s why our department has gradually moved away from our centralized IT purchasing department to buy much of what we need to support faculty and staff. We can get precisely what we need in much less time, and often for less money. Doing so typically results in an ominous warning from our IT folks that we are buying products that “aren’t officially supported” by them. But that usually isn’t much of a problem, since such support is often only a little better than what can be received from the vendors directly (and sometimes not as good).

True, there are some faculty who need a lot of hand-holding with technology, and they can potentially benefit from the support provided by centralized IT departments. More often than not, however, most faculty would prefer to have today’s technology today without official support, rather than yesterday’s technology the day after tomorrow with the promise of ongoing support. And unfortunately, such support can be motivated as much by the desire to control costs than to improve technology utilization.

So Mossberg may have hit the nail on the head with his comment. Centralized IT by its very nature can be very regressive, since it needs to regularly “freeze” adoption points in order to systematically support technology. And in an academic environment, with the constant pressure to push forward the boundaries of public knowledge, such a regressive force could also be a poisonous one.

Perhaps one antidote for this “poison” could be the adoption of a more distributed model of technology implementation, where faculty, administration and students all play a part in “pushing the envelope” of educational technology. And that’s something that academic librarians have a lot of experience with, a point I have been trying to get people to listen to for years. Until we move from seeing computers as “bricks and mortar” to seeing them as “books and journals,” higher education will continue to struggle with technology adoption. We need to encourage campus IT leaders to see beyond the bottom line, by helping raise the status of technology in the educational enterprise from a physical expense to an intellectual asset.

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