Improving our IT infrastructure a top priority

Greetings from French Administration. Spring is right around the corner—or so we thought! Late February or early March snow always triggers a variety of emotions. For the winter sports enthusiast, it is a reminder that warmer weather is on the way and that snow season is almost over. In contrast, for those of us eagerly awaiting the spring, it is a reminder that winter is not quite done in the Palouse!

I thoroughly enjoyed delivering the 2017 State of the University address. We have many exciting initiatives underway at all of our campuses, and it is always a joy—and important—to reflect on our successes. For those of you who may have missed the address, please check out the video recording. I want to express my appreciation to our University Communications team for all of its efforts in assembling the visuals and videos included in the presentation.

As I visit with faculty, staff, and students across our system, the need to improve our infrastructure is a frequent topic of conversation—at every campus. These conversations often identify the need to improve several aspects of our infrastructure:

  • Teaching spaces and offices
  • Research infrastructure and centrally funded core facilities
  • Financial software
  • The staffing support required to carry out the increasingly complex tasks associated with operating a modern research university

Many of these basic infrastructure needs have gone unaddressed for multiple years—decades, in some cases—with no substantial financial investment by the institution.

During these conversations I rarely hear about issues connected to the NEED for additional infrastructure. The issues revolve around WHO should pay for the upgrades. Often the central administration contends that academic units should cover the costs, while the academic units perceive an increasingly larger central administration that already gets too many resources. Thus the dialogue concerning infrastructure enhancements quickly turns to a debate about centralized versus decentralized control of finances and responsibilities.

In my mind, this discussion should not be an either/or scenario. If something makes sense and is more cost effective and strategic if we manage and fund it centrally—that is how we should proceed. On the other hand, if resources need to be pushed out to the academic units to be more effective and strategic—that is how we should proceed.

Another question that we should also ask: When these functions are distributed in academic units, does it create a plethora of duplicative solutions not leverageable to benefit the University at large? In other words, are we diversifying services without adding any value and expending scarce resources to do so?

So, how do we make the most informed decisions about investing in particular areas moving forward? I think we need to engage in a campus-wide conversation about how to provide effective and efficient services that best support our educational, research, and service mission as a public research university. Decisions involving centralized versus decentralized control should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and the solution identified should be the one most appropriate to serve our needs.

One of the topics I want to engage you in conversation about involves the way we manage and support our computing and instructional technology needs—our ITS infrastructure.

Currently we have a hybrid ITS infrastructure with some parts managed centrally and other parts managed within academic and service units. The structure was not necessarily designed this way but simply evolved over time as needs changed. The result? Today, we are very redundant with services, expertise, breadth of software packages, and hardware acquisition in some areas of the University, while in other areas we are tremendously understaffed or lack needed redundancies.

Sasi Pillay, our vice president for information technology services and chief information officer, recently engaged the senior leadership team and deans in conversations about the multiple challenges of our current IT infrastructure. In recent months, ITS has achieved some notable successes, including the rollout and introduction of Microsoft Office 365, an improved Help Desk, and a consolidated sign-in experience for internet access across the University.

In addition, in partnership with ITS, the Office of the Provost has implemented three significant projects to centralize application areas and eliminate duplicative software around the University:

  • Replacement of our antiquated faculty reporting (annual review) software from an inhouse legacy system (WORQS) to a commercial product (Digital Measures). This project will be fully implemented for faculty to utilize for their 2017 annual reviews.
  • Replacement of several survey software packages that were not sufficiently secure and out of compliance with human subjects requirements with a single commercial product (Qualtrics).
  • Replacement of several teaching evaluation tools, including out-of-date legacy systems, with a single commercial product (eXplorance Blue).

While these are noteworthy achievements, we have additional, significant challenges to address in upcoming months:

  • ITS provides support for many different software platforms across the University, making it difficult to provide timely support when problems or security issues arise.
  • Last year we invested significantly to build up our high-performance computing infrastructure by purchasing KAMIAK, the new system that performs 20 trillion mathematical calculations per second—but it is not enough. At the current rate of usage the system will reach its hardware capacity in less than a year. Computational research capability has to be viewed with just as much attention as any of our other research facilities. We can ill afford not to continue further investments as we highlight both undergraduate research and the Drive to 25.
  • Many newer software solutions make extensive use of cloud-based software tools that don’t require the same hardware infrastructure we have maintained for many years.
  • Computer security is an increasingly challenging issue that requires additional staffing and potentially may result in less flexibility in software/hardware choices for faculty, staff, and students.
  • As we move to perform more and more of our activities in teaching, learning, research, and administrative functions digitally, we need to include Disaster Recovery and Continuity of Operations as a requirement that needs to be addressed University wide.

There are no easy solutions. To develop an action plan that addresses our needs and supports our vision to become a top 25 public research university, we will engage in community dialogue. During the next couple of months, Sasi and his team will conduct open forums for faculty, staff, and students. Rather than making unilateral top-down decisions, I would prefer that we lay out our options, listen to your suggestions and concerns, and map our IT future together. I urge you to join those discussions as spring approaches.

Go Cougs!