Saxa Politica: Understaffed information services

January 29, 2009

Remember John Dewey’s groundbreaking decimal system? When it was introduced in 1876, the card catalogue revolutionized library organization and, by extension, research and education. But if you’ve used it in the past 10 years, odds are good it was the same way you might use an abacus—for laughs. The face of information dissemination and utilization is changing rapidly, and with it the way universities need to do business.

With the digital revolution, students are increasingly dependent on personal computers and network technology, and professors are making creative use of technology to engage students more effectively in the classroom. Access to online research databases like JSTOR and LexusNexis, as well as to scholarly communities around the globe, is a pillar of modern research, just as multimedia presentations and online discussion boards are becoming increasingly important to pedagogy.

As information systems become both more complex and more essential to higher education, universities like Georgetown need to take responsibility for their technological well-being—it will define their capacity to support research and instruction in the years to come.

This means investing in improved infrastructure and staffing. As the University works out its next 10-year plan, enhanced wireless internet access should be a high priority.

Along with improving infrastructure, the University needs to recognize the importance of adequate staffing. Technology requires skilled personnel if it is to function smoothly, and right now University Information Systems is operating with a significantly smaller staff than are other universities across the country, according to University spokeswoman Julie Green Bataille.

“[S]taffing is lean and UIS recognizes that a lower support-staff-to-faculty ratio would be beneficial for all,” Beth Ann Bergsmark, Director of Academic and Information Services for UIS, said. “While we would like to increase the number of staff, we also recognize the need to operate efficiently within given budgets and to prioritize efforts to address data security, compliance, and critical enterprise systems.”

This is a difficulty facing all departments now. Confronted with bleak and unpredictable economic conditions, the University has to make some tough decisions about where it puts its resources. As Bataille points out, all offices have to work as efficiently as possible with the assets available. But given how essential technology has become, it’s extremely important that the University be disabused of the notion that technological support is an area where it can cut corners during difficult economic times.

Overall, we have the technology we need to get by. Although our cable networks may fuzz in and out, and our Ethernet jacks may be unresponsive at times, these are only minor annoyances, and UIS is generally able to hold down the fort.

Unfortunately, that may not be enough. If Georgetown maintains its policy of muddling through, other universities with larger technology support staffs will gain the upper hand in innovation, undermining Georgetown’s edge in research and education.

As we move into the 21st century, Georgetown University needs to constantly take stock of its environment and adapt to its changing surroundings. In some ways, the University has managed this nicely; President John J. DeGioia has done an admirable job of emphasizing the global nature of the new world, expanding Georgetown’s commitments internationally.

But the rise of a global culture is only one aspect of the new century. Georgetown needs to confront the many other areas in which the world is rapidly changing around us, including technology.
In allocating funds, the University needs to make information technology a top priority. As the face of communication changes, institutions will need to adapt—first, in order to stay afloat, but even beyond that, to flourish. The keys to the 21st century will belong to those institutions that invest in the tools needed to stand on constantly shifting ground.

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