Tough economic times have forced IT managers at colleges and universities to hone their penny-pinching and management skills to tailor shrinking budgets and stretch their resources as far as possible. The economic climate for higher education hasn’t been a friendly one in the past year. Examples of the slowdown abound: This fall, Rhode Island’s three public universities and the state university system in New York moved to raise tuition to cover large state budget shortfalls. And Nevada approved $10 million in budget cuts last fall to help offset a $341 million shortfall in state income. As economic challenges deepen, university IT managers turn to their experience to guide them, examining resources and capabilities to harden operations and administration to the new climate. They’re squeezing the most out of machines, software and operations, but they are also looking for new opportunities. Here are some best practices that tech managers recommend to make the most of their IT budgets:
Think About The Big Picture.
How college and university CIOs approach the current situation varies as much as the individual campuses they work on. Handling a shrinking budget requires IT to be proactive and to adhere to simple budget-conscious practices, they say.
Rather than thinking about how IT can cut costs, show how it can help others reduce expenses by becoming more effective in the delivery of services, says Sam Young, chief technology officer at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU), a private Catholic university in San Antonio, Texas. “We use IT to make everyone else more efficient,” he says.
OLLU implemented Active Directory in June 2008 to prevent unauthorized software updates and applications from being added to the network. Both had been slowing network operations considerably, says Young.
The new Active Directory system disables all updates until the university provides a centralized, coordinated update and streamlines the task, he says, freeing up the network and speeding processing times.
Harvard University’s $36 billion endowment lost 30 percent of its value by the end of 2008.
The university is considering constructing a new data warehouse even as budgets shrink for other departments, says Young. With a new data warehouse, “deans could do their own analysis, freeing IT staff for other duties,” says Young.
OLLU also established a Student Services Improvement Team that looks to automate various processes in departments such as financial aid and academic advising. The idea is to brainstorm new ways to do daily tasks using effective processes with the help of technology. “We started this just a few months ago and we have already seen a huge increase in customer satisfaction, as well as efficiencies,” says Young. “Our customer satisfaction numbers in certain areas have improved by over 20 percentage points,” he adds.
Lev Gonick, vice president for information technology services and CIO at Case Western Reserve University, (Cleveland), agrees with OLLU’s initiatives. “When times are tough, we look at where we can add value,” he says.
At Case Western this past year, Gonick’s department developed some practical, hands-on programs to save money and resources. It replaced hundreds of power-hungry older printers with new, more energy-efficient models. It also installed a new climate control network that lets buildings run heating and cooling infrastructure more efficiently.
Although Case Western hasn’t seen its IT budget decline yet, it remained flat for the past two years, says Gonick. It will probably remain that way for at least another year or two. With that in mind, Gonick moved to accentuate the IT jobs his team does well, such as supporting analytical and computational high-performance computing for researchers and improving streaming media capabilities. At the same time, he outsourced some everyday services, such as campus e-mail.
Streamline At All Levels
Many state college systems find themselves in exceedingly difficult circumstances. Vermont, for instance, asked the Vermont State College system to return up to 8 percent of its appropriations to cover a shortfall in state revenues, says Linda Hilton, VSC’s CIO. Hilton oversees IT operations for Waterbury-based VSC’s five colleges.
VSC is experienced in pinching pennies, says Hilton, because Vermont has long been lean in its funding for state schools. Streamlining everyday operations, from software to hardware, can save a lot, she says. Little things — moving from multiple help desks to a single iteration of help-desk software; consolidating purchasing, payroll and accounts payable processes on a single system; or sharing IT operations across the organization — all help bring down costs.
Binghamton University squeezes the last drop of value from its computers’ lifecycles, says James Wolf, the school’s director of academic computing. The school decided to cycle three- or four-year-old computers from its public labs into university department labs to make up for reduced computer budgets there, he says.
Coordination among IT managers is paramount, Hilton says. Although each of the five colleges VSC oversees has a local IT budget that local managers use to support everyday operations, Hilton schedules regular meetings with staff at all of them to coordinate operational objectives.
Get By With Some Help From Your Friends.
Relying on friends is another tactic that can help manage costs. VSC works hard to coordinate software and hardware contracts among colleges, leveraging their collective buying power. This also helps lower maintenance costs over several months because a single operations and programming staff is able to support all five colleges, Hilton says.
Expand Your Virtualization Projects
Wilmington University in Delaware is moving to maximize its investment in thin-client server virtualization technology, says Mike Adams, network operations manager at the school. Although the school’s infrastructure is already 94 percent virtualized, it plans to expand the virtualization of the commuter school’s computer labs.
Virtualization is an important investment, according to Adams, because Wilmington University’s students require more remote access than others. “We’re a commuter university,” he says. “Students use the library facilities and not dorms.”
Using thin-client desktop applications creates more flexibility in how the school sets up its computer labs and schedules classes. Now, the school can run multiple courses on a single server, instead of using multiple dedicated servers for individual courses. Because the software image is downloaded when the user logs in, courses requiring different software sets can be scheduled in the same lab. The virtual lab also can be accessed from off-campus, which fosters distance learning. Multiple classrooms run from one or two servers, versus investing in desktops, which reduces hardware costs.
The server virtualization program cost Wilmington more up front, Adams says, but produced tangible savings in server replacement and “soft savings” as well — such as being able to repurpose staff previously assigned to care for the now- defunct server farm.
There is no single path to follow that will get IT through these financially challenging times. To survive, managers must use proven belt-tightening measures, as well as not-so-obvious measures, such as emphasizing the value of their services.
Help May Be Next Door
Binghamton University in New York hopes to roll out a disaster recovery plan this spring for many of its Windows servers. The plan is based on regional facilities that support primary and secondary education network disaster recovery needs. The university is working with the Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services to locate its disaster recovery facilities in regional facilities shared by elementary and secondary schools, says James Wolf, director of academic computing at the university.
BU faces budget constraints, says Wolf, and is tightening its belt. “We’ve gone from a two to three-year replacement cycle for computers to three to four years” and have seen significant sources of funding dry up, he says. The program with Broome-Tioga is expeditious for finances, because it’s a reciprocal arrangement that doesn’t require additional expenditures, he says. The Broome-Tioga BOCES is one of 37 such boards in the state that act as liaisons between local school districts to share costs and consolidate communications with the state board of education.
The reciprocal agreement with BOCES lets Binghamton University house disaster recovery backup servers at the BOCES data center and allows BOCES to place backup servers in Binghamton University’s data center, at no cost