The High Cost of IT Failure in Higher Education

(May 4, 2015) Los Angeles – Last week the world saw the “resignation” of USC CIO Pete Siegel who hailed from UC Davis, joining USC in July 2013 with great promise and fanfare. USC and its stakeholders — trustees, students, faculty, administrators, staff, community — were promised a fresh approach to efficiency, metrics, performance, and responsiveness relating to their IT service and product needs. As evidence, now Cornell President Elizabeth Garett and then USC Provost announced a $1.5 billion informatics initiative and boasted the importance of the Kuali open-source enterprise-level software platform. “USC will also make significant investments in the infrastructure necessary to support research, creative work and pedagogy in informatics and digital media,” reported USC in September 2013.


So what happened? Nothing. And the same nothing is happening at universities and colleges all over the country.

With few exceptions including Arizona State University, the prevailing logic amongst higher-education presidents, provosts, and leaders is that programmers, systems administrators, and a bevy of IT managers are needed to support a very expensive IT infrastructure. Says ASU’s Adrienne Sannier who led the charge to outsource email and to bring Google Apps to ASU in 2007, “It became clear to me that ASU, like many institutions of higher learning, was running a cottage IT industry.”

In 2007  a window of opportunity opened with savvy USC Marshall School of Business CIO, finance professor, and Vice Provost of Technology Enhanced Learning, Suh-Pyng Ku. Recognizing a gap in the official central IT services model, Dr. Ku brought in a new model of email via Gmail/Google Apps and later transformed distance learning by relying upon third-party providers — a model that still prevails at USC and that coexists with the official IT services.

In response to this territorial threat, the central USC IT managers and administrators grumbled and complained and fought the change, much in the same way that they did when the third-party Blackboard learning management system was introduced nearly ten years earlier. The logic: “We can do it better! You are risking the privacy rights of students! Google (and Blackboard) don’t care about us! We do!”

As it turns out, Google Apps – in particular Gmail – remains the highest scoring IT service amongst USC students. While the Blackboard learning management system (LMS) is not so popular, it performs predictably as a robust and highly-rated platform amongst students and faculty alike. In contrast, open-source LMS platforms requiring local administrators and developers such as Moodle and the ill-fated Sakai have largely failed. As an exception, Moodle and other LMS platforms seem to be stable and effective when managed by a private third party of experts outside of higher education.

Meanwhile, the rapid rise and fall of CIO Pete Siegel and the departure of Elizabeth Garrett to the greener pastures of Cornell have left USC with a big problem: How to ease out of the Kuali monster investment brought originally by Ohio State’s CIO Ilee Rhimes in 2007.

Not surprisingly Mr. Rhimes is a long-time personal friend of Mr. Siegel — two peas in a pod. CIO Rhimes and Siegel epitomize the IBM mainframe thinking that still dominates campuses and that involves infinitely complex and unnecessary IT provisioning processes, often managed by unmotivated IT employees who are predictably overtaxed. Despite his retirement, Mr. Rhimes still collects substantial consultancy payments from USC for his expert knowledge relating to the complex matrix of inefficiency that he introduced years earlier.

So how did we get here? How is it that universities and colleges continue to allow their IT organizations to operate without accountability for such blunders? How is it that the leadership cannot see that higher education organizations have core competencies in teaching, learning, research, and sometimes sports and community outreach — but certainly not in IT provisioning and maintaining security?

The power and influence of entrenched IT systems administrators, security ‘experts,’ and a host of ancillary IT managers is significant. As someone who was integrally involved in bringing Google Apps to USC, and who witnessed the dysfunction, corruption, lethargy, and lack of responsiveness to stakeholder needs in the midst of a cloud-based, app-based, mobile-based, location-based, and digital-identity-based revolution in software services: it will take a Ferguson and Baltimore season to upend our current higher edu IT model. Nonetheless, such an IT revolution in higher education seems inevitable.

Until then, it is critical that higher-education leadership take a sober and strategic approach to undoing the damage of the past decades since the explosion of local IT infrastructure in the late 90s and into the present. For sure: those institutions with leaders who have the fortitude and smarts to segue out of the current predicament will be those that are able to be cost-efficient, nimble, and to offer education and research services digitally and on the basis of value.

Next installment: The Failure of EDUCAUSE and the New Media Consortium to Curate and Challenge Teaching and Learning with Technology

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