The University of Maryland's College Park campus has proposed a new strategic plan for information technology in order to spur innovation, and moreover invites comment from stakeholders. Unfortunately the opportunity for stakeholders to consider others' thoughts on the matter is limited because all discussion is held behind a privacy wall. You need to specifically log in using campus credentials just to see what others might have to say, you need to know where to drill down once you get there (comments are spread out at the site - you need perserverance to track down all of them) and OIT's prototype web site which hosts this "discussion" limits users to those running old browsers on specific platforms to which the stakeholder is willing to add a plugin of unknown origin and function. Those are probably sufficient reasons to explain the general lack of stakeholder exchanges on a topic which has a potentially sweeping impact to the campus community. What follows is one stakeholder's commentary, copied here so as to not be hidden on the other side of OIT's privacy wall. -- Jim Purtilo

The draft University IT Plan should be sent back for a serious do-over in order that it reflect both the IT industry’s best practices and the University’s core missions.

Taken as a whole, this draft paints a picture with OIT at the center of the universe. In Recommendation 3, for example, we learn that it will be a mission of the University to build information technology for the scholarly achievement of its students by means of IT. Leaving aside a question of how scholars other than students may fare in this brave new world, and with knowledge that this is cast as a university plan, not narrower OIT plan, we are surprised at the shift. The plan might more reasonably have said that it is a University of Maryland mission to enable scholarly achievement, and moreover that one of the means by which this may occur – one means among many – is via IT. The inversion of missions is not a stray editing slip, as the mindset is pervasive throughout this proposal, and indeed the very first action item under point 3 places an obligation upon faculty, not OIT. Having declared that technology is now the campus mission, we are told its interests “require that UMD faculty fully engage in the use of IT tools …”

Our faculty has just adopted a Gen Ed plan which willfully avoids use of the word “computer” (in stark contrast to trends among our aspirational peer institutions) so perhaps it is a good thing that at least our faculty might know something about IT. After all, then our students might be exposed to it by indirect means. Nevertheless, that is an issue which can be addressed more reasonably by patient and focused advocacy of those who control Gen Ed, not an inversion of the campus mission to serve the imperialist interests of OIT.

The two most practical implications of an OIT-centric world view are a likely resource grab (especially to gain control of computing activities not yet under OIT’s purview, something my friends over in the Smith School might characterize as “empire building”) and acceleration of the implementation of MOOC and similar on-line content delivery, a top-down decision already made by the bean counters. My remaining remarks are intended to give color to the likely and unwanted effects of adopting the plan as given.

1. OIT should offer a service but otherwise let units decide for themselves.

A clear implication of this draft proposal is that activities and resources presently within other units will eventually become part of OIT. This should not be required.

My department’s fastest rise in international stature many years ago followed our success at winning fundamental independence from the administrative unit which today is called OIT. We had to be free to operate, configure, procure and manage our own resources, which we did at lower cost and with higher quality. Not all units on campus can or should be so independent, but it would be a fundamental limit on our ability to compete at highest levels on our missions to work through a single procrustean OIT model of computing resources.

To illustrate, today I operate a laboratory which resides within CS department facilities but whose resources are independent of it. They were creatively acquired and enable me to perform not only exploratory research but offer advanced instruction which cannot be done in present OIT-provided educational resources. The essence of what we need is control, which is at odds with the proposed OIT model, and responsiveness, which OIT has no track record of providing. Even if we overcame those barriers, no DRIF provides enough resources to let us procure hosting from OIT for prospective work on frontier areas. I would like to think we could agree that a scholar exploring prospective research ideas in computing would have different needs than an educator interested in ordinary services, yet this is not recognized in the OIT proposal. If adopted, the full weight of what are today ‘off book’ computing activities in support of both research and education would fall onto the departments where, given the budget realities, they are likely to be dropped. CS would not be able to do as much as we do today.

A far superior model for computing on campus would foster growth of OIT as an internal service, which would compete with, but not necessarily assimilate in Borg-like fashion, other operations. Then let each member of the administrative community decide how it prefers to meet its own needs. A little healthy competition will help lower costs and improve responsiveness to mission needs.

2. Computer-based instruction should deploy organically, as its effects and value can be understood, not driven by non-academics to serve their needs.

The OIT-centric mindset in this draft similarly casts technology-intensive education as an inevitability. It should be softened to recognize that perhaps the professoriate, not administrators (many of them non-academics) should make the calls on when and how to involve OIT. The jury is simply out on what is the effect on quality due to use of trendy tech-based content delivery. Undoubtedly technology will help us discover effective ways to prepare our students for the future, but it is too early to adopt a policy which locks us in, and potentially will detract from our mission of excellence. Yes, the visibility of MOOCs and other trends make them exciting, and we understand why leaders want to make one-time investments into technology which purports to shave on-going expenses of delivering content via expensive faculty. But please – let’s exercise some patience and good judgment. Change the draft to sound less like a case for major equipment acquisition today and more like we want to be ready to support experiments in content delivery tomorrow.

3. Campus should show it can follow its existing strategic plans before making new strategic plans.

The 2008 strategic plan – described as a ten year document and thus still in force – establishes:

“The administration will establish review processes to evaluate the performance of individual units in all divisions in meeting standards for improvement in their quality and effective­ness. We will use state-of-the-art information technology to ensure that institutional data are accurate and available for effective decision making. We will review all academic and administrative approval processes and change them as necessary to ensure that decisions can be made expeditiously and responsibly. Institutional units will provide responsive, customer-oriented services to all constituencies. Annual surveys will monitor the progress made in improving academic and administrative operations.”

Obviously UM’s strategic plans are observed selectively, with administrators free to cherry pick dicta as suits a need of the day, but had the existing language concerning reviews or state-of-the-art IT been treated as fully in force, then not only might we have not needed yet another plan, but we’d have taken note of OIT’s track record on some fronts:

  • The centralized campus effort to refactor academic data systems under Kuali is years behind, has cost an immense amount of money and has yet to positively impact its first stakeholder outside of a few very specialized internal users. During the same period of time, whole generations of organically grown, non-OIT based – and genuinely free – systems were built, deployed, used successfully with stakeholder acclaim and yet ultimately killed for want of campus adoption of software which OIT would not accept. Administrative unwillingness to lead, follow or get out of the way is the mark of 1970’s era Soviet centralized planning, not a tenet of a successful university in the new millennium.
  • Years of professorial advocacy that we should do real data mining in order to improve student outcomes have been in vain. Scholars today know serious techniques for learning from our data. Corporations, government agencies and scientists apply these techniques to expose a wealth of insights about what works and what doesn’t in their respective operations. Not so at the University of Maryland, where our antique data services continue to age, guarded by an organization that seems to spend more energy protecting stakeholders from accessing the data than it does upgrading services so stakeholders could make better-informed decisions. As noted, data-driven decision making is part of the strategic plan, yet those few who are allowed to try it find Byzantine data models, having ad hoc updates from inconsistent and unreliable sources. This is not a state of affairs which will be fixed by granting OIT with greater centralized authority or by creating even more plans which will be selectively followed.
  • Over the last decade, by my direct observation, OIT has done an outstanding job of stonewalling campus map and geolocation services. If not invented or controlled by them, then organically-grown software or data is not accepted. OIT has held out instead for tremendously expensive commercial packages which only they would manage. In the meantime, while OIT has held out for funding, nearly half a dozen administrative units on campus, all with serious mapping needs, have over-paid for conflicting resources that needlessly replicated one another. Taxpayers and stakeholders alike are the losers in this classic empire building game, which would be rewarded under the proposed strategic plan.
  • For an example of what life would be like under a fully centralized campus computing system, one only needs look at the very TerpSharePilot site they make available for collecting comments about the IT draft. The organization and structure of this site was so confusing that UMIACS ultimately had to post a detailed guide for its computer science research faculty to help them figure out how to navigate the site and add comments.

These examples suggest that caution should be exercised before OIT is placed even more squarely on the critical path of campus stakeholders – and before making up more plans.


A centralized service model like seems to be proposed in this plan flies in the face of corporate trends toward getting control into the hands of stakeholders to affect their own lives. Companies which are successful in today's economy respect a basic reality of economics, which is the debilitating impact on quality when you concentrate authorities and responsibilities in a monopoly. Institutionally, lean and agile methods which freed my unit from dependency on OIT have worked. We should not change this.

Any unit on this campus should fear a bureaucratic model which places its success in the hands of staff whose incentives and reward structures are independent of that unit. This is true for departments that have only ordinary tech needs, just as it is for departments that educate and research out at the cutting edge. Each department should be free to incentivize performance from OIT by also being free to satisfy their own needs as they see fit.