Published on 2014/09/22

Point/Counterpoint: Does Academic Freedom Imply IT Freedom as Well? (Part 2)

Point/Counterpoint: Does Academic Freedom Imply IT Freedom as Well? (Part 2)
Centralizing IT decision-making ensures products and services truly integrate with the rest of campus while also creating a single point of contact between the vendor and institution.
This is the second of a two-part series by Mike Scheuermann where he presents both sides of the argument on whether academic freedom implies IT freedom as well. In the first installment, Scheuermann presented the affirmative argument, outlining the importance of ensuring individual units had access to the specific IT tools they need to succeed. In this piece, he will outline why that might not be the right decision for institutions.

No — academic units should leave the IT decisions to the institution’s IT professionals.

After all, faculty seldom-if-ever invite the technologists into their classrooms before they close the door, and rightly so. Pedagogy is the strong suit for the academics and there are sufficient challenges in that area alone to keep them constantly busy improving their engagement with their students. Worrying about the latest shiny technology coming down the pike only serves to distract faculty and academic leadership from their core mission and dilute their effectiveness in ensuring academic value and success for their students. Having feet in two canoes is a precarious position, indeed.

Universities are particularly vulnerable when academic units attempt to focus on both academics and technology. Individual colleges, schools and departments that attempt to do many things in the technology realm end up doing none of them well. This can only serve to imperil academic offerings in the short term and the institutional brand in the long run.

Vendors (stellar ones and otherwise) typically exacerbate the situation by approaching individual units (both academic and administrative) to adopt their latest software, application, devices, cloud offering, technology, etc. The list is endless and the vendors relentless. Many of them fail in their pitch to central IT and consequently attempt end runs to the units themselves. Many are successful. The standard pitch is that “our application integrates with everything you already have.” Naturally, this is seldom, if ever, the case; a common reason they didn’t get far with central IT in the first place.

Coordinated vendor management, funding and training/support are the best reasons to collaboratively select applications for broad-based use at the institution. A sandbox approach is but one of the effective ways to bridge the gap while saving time, effort and money. IT can set up trial areas for limited-use licenses for applications and the like that appear promising. If they get traction and prove their worth, once long-term value is envisioned, site licenses and widespread use can result. Software that crashes and burns or that receives little interest and traction can be terminated and efforts redirected appropriately. Some will move forward while many will whither and die.

In conclusion, as we can see from this point-counterpoint review, there are solid arguments on both sides of the aisle in this dilemma. However, the stakes are too high, our time too precious and the funding too scarce to have either the pro or the con stance be the sole one we adopt as professionals in the higher ed space today. Try coordination rather than control, collaboration rather than dictation and cross-departmental conversations rather than siloed whispers. Our students will benefit in the end — assuming all of us do this right.

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Readers Comments

Arjun Mahal 2014/09/22 at 10:52 am

I’m all too familiar with the tactics some unscrupulous tech providers have used to dupe departments, which don’t have the systems expertise of a central IT department, into purchasing their “compatible” offerings. Those tend to create massive headaches for IT departments when they inevitably fail to integrate with other institution-wide systems. In addition to creating an extra workload for IT staff, it also means students aren’t getting the best user experience, as they have to learn different processes or navigate different interfaces to get things done.

Lucy S. 2014/09/22 at 1:26 pm

I agree with Scheuermann’s overall argument that this isn’t a black-or-white scenario, and the decision to adopt technology for any department should be considered on a case-by-case basis. In some scenarios, it makes sense for a department to handle its own tech product, while in others it might make sense for central IT to step in and make the decision (and handle all of the work involved). A thoughtful approach should always be taken when a decision is taken that can significantly impact students.

Mike Scheuermann 2014/10/01 at 9:33 am

Lucy – Good points there. At the end of the day, if individual departments do, in fact, acquire technology that they find valuable and meaningful – all that should be done as a matter of course is for them to share that with other departments. This is not common, as you likely know. The institution needs to take the lead here and, at the very least, provide a venue or other mechanism whereby this can happen. – Mike

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