W[h]ither IT?: Long-term concerns come to a head after faculty meeting

Mariah Howland

The old switchboard, JSC’s former method of communication, on display in the Willey Library.

Johnson State College has a problem, it’s not quite sure what that problem is, and it’s not quite sure how to solve it, but almost every member of this community knows it exists– and where it exists. It pulses like a blinking cursor: the problem is our Information Technology.

The Faculty Assembly met just before October Break. The main agenda item on their docket–issues with Information Technology at JSC. The frustrations with IT which abound in every corner of campus-life have not escaped the notice of the faculty, and they want the situation to improve.

“It was clear from that meeting that there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the state of IT,” said Tyrone Shaw, Faculty Assembly chair and assistant professor of Writing and Literature. “The sense of that meeting was that we really need to improve. I think the administration would agree.”

They do. “It was just clear that there’s a lot of dissatisfaction, a lot of frustration,” said JSC President Barbara Murphy about the tone that discussions had taken after a faculty retreat this past August. “It was a little hard to be on the receiving end, but I totally took it for the signal about this being really important and this being a matter that needs to be addressed this year.”

Sharron Scott, the dean of administration and the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), heads the IT department. “I have met with Dan Regan [the dean of academic affairs] and the academic department chairs to talk about where the areas of concern are,” said Scott. “And, I agree; there are definitely areas of improvement that need to be made with Information Technology.”

If one fact from this story emerges, it is this: IT, both the infrastructure and the services, will be undergoing changes this year, but what must change, and how to change it, is proving elusive to pin down.

Many are annoyed with the cantankerous characteristics of both Moodle and Web Services. “I’m very frustrated with the school’s technology,” said Jerry Himelstein, an assistant professor in Behavioral Sciences, describing to a class why he had to send three separate emails using Web Services to provide a link to a website. “I called IT and they said, ‘Well, just use Moodle.’”

Others are frustrated with the lack of availability of IT for service requests. “Sometimes they were willing to help, and sometimes they said they were too busy,” said graduate student Brittany Rhodes. “I’ve been here since 2006 and not much has changed.” Rhodes is not alone. Complaints concerning IT’s willingness to handle, in years past, service requests timely and with open and considerate communication seemed to top all categories among students.

Others see the problem as more all-encompassing. “I feel that the technology on campus is outdated and needs drastic improvement,” said Assistant Professor of Education Perry LaRoque. “As a member of the Education Department it is difficult to work within the confines of the technology we do have.” He went on to describe his students as being faced with the challenge of learning on systems at JSC that are antiquated compared to what they will encounter when they get on the job.

Though dissatisfaction with IT is evident in most departments, attempts to generate a catalogue of deficiencies which could then be addressed have proven difficult. Most faculty and students simply aren’t IT experts, confounding attempts to foster purposeful dialogue about IT woes. But from the conversations on the issue thus far, which have grown into a groundswell following the faculty retreat this August, it is becoming clear that the problems are many and diverse; in other words, there won’t be a silver bullet.

“We generated lists for our academic dean as a department of different sorts of issues we’ve had, and it spans all aspects of Information Technology on this campus,” said Hans Haverkamp, assistant professor and co-chair of Environmental and Health Sciences. “I’m talking about students who haven’t been able to print documents from Moodle on campus, nobody understands how the Portal works, nobody can navigate their way through the Portal, for example. There’s been an on-going problem with attaching large files via email right now. So, I think it spans the entire Information Technology domain.”

It is not difficult to find a member of the JSC community who has encountered infuriating problems with IT, but it is important to differentiate between IT the infrastructure and IT the department. The department is overwhelmed by the gulf which exists between the challenges they face and the resources at their disposal to tackle them.

“The one thing I’m not saying is that this is the IT department’s fault,” said LaRoque. “This is much bigger than the IT department,”a sentiment echoed by nearly every faculty member interviewed for this story. Most faculty and staff are cognizant of IT’s recent challenges.

In the spring of 2011 Stewart Ressler, the former network administrator, walked off the job in frustration. He was not replaced and the department limped through last year short-handed. Last spring Assistant Chief Technology Officer Sally Searles retired after a 30 year career at JSC. She too was not replaced. The department, until only very recently, has been operating with two fewer people. Not counting Scott (as CTO), that left only three people, just barely over half their usual complement.

Shorthanded as they were, they still succeeded in bringing WiFi to every building on campus this summer. “Our goal was to get the students in, and to get them online,” said Dotty Spoerl, formerly assistant network administrator, who replaced Searles as assistant CTO this fall. “We did that pretty well,” she said.

In addition to improving connectivity, IT managed to bring about 150 new or refurbished computers to campus this summer, the largest installation and revamping of its kind in the department’s history, according to Scott.

The improvements to the infrastructure notwithstanding, not every IT goal that had been set for this summer was met. The search committee that had briefly inspired hope among frustrated students and faculty, and was charged with finding an IT expert to come in and be the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), ended its quest in failure this summer.

“After receiving several qualified applications from around the country, the search was terminated,” said LaRoque, who served on that committee and admitted to his frustration upon learning the news.

Scott confirmed that the search was called off when it became apparent that JSC would not be able to afford any of the qualified candidates.

“We’re all dealing with budget cuts and there’s just not enough people; you know?” said Haverkamp. “Tom Fordham was doing every single PC repair on this campus for the last couple of years. One person to run an entire campus, I mean, that’s a super-human feat.”

Fordham’s job is not an enviable one. Consider the sheer number of computers and gizmos it is his job to service, maintain and repair. If any school-owned computer breaks down, he is the guy who has to fix it. If that Herculean feat weren’t enough, many of the repair orders generated by Help Desk for personal computers fall into his hopper as well. “Everybody thinks it’s an emergency when something doesn’t work that they’re using,” said Fordham, the senior desktop support specialist. “But, that’s just human nature.”

Fordham’s isn’t the only difficult job at IT. After the search for a new CTO was called off, Dotty Spoerl was promoted to assistant CTO. She steps into a department in flux in all regards except one: her department remains under-staffed, arguably under-funded, and clearly on the receiving end of dismay generated by years of problematic inter-departmental relations.

Murphy sees this changing of the guard as an opportunity to improve IT. “We’ve had a change from the person who occupied the assistant CTO position, and every time someone leaves is a huge obligation slash opportunity to really look and see what you’re doing,” she said.

Murphy said she understood that a change of culture was needed, “…a shift from ‘sorry we can’t do that,’ to, ‘let’s figure out how we can do that.’ That’s what people want more than anything, is a reorientation from, ‘can’t do that,’ to ‘let’s see if we can do that,’” she said. In short, the faculty feels that IT needs to be more customer-oriented.

Scott has gotten the message. “The culture has to change in terms of how IT approaches the work that’s going to be done and that was clearly described to me at their meetings,” said Scott. “They really want a department that feels ‘can-do,’ and that is really what, since this summer, we have really been focusing on in the IT department.”

At the same time IT is being called upon to consider a radical culture change, a departmental reboot if you will, it still must manage all of its Information Technology obligations, a tall request for a beleaguered department.

“The challenge of being down a couple of positions from what we had last year is very difficult,” said Spoerl earlier this semester. JSC had, at the time, been advertising for two positions which it sought to fill, assistant network administrator and desktop support specialist. “If we can fill these two positions, I think we’ll be in good shape,” Spoerl said in September.

The recent hiring of Bahridden (Baha) Iskandarov as desktop support specialist must surely come as a relief, especially in light of his resume, which includes a fluency in Mac, Windows, English, Russian and Farsi, and a three-year stint with Doctors Without Borders. His qualifications aside, unless he has four arms and a magic 27 hour clock it is doubtful his addition will solve all of IT’s woes. But, his hiring should alleviate some of the strain on his fellow desktop support specialist, Fordham. IT now has two sets of boots on the ground to combat the glitches and snafus constantly cropping up out of aging computers and systems on campus.

So, things with IT are changing, like the creation by the Faculty Assembly of an ad hoc committee to address IT issues. Spoerl said early in this semester that she would welcome the creation of an appointed group of faculty to act as a liaison with her department. The dialogue has begun.

LaRoque, who serves on the recently formed committee, said its purpose is, “…to explore the state of technology on campus and to advise the administration on the vision and priorities of the technology on campus.”

Murphy applauds the creation of this committee and eagerly awaits their findings, as does Scott who has arranged to informally advise the committee on matters of propriety, vis-à-vis advising on what problems fall under JSC’s control and which are squarely under the auspices of the VSC, the Vermont State Colleges.

The committee will act as a go-between, the faculty on one side and the administration on the other. “One of the questions that the administration is understandably asking is: give us some specifics of what we need,” said Haverkamp, who though he doesn’t serve on the committee, is represented by it. “Part of my response to that is: we think the entire system needs to be looked at, and revamped by somebody who has current knowledge of this domain, and I, as an exercise physiologist, don’t have that knowledge. I don’t even know half of the words that are appropriate for understanding IT needs.”

One of the ideas being discussed is to create a position which would be filled by an outside expert who could provide leadership and vision for the IT department. While Murphy wonders how such a position might be budgeted, others wonder how JSC can hope to rejoin the cutting edge of Information Technology without such a leader.

“We need someone on this campus who is extremely savvy in Information Technology,” said Shaw. “Especially as it pertains to education, and I’m talking about both applications and all the software that are state-of-the-art, current. There is a feeling, at least in the Assembly, that we have nobody on this campus that meets that description.”

Shaw’s assertion that an outside expert is in order is one many faculty have repeated. “There are among almost all faculty on campus daily, repetitive, small incidents, right, small problems that crop up,” said Haverkamp. “This, we think, is a symptom of the larger lack of direction and expertise at the helm of the [the IT] ship. A metaphor used by a colleague here was the following: we have personnel to man the oars, but we don’t have anyone at the helm.”

So while the faculty tries to articulate their frustrations and develop useful suggestions for improvement, and the IT department tries to make it through another day shorthanded (the position of assistant network administrator remains unfilled), Assistant Professor of Writing and Literature Jacob White offers this vision of where the whole community wishes to go with IT: “The college would welcome a robust, supportive IT department. Hopefully that’s what we’ll have, and that will help us solve little problems, help those of us who want to take innovative steps toward building an online community, building a new digital presence for the college, a digital face for the college.”