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January 20, 2000

Highlights of computing plan draft

A long-anticipated comprehensive plan for improving Pittsburgh campus computer usage calls for Pitt to spend $9.6 million over the next three years.

Titled "An Information Technology Foundation for the 21st Century," a draft of the plan has been distributed to several University Senate committees, the Dean's Council and academic units, according to Robert Pack, vice provost for Academic Planning and Resources Management.

The plan was prepared by the provost-chaired Information Technology Steering Committee (ITSC), which has been studying Pitt's computer needs since 1995. The plan addresses Pitt's infrastructure, computing equipment and facilities, and computing support on the Pittsburgh campus. (For details of the plan, click here.)

Pack presented an overview of the plan to the Senate budget policies committee (BPC) Jan. 14. He stressed the document was a draft. "Like the Facilities Management plan, there will be input from around the University. The provost plans to respond in writing to suggestions and say why some are accepted and some rejected," Pack explained. He said Provost James Maher is asking for written responses by March 17. The provost is expected to present an overview of the plan to Faculty Assembly Jan. 25, Pack said.

"What is clear is that the current levels of service are not adequate or appropriate and the University has not made consistent levels of effort to keep us competitive in this area," Pack told BPC. "The administration recognizes this. Infrastructure has been neglected. So significant upgrades are needed and new services are required, and it's not inexpensive."

Pack said Pitt is in relatively good shape because the campus is heavily networked with fiber as a result of the Campus of the Future efforts of the 1980s. "More good news is that most of the $9.6 million is for one-time costs, with $1.1 million of it in continuing costs. We've also put in for a $2.5 million one-time request for state appropriations for this, which, if approved, would make a big dent in the $3.8 million needed in year 1," Pack said.

But BPC and other groups will have to grapple with where the rest of the money will come from, he added. "In some instances, money will have to be moved from other lesser priorities at the University. And in some cases, costs will move to the individual units."

An unspecified portion of the costs will be recovered by an optional fee for faculty and staff who want improved remote access computer services, according to the plan. Currently, the University maintains 800 modems, not enough to prevent off-campus users from getting annoying busy signals, especially during peak evening hours.

Pack said Pitt is negotiating with an Internet service provider (ISP) for a preferred partnership that will offer a monthly fee option for employees seeking better service.

"We hope to announce an ISP vendor next month," Pack said, declining to name the vendor. "We've been reluctant to respond to individual issues, such as a potential fee for faculty for remote access, without the whole context of this plan. What you'll be paying for, if you so choose, is not the same service, but better service."

He added that the University will bear the cost for building a tunnel to house wiring from the ISP vendor to RIDC Park in Harmarville, where the Pittsburgh campus's central relay computing facility is located.

The modem pool service also should improve, Pack said, because as more users opt for the ISP, modem connectivity time will improve.

Pitt will continue to maintain its current 800 modems, according to the plan, but will not increase that number. "We're looking into further restricting the connect time, as well. It's now two hours at peak times. Well, that's a lot. And some faculty who need a lot of time to download huge documents, they can set their computers to do it [at off-peak hours]," Pack said.

What the plan makes clear is that e-mail and web access are essential tools for faculty, the vice provost said. "The question is, what's fair? As a philosophy, we're moving toward heavier users paying more for it. For those who are satisfied with the current service, who only use it to check their e-mail for example, that will still be available. For others, an option of a monthly fee will be available. Not everyone working at this University needs to access the Internet from home for work purposes."

According to the information technology plan, each unit will budget an amount to be used as the source of funds for computer hardware and software acquisitions for tenure and tenure-stream faculty. The amount budgeted will range from $500-$750 per person per year, determined by the discipline and/or individual needs of the faculty.

Pack also said the plan was designed with an eye toward the future. "We are not replicating an old system, but building a new environment. Faculty want to work faster; they want upgrades in software and hardware. We have Ethernet, yes; but faculty want ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) capability, especially in engineering, the med school and information sciences. ATM is much better for video. So we took advantage of the Masonic Temple renovation for ATM networks. And 50 classrooms are now like a 'video jukebox': a video for a class is delivered automatically at the touch of a button from a server."

Pack said the goal with the ISP is to be better positioned as new technology evolves. "We want to support it from our end, but we can't afford to build it ourselves. So we want to partner with businesses whose business it is to respond to technology changes. An ISP will add more capacity as needed, for example. It's in their interest."

Philip Wion, chair of BPC, said that it appeared the plan was establishing the baseline service for remote access as the 800 modems. "But I think it's fair to ask where should the baseline be? If faculty need this, it seems that to keep the baseline cost-free, they have to work in their office. To work off-campus, even if it's the same work, means a fee. If all 1,600 faculty [subscribed] at, say, $40 per month, that's $700,000-something a year in cost. Is a compromise possible, where faculty would pay some, perhaps, and the University would pay some [of the monthly ISP fee]?" Wion asked.

"Again, I think it comes down to who uses the service and what's fair," Pack replied. "But that is the kind of question this committee should put in its written response to the provost."

q In other Senate budget policies committee business:

* BPC member Richard Pratt reported that international phone rates could be coming down by another 30 percent across the board, according to information from Bruce Hutchison of Network Services. But Pratt maintained that the rates were still too high and that "there was a lack of real responsiveness to the BPC."

Network Services (formerly Telecommunications) admitted last April that University units had been overcharged by more than $130,000 in the previous year. (University Times, April 15, 1999.) Pratt said BPC had not been kept up to date on the negotiations Network Services had with AT&T. "I'd like to see the proposals made to others than AT&T, too, and I'd like to see the rate sheets from AT&T," Pratt said.

The committee asked Pratt to pursue information from Network Services officials and possibly invite Hutchison and Maurice Gordon, director of Network Services, to a BPC meeting to report directly to the committee. "I'll make sure it's a meeting I can attend," Pack said.

* Wion reported that the Office of Institutional Research was ready to generate the annual faculty salary reports. He asked Pack if BPC could request a change in the report structure to include salaries of those who were promoted to a higher faculty rank in the past year.

"To exclude them distorts actual merit raise amounts," Wion said. The number of the promoted faculty is about 80 of the 1,600 total faculty members, or 5 percent, Wion said.

Pack said he would consider the request, and pass it on to the provost, but cautioned that no one should take the new figures as a change in salary award practice. Pack noted that units differ in handling promotions in regard to salary increases. "In FAS, a promotion usually means a 5 percent raise. In other units, it is not uniform." Wion and Pack also agreed that faculty on paid leave or sabbatical, a category previously not included, should be counted in the annual salary reports.

* Wion also asked if categories in the salary increase report could take into account a separate raise category of 0 percent, which BPC had recommended be awarded to all employees deemed to fall below satisfactory work level. "Our recommendation does not carry the force of law, but we did recommend it. It means that the number of faculty who got raises from 0.1 percent to just below the satisfactory level of 1.5 percent is clarified. I just think the more information you get, the better."

Pack said he would pass that request on to the provost, too.

–Peter Hart

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