By MARTY LEVINE
Three months into the job, new chief information officer Mark Henderson has plans for Pitt’s information technology, which he intends to shape and refine as he meets with IT users and administrators.
The goals he’s outlining now are broad: “To provide students the information they need, wherever they happen to be, on whatever device they prefer … to establish broad IT governance … to digitize the campus … to make sure faculty members understand what is available to them … to extend services into the community.”
Henderson is very familiar with Pitt, even though he has never worked here before. His daughter, Kara, is a Pitt graduate, and his brother, Gerald, retired as a Pitt police officer. In fact, Mark Henderson has been a virtual Panther for decades: His father Donald Henderson was provost of the University from 1989 until his retirement in 1993 and served in other roles beginning in 1970.
Mark Henderson recalls his father’s friendship with Nathan Davis, a jazz studies pioneer who headed the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, and the musicians gathering at the Henderson house for a brunch before the concert.
And when the elder Henderson was provost, Pitt was partnering with AT&T for the Campus of the Future project — the installation of the University’s original fiber optic cable network. By then, Mark Henderson was working in networking and telecommunications for Procter & Gamble. “I remember reading through some of the things that were being proposed by AT&T and offering my opinions,” he says.
“I feel like I’ve been here for quite a while,” he continues, “… and it didn’t hurt that there are people here from when my father was here. That added to the comfort, to familiarity.”
As for his plans: “There are opportunities to streamline and to simplify our system for our faculty and for our students, in particular,” Henderson says. “There are opportunities to reduce duplication and associated waste. We want to take (these ideas) on the road and really get input from our stakeholders. I think it’s important that we’re an open and transparent organization.”
Not every aspect of IT should be centralized, he adds. “There are unique needs in the colleges … But there are multiple help desks, multiple infrastructure organizations.”
For example, while Pitt manages a large, central fiber infrastructure, Facilities Management has its own fiber network, “and both are funded differently. It doesn’t make sense, in my humble opinion, to have separate fiber plants.” Henderson says he is already talking to Facilities Management about consolidation of the two networks.
Enhancing the student experience on campus, he says, would better allow students to plan out the progression toward their degree, seek answers to question on the go, and securely use their phones to access dorm rooms, shuttle buses or campus meals. “We’re looking into the feasibility of these things right now,” he says.
“There are ways we can leverage technology to improve our lives collectively on campus,” he adds. The possibilities include employing new software that allows Pitt employees and students to search for available parking spaces in campus facilities, or that lets Pitt Police be notified if an unusual number of people are in a Pitt facility at an odd hour.
Henderson envisions the possibility of one major public safety enhancement: the availability of a help button on the phones of Pitt employees and students, which would allow Pitt Police to know who and where you are, alerting the nearest police officer, turning up surrounding lights and swiveling cameras in the direction of the signal — even sending drones to the scene to offer remote views before the police officer can arrive.
“These are things we’re considering,” Henderson says. “They’re not going to appear tomorrow,” but must be part of a well-thought-out plan.
Supporting faculty research is another important goal, he says. At his previous institution, the University of Illinois, his IT department interviewed more than 350 research faculty during the course of a year, compiling a priority list of services desired. “Their No. 1 request was help — ‘What is available to me? What services are out there? Who do I see about this? How do I get access to that?’ ” Aiding research faculty, of course, would also “help them to gain the grants that they are after.”
As for extending services into the community, Henderson hopes to use Pitt’s community engagement centers in Homewood and the Hill District “as springboards to help the community.” Perhaps the centers will offer the chance for community members to earn certifications in certain software skills, he posits. Maybe neighbors or businesses surrounding the centers could use Pitt’s wireless network to seek help via Pitt’s help desks for software Pitt already supports.
“We’re going to keep the (Pitt) community abreast of how we’re doing,” Henderson says. “This is a journey. We need to be able to report on milestones on the journey. The needs of our faculty will always evolve. The needs of our students will always evolve. It will always be an interesting journey.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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