Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

February 3, 2000

Provost outlines $9.6 million information technology initiative

Provost James Maher gave an overview of a major Pitt information technology (IT) initiative at Faculty Assembly Jan. 25.

A draft of the plan titled "An Information Technology Foundation for the 21st Century," was distributed last month to all University Senate committees, the Dean's Council and academic units. (See University Times, Jan. 20.) Maher asked Senate committees and others to respond to the plan in writing by mid-March.

The IT plan was prepared by the provost-chaired Information Technology Steering Committee (ITSC), which has been studying Pitt's computer needs since 1995. Four ITSC subcommittees looked at faculty needs, student needs, network/library needs and management information systems needs University-wide.

The plan calls for Pitt to spend $9.6 million in additional money over the next three fiscal years, beginning July 1. In the current fiscal year, the University budgeted about $15 million for computing services and systems development and about $19 million for network services.

The additional $9.6 million will be used to upgrade computing infrastructure, equipment and facilities, maintain the 800 University-operated modems, expand the University's digital library resources and increase PittNet support, among other initiatives.

According to the provost, the strength of the information technology plan is its flexibility in a rapidly changing environment. Most budget decisions will be made at the unit level rather than by the central administration and IT support will be focused on academic programs, he said.

"IT might have been optional in the 1970s, concentrated in science and engineering, but today it is relevant to every area and crucial to every kind of teaching. Schools need to reflect on how IT fits in their academic programs as an integral part of the planning process," Maher said. "That's why I'm going to insist the schoolspropose a unit-level plan to the University as part of the annual budget process. IT has been an orphan in the past in the budget process."

Maher stressed that the information technology plan covered not only the missions of teaching and research, but managing information systems and training.

The provost acknowledged that the University has lagged behind in planning for, and focusing resources on, information technology.

"Four years ago, to get us competitive, we began the formulation of this plan. Frankly, we didn't have a strong background in either information systems or training."

Quoting from the draft, Faculty Assembly member Thomas Metzger said that paying for some of the plan's proposals with "mechanisms to be developed," was not specific enough.

"There's no hidden agenda there," Maher replied. "'Mechanisms to be developed' means UPBC (the University Planning and Budget Committee) and other committees concerned with budgets need to fit this into the budget and work it in over the next three years. I would like an agreement that that is what we're going to do."

Maher added, "We're looking for non-recurring ways for infrastructure upgrades from the state." Pitt has requested $2.5 million in one-time state appropriations to help off-set the $3.8 million needed in the plan's first year, he said.

"We can't do all things for all people, or even as much as we'd like, but with the units' evaluations we'll at least spend our limited money well and not force a 'one-size-fits-all' approach," Maher said. "We can judge what is most needed and put the budget there."

Assembly member Herbert Chesler suggested that Pitt look into leasing computers and other equipment instead of buying them outright. "There is a high rate of obsolescence, especially in high-end computers," Chesler said. "I know they kind of trickle down, but I see advantages to leasing them."

Senate President Nathan Hershey was concerned that departments were on unequal footing in the IT environment. "I see a disparity in starting points for departments," Hershey said. Some units are far behind others in technological resources and some have bigger budgets to fund IT, he said. "Will this just mean [less-well-funded] departments will get further behind?"

Maher replied that the plan's flexibility and the placement of departments' computer-related requests in the regular budget process should have the opposite effect of evening things out. "We'll be assessing all programs and looking at what they need. There will be programs that need more technical support by the nature of the discipline. Also, universities must accept some designated gifts from [donors], so some schools will be richer than others because of this. But, in general, we will be supporting the necessary elements of a department's needs."

Maher said that innovations in today's IT environment are much more likely to develop within academic fields than centrally. No one can say with accuracy what the innovations will be. "But I think it's fair to say that innovation will come from faculty who understand the possibilities in their fields, so the goal is to have technology in place at the unit level and train faculty to use it," Maher said.

As part of the IT plan, Pitt is negotiating with an information service provider (ISP) for a preferred partnership that will offer a monthly fee option for employees seeking better off-campus computer access.

Pitt hopes to announce an agreement with an ISP this month and have subscription options for faculty and staff by the end of the academic term, the provost said.

The ISP proposal has met some resistance at assemblies and other venues from faculty who maintain that off-campus access to PittNet and other computer services is integral to their jobs so they should not be charged for it.

The University maintains a pool of 800 modems, but everyone, including the administration, acknowledges that the service is inadequate to handle the high volume of users, especially in peak evening hours.

Chesler asked if faculty who chose the ISP fee option could deduct it from their taxes.

"I'm not sure," Maher said, "but there may be ways to do that."

Metzger predicted that, with departments being charged a dial-tone fee per computer, "people will go back to the daisy-chain — linking computers to one port — and other modem pool avoidance tactics."

The IT plan calls for a new annual electronic dial-tone charge of $80-$100 per port to help offset the loss of funding from the student network services fee, which will no longer be applied to departmental uses.

Maher said, "The plan will provide facilities that we don't have and, without the plan, we will never have. The point is to provide services we can't with modems. We need larger bandwidth and we need to be able to increase it as needed. We need an ISP for security, for authentication, for local charges for world-wide calling, for 99 percent connectivity rate.

And, the provost added, "We need options: A grant can pay for it, the department might pay for it, an individual can pay for it. And the rate will be substantially below [single-subscriber costs]."

Staff and students also can subscribe to the ISP, Maher said.

"Much more needs to be done," Maher acknowledged. "We're trying for a balance. This is the first time we've had a comprehensive plan, so I urge all of you to carefully read the plan."

In other Faculty Assembly business:

* Senate President Hershey reported that his "take a board member to class" program had attracted 13 or 14 board members so far and that a second letter inviting trustees to attend a class was going out in early February.

* Anne Medsger, chair of the Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee, said the committee was seeking more nominations for the Chancellor's Affirmative Action and Diversity Award. The deadline for nominations is March 24. For more information on the criteria for the award, call the University Senate office, 624-6505.

* Community relations committee chair Tracy Soska reported that his committee was looking for ways to support the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, a post-graduate internship/training program for students committed to public service. Pittsburgh houses one of five Coro centers, which are aimed at training civic and public service leaders, Soska said. Pitt would like to encourage more graduates to participate locally as a way of encouraging future leaders to stay in the Pittsburgh area.

He said his committee also was working with Student Affairs on expanding efforts to fight alcohol abuse campus-wide.

–Peter Hart

Leave a Reply