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May 13, 2004

University Senate Matters

Taking desktop responsibility

Since the advent of the personal computing revolution in the early 1980s, the personal computer has steadily become a ubiquitous and indispensable part of our professional and private lives. In particular, the convenience, speed, and wide reach of electronic mail has attracted, and in many cases forced, nearly all members of the University community to its use. For many, if not most, of us, e-mail has become our prime means of professional communication.

However, along with the marvelous benefits of e-mail has come an attendant set of problems: computer-borne “pathogens” (viruses, worms, etc.); unsolicited e-mail of various types (spam), and the often frustrating and work-halting failure of computer hardware or software. An additional problem some computer users at this University face is having two e-mail accounts that have been created by different administrative entities. In some cases, such as faculty holding dual appointments with the University and the medical center, the user may not be aware that two accounts exist.

Given the now essential need for faculty, staff, and students to access e-mail with a minimal disruption of service and maximum ease of use, where does the responsibility reside to insure this level of function?

There is a mindset among many University computer users that this responsibility is that of the central administration through its Computing Services and Software Development (CSSD) arm. Among users in departments or schools that have their own, local Information Technology (IT) staff, the sentiment is often expressed that total responsibility for seamless functioning of, and access to, their desktop computers is the full responsibility of their IT people. Seemingly, only a minority of the user community believes that some of the responsibility for the maintenance of office desktop computers should be that of the individual user.

I am among those who subscribe to this minority point of view. Some responsibility for protecting the security and functioning of personal computers and e-mail accounts must fall on the individual desktop owner. The user’s minimum desktop responsibility should include insuring that the machine is running virus protection software with the latest virus definitions; determining that the latest operating system “patches and fixes” have been installed; perhaps even include a weekly or monthly file cleaning and hard drive defragmentation to improve machine performance. The argument that these are technical operations and should be the sole function of IT professionals does not fly. If the user can create a document in a word processing program or open and use an e-mail client, he or she can perform these simple security and maintenance tasks. Soon the University expects to install spam-filtering software at the institutional level, however, no reasonably efficacious anti-spam program can function without individual user intervention. Given such a tool, the user must still define what he or she considers spam. This is a highly individualized operation, and no one from CSSD or a local IT department will be able to do this for each individual user. Likewise, determining the status of your University Network Authorization Account (“e-mail account”) and insuring the accuracy of the information given under your name in the University’s online directory is ultimately the individual users responsibility.

If you find yourself thinking that you are so busy a person that you do not have time to perform the tasks mentioned here, then you should consider that perhaps you do not have the time to use a computer. But that, of course, is ridiculous!

We all are now in the position, like it or not, that the computer is an absolute necessity in our work. To me this implies that we are not simply confronted with a new set of tasks to be performed in our work lives, but a new set of duties as well. We all need to step up and take some desktop responsibility.

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