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National IT Organizations for Higher Education: Evolution, Roles, Prospects (copy)

(The original version of this post, which contains more images and allows comments, is on LinkedIn,

In 1960 there was one national organization focused on higher-education IT: CUMREC, founded ten years after ENIAC to provide “…a forum for higher education professionals to share their expertise and experiences with computerized systems.” CUMREC was followed shortly by SIGUCCS and EDUCOM. Today there are over 20 such organizations, which might be unremarkable, but also might be important:

  • The missions and activities of today’s organizations often overlap. That can lead to unnecessary redundancy. It may be time to think analytically about the array of inter-campus IT organizations.
  • Higher education is under pressure to control costs. Protected by the technology cost curve, in the past IT groups rarely needed to tighten their non-technology belts. The curve having flattened, campus IT costs are under scrutiny—including costs associated with national organizations.
  • National organizations negotiate with and guide providers on behalf of higher education, especially as control over many key resources shifts from campus IT groups to outside providers. Effective negotiation requires consistency, leadership, commitment, and coherence.

My first national higher-education IT meeting was EDUCOM’s 20th anniversary conference, in 1984, at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge. (Some of us knew this as the Joyce Chen Hyatt, since it was near the site of the eponymous chef’s second restaurant, which had been replaced by MIT‘s Next House long after Chen’s PBS Chinese cooking show was broadcast from Julia Child‘s set atWGBH, and long before Mary Chung’s became the darling of local IT staff and AI researchers. But I digress.)

Motivated in part by the people and issues I encountered at that EDUCOM conference—notably a report on Project Athena‘s plans for transforming undergraduate education—I gradually moved out of faculty life and into IT administration. I served as a Board member for EDUCAUSE, Internet2, and NLR; participated actively in CSG, RUCC, and the Ivy+ and CIC CIO groups (a list of these and other acronyms is at the end of these notes). I attended myriad regional and national events. Later I was EDUCAUSE’s Vice President for Policy for three years.

These experiences and the resulting biases doubtless color my reading of history, inferences about the past, and thoughts about the future. Although I suggest ways that organizations for higher-education might further evolve, my purpose is not to advocate those, but rather to illustrate possibilities. Others will read, infer, and think differently. The central points are that evolution is necessary and likely, that thoughtful evolution is better than the other kind, and that this can best be had through open, wide-ranging discussion of past and future.


CUMREC and EDUCOM no longer exist. The former begat CAUSE, which later merged with the latter to form EDUCAUSE, which in turn absorbed CUMREC. SIGUCCS still meets annually. Meanwhile, the number of organizations has grown (click on the timeline for a full-size version):

timeline e

The timeline includes all national higher-education IT organizations I can think of, albeit defining “national” and “organization” somewhat arbitrarily, and with four exclusions:

  • region- or sector-based entities such as NERCOMP, CENIC or the CIC-CIO group,
  • entities with missions beyond IT, such as ACE, ARL, NACUBO, DPN, and HATHI,
  • groups tightly aligned with vendors, such as Apple‘s AUC and UEF, IBM‘s AEP, and SCT/Sungard/Ellucian‘s Pillar, and
  • non-US entities (such as the UK’s JISC).

There has been one major merger: CAUSE (red in the timeline) merged with EDUCOM (blue) to form EDUCAUSE (purple) in 1998. There have been two smaller mergers: BITNET and CSNET into CREN (orange) in 1989, and JA-SIGand Sakai into Apereo (lilac) in 2010. EDUCOM, CAUSE, and the merged EDUCAUSE have substantial sub-organizations, shown on separate lines within their color blocks. So does Internet2. Since 2010 I count one organizational demise (NLR) and one birth (Unizin).


Four influences have driven most of this evolution, I think: technology, scale, community, and leadership. Sometimes they synergize, and sometimes they diverge.


Early IT organizations emerged to help staff and leaders share experiences with new and changing technologies across campus boundaries, rather than to procure or operate technology directly. So did successors such as CSG, RUCC, CLAC, ITLP, ICPL, and most of the instructionally-focused organizations such as NMC, NGLC, TLT, andMERLOT.

In contrast, some later IT organizations focused on technology itself. ACUTA, BITNET, Internet2, NLR, the Quilt, JA-SIG, Sakai,Kuali, and Unizin all came into existence largely to procure, develop, and/or operate IT on behalf of higher education. Some industry-allied groups also focused on technology development, notably IBM’s AEP and SHARE (specifically, the latter’s university subgroup) and Apple’s AUC.

As technology changes, mission can broaden or change accordingly, or sometimes become obsolete. For example, the missions of EDUCOM, ACUTA, Internet2, and CSG broadened over time. Those of CREN, FARNet, and CUMREC shrank. EDUCAUSE absorbed some smaller entities with shrinking raisons d’être. Similarly, missions can converge over time, and so entail mergers like Sakai+JA-SIG and EDUCOM+CAUSE.


Small organizations often manage without dedicated staff. However, if an organization has large or frequent meetings, collects dues, maintains a website, operates programs, or provides services, it needs staff and management. Economies of scale become important—in particular, sharing fixed costs among more members.

This is one reason organizations grow, like Internet2 and EDUCAUSE, or merge, like EDUCOM and CAUSE. Of course organizations also grow as IT becomes important to broader audiences within higher education, and/or because of demand for their products and services—for example, more campuses wishing to use Internet2’s networking or identity-management products, or to gain access toECAR‘s research, or to implement Kuali systems.

Organizations can aggregate individual campuses’ demand for standardized products and services, and then use that to negotiate attractive terms with vendors. Growth increases their leverage with vendors. Internet2 began this way, negotiating rights to high-performance networks to interconnect Internet2 members and replace expensive one-to-one connections. That mirrored earlier regional demand-aggregation efforts such as NERCOMP and MHEC, as does Internet2’sNet+ today.

Yet organizations sometimes resist growth, and for good reason: their value—such as creating and maintaining community—may depend on compactness. To gain economies of scale without growing, smaller organizations sometimes ally themselves administratively with larger ones, as SAC did with EDUCAUSE, or base themselves on a member campus, as CSG did with the University of Michigan.


In his flip-but-serious comitological study of national cabinets(comitology: “the study of committees”), C. Northcote Parkinsonobserved that optimally-sized organizations have a counterproductive tendency to attract new members and lose focus. Eventually, he argued, they grow beyond a “coefficient of inefficiency” whereupon they no longer work well. Smaller subgroups arise and supplant them.

For cabinets and committees, Parkinson suggested that the coefficient of inefficiency is around 20. Certainly this applies to many higher-education IT organizations—regional or sectoral gatherings of peers, for example, or industry advisory groups, or task forces, or boards.

But most national higher-educational organizations have many more than 20 members, and so operate beyond Parkinson’s coefficient of inefficiency. Yet his observations still ring true. Perhaps a Parkinson-like “coefficient of impersonality” comes into play for organizations whose meetings become too large for attendees to recognize and understand one another. Like Parkinson’s coefficient, the precise boundary would vary with organizational specifics, but it might be around 200.

One might argue, for example, that SAC evolved from a training seminar for computer-center directors “… recruited from the ranks of faculty … [without] much, if any, administrative or management experience” (as NSF had suggested) into an annual “… collection of informal discussion groups … for reflecting on and translating what was shared…” not because discussion groups provided administrative training for faculty, but because EDUCOM and CAUSE meetings, once community-sized, had grown too large. (SAC met during the summer at a resort in the Colorado mountains, and so also had intrinsic appeal—some attendees even rented condos, and brought along spouses and families.)

Although ECAR and Internet2 came into existence with specific substantive missions, incidentally their meetings drew only 100-200 individuals, many of whom were regulars familiar with one another. ECAR and Internet2 thus could provide community for long-time EDUCOM attendees feeling lost among thousands at EDUCAUSE, and this may have contributed to their success. (Like SAC, ECAR held its symposia at attractive venues, but Internet2 met at a generic conference hotel near DC’s National Airport.)

What goes around comes around: RUCC may appeal to its members in part because Internet2’s meetings have now grown beyond the initial core of research-university CIOs and networking experts. And then it comes around again: Some early RUCC participants, who came almost entirely from AAU campuses, complain that the group has become less useful as its membership has broadened—even though that broadening is only to other research universities.

Although communities often originate around substantive interests and goals, sometimes they continue to exist simply because they are communities, and thereby remain valuable to their members despite (or even without) any substantive origin or mission— what Kurt Vonnegut called granfalloons.

Organizations may remain small enough to promote community because they have hard-to-meet membership requirements, however, and those requirements may work intentionally or unintentionally to isolate communities that should interact.

Anyone could attend SAC, for example, but only if they (or their campus) could afford the relatively high travel and lodging costs. Any institution could send two people to ECAR symposia, but only by paying extra dues. Any institution could participate in Internet2, but only by paying steep dues, and (at least in the early days) by committing to major investments in campus networking. Members of consortia such as Sakai and Kuali generally contributed developers and/or cash, and usually chose to implement the consortium’s applications. RUCC confines its membership to research-university CIOs, and CLAC does likewise for elite liberal-arts college CIOs. CSG, after growing from 15 members, now limits membership to twice that.

Requirements such as these make substantive sense, and may promote coherence and sharing. But they exclude those who cannot (or will not) meet them. Especially if many community-building organizations pursue the same members—for example, affluent or elite institutions—the result can be can be sharp divisions between haves and have-nots. Another can be counterproductive substantive segmentation akin to that which doomed AAHE, an earlier middle-management organization whose broad focus on higher education gave way to narrow caucuses focused on particular issues and sub-communities. Many of those atrophied or became independent, leaving the parent organization purposeless.


Higher-education IT organizations sometimes arise organically, emerging from the collective will of their potential members. Alternatively, a few organizations depend heavily on (or are) one individual: CCP (Casey Green), CHECS (Wayne Brown), and perhaps CNI (Cliff Lynch) come to mind. More typically, a few individuals catalyze interest around a shared goal, and then step aside, once the organization is built, in favor of governance mechanisms designed for orderly leadership transition and organizational longevity.

But in addition to unit and catalyzed organizations, there are entities whose culture and progress appear to center on a specific “visionary,” “charismatic,” “dynamic,” “unique,” or otherwise distinctive leader through much of their existence. Examples include CSG (Ken King), Internet2 (Doug van Houweling), BITNET (Ira Fuchs), ECAR (Richard Katz), NLR (Ron Johnson and Tom West), ESI and TLT (Steve Gilbert), and entities such as Sakai, Kuali, and Unizin (Brad Wheeler and/or James Hilton). Sometimes such leaders migrate: NTTF, for example, was founded by Ken King and Doug Van Houweling; King would later head EDUCOM and then create CSG, while Van Houweling would later serve as Internet2’s long-term CEO.

Long-term leaders can disproportionately affect organizational choices. This is often for the good: they can make riskier, bolder, and more forward-looking decisions than their orderly-governance peers. But it can be for the less good: resistance to change, or personal preferences out of sync with technology or higher education, or relationships—bad or good—that inhibit progress or synergy. In any event, the departure of long-term leaders usually triggers substantial rethinking, dislocation, and adaptation.

That different drivers lead different organizations to follow divergent paths is important, because how an organization has evolved has implications for how it might evolve. Similarly, how closely one organization’s drivers resemble another’s has implications for how they interact, and can impose constraints on how closely they can align.


By 1990 I was attending five or six national IT meetings a year—usually EDUCOM and/or CAUSE, ESI/SAC, and three or four others. By 2000, when I was CIO for the University of Chicago, EDUCOM and CAUSE had merged into EDUCAUSE, and ESI had been subsumed therein as NLII, consolidating a few meetings. But now there were Internet2, CSG, JA-SIG, CASC, NMC, CNI, and some other groups, many of which wanted me to attend (and I wanted to attend). Likewise, several IT groups defined by region (CIC-CIO, four meetings a year) or category (Ivy+ CIO, two) wanted my time. So did various industry advisory groups (Dell,Gateway, Sun, SCT, Apple). RUCC, ITLP, and a few others came later.

By the mid-oughts UChicago was paying dues and fees at least to EDUCAUSE, its subsidiaries ECAR, Net@EDU, and the Management Institutes, to Internet2 and its subsidiary Abilene, and to NLR, CSG, ACUTA, CNI, ITLP, and CIC-CIO. We were sending at least one person (and often more) to annual or even more frequent meetings of these and other entities. There was competition for scarce resources like dues, travel budgets, and IT leadership time. None of this was unique to me or to UChicago: it was and remains a frequent topic of conversation among CIOs, especially those from larger campuses.

When IT leaders suggest there should be fewer IT organizations, often what they have in mind is expense. Having fewer organizations probably would address that. But arguing that higher education would be better off were its national IT organizations to consolidate into a well-differentiated few oversimplifies the situation. So does believing that the only obstacles to this are organizational inertia and personality conflicts. Such arguments and beliefs gloss over the interacting influences that have brought us to this point, such as those I outlined above, and the complex value that current organizations provide to their members specifically and to higher education IT generally. Then again, ignoring such arguments and beliefs glosses over the fact that organizational inertia and personality conflicts actually can impede progress. A tricky road lies ahead.

To think about that road, we should move beyond history, and revisit why we need national higher-education IT organizations at all.


I suggest four reasons to have national higher-education IT organizations:

  • to procure and/or provide services, professional and technological,
  • to promote technology innovation for education, research, or community,
  • to organize advocacy on behalf of IT, nationally and for campuses, and
  • to enable and enhance communal sharing of experience and wisdom.

We need organizations to do these things effectively, efficiently, and inclusively.

In my view we come closest to this goal in the first area: several organizations serve members without imposing unnecessary restrictions, with the occasional exception of requirements intended to promote membership or advance certain technologies. The service landscape is complex, but it is becoming reasonably complete. We fall somewhat short in technology and advocacy, in part because other innovators have overtaken higher education, and because responsibility for advocacy has diffused across multiple organizations whose interests do not necessarily align.

The situation is even less satisfactory for communal sharing. An inner circle comprising major research universities, elite liberal-arts colleges, and a few other institutions and systems—perhaps 250 of the 5,000 American degree-granting colleges and universities—enjoys effective communal sharing and mutual support hosted by diverse national organizations. For IT leaders, staff, and organizations in this circle, the problem can be a surfeit of sharing rather than a dearth. A second circle, including most larger state-university campuses and community colleges, finds some community—less than the first circle’s—at EDUCAUSE annual and regional conferences. Other communities exist for some institutions in this circle, but they have limited reach: for example, the League provides community for a subset of community colleges, and some campuses in this circle participate in regional IT organizations, Internet2, ACUTA, or SIGUCCS.

Then there is a third circle, whose IT leaders, staff, and organizations have few opportunities for communal sharing. For example, although almost a third of degree-granting campuses belong to EDUCAUSE, many of these have no involvement beyond than paying dues and joining online constituency groups, and they belong to no other national IT organization. Then more than 2,000 campuses apparently belong to no national IT organizations—mostly small private or religious institutions, I believe, or isolated public campuses, or highly specialized institutions.


When CAUSE and EDUCOM merged, one name proposed the combined organization was THETA, for “The Higher Education Technology Association.” Partly because of the acronym’s other meanings (, for example, is a website for the Church of Scientology), and partly because the “the” implicitly threatened other organizations’ autonomy and suggested somewhat broader authority for the new organization than anyone envisioned, the proposal went nowhere.

Putting aside what it might have been called, a broadly construed umbrella organization could have consolidated overlapping activities of EDUCAUSE, SIGUCCS, ACUTA, and other entities serving the profession generally. It could have established good relationships with more focused entities like CSG, RUCC,ITANA, regional IT groups, and those focused on teaching and learning. It might have provided a broad array of staff development and organizational research, and efficient back-office services. It could have sponsored or hosted a diverse array of large and small gatherings, with varying foci and degrees of autonomy, to promote community.

Meanwhile, a parallel organization—which might have been called EDUCORE, following a suggestion by Ira Fuchs—could have focused on procuring, developing, negotiating, and delivering technology services to colleges and universities. A broadly-construed umbrella for development and procurement might have resembled today’s Internet2 augmented by organizations like Apereo, Kuali, and Unizin.

Because of the diverse origins, drivers, and cultures through which higher-education IT organizations have proliferated and evolved since CUMREC, consolidation under a small number of umbrella organizations has never been likely. Moreover, as I pointed out above, it might have left important needs unmet, and so been counterproductive. Even so,   thinking about hypothetical umbrella organizations conceptually—sort of like Einstein’s gedankenexperiment—could guide progress.

There could be more consolidation of meetings, for example, so that IT leaders and staff face fewer difficult choices. Dues could be more rational across various organizations, including “combo” plans, standard member categorizations, and perhaps cross-organization conference discounts. Duplicative activities such as overlapping surveys and reports might consolidate, or the same might happen for back-office functions like finance, HR, membership records, meeting planning, and even public relations. Entities whose services are no longer needed—or that belong with others—could give way gracefully.

We might diversify and broaden existing organizations to provide effective communities for underserved audiences, not just create new ones for well-served elites. We might better differentiate activities focused on IT organizations and staff from those intended to procure or develop specific technologies. We might attend to the widespread need for optimal communities and sharing opportunities, be they substantive entities or granfalloons.

Higher-education IT organizations have evolved, communities have come and gone, and leadership has changed. But their purpose stands. After all, Unizin, the newest organization in the timeline, seeks “…to improve the learning experience by providing an environment built on collaboration, data, standards, and scale.” That goal echoes and reaffirms CUMREC’s from almost sixty years ago—which is both reassuring and sobering. We have achieved much, and much remains to be achieved.

National Higher-Education Information Technology Organizations
Acronym Organization Start End
AAHE American Association for Higher Education 1969 2005
ACE American Council on Education 1918
ACM Association for Computing Machinery 1947
ACTI EDUCAUSE Advanced Core Technologies Initiative 2010
ACUTA Association for College and University Technology Advancement 1972
AEP IBM Advanced Education Program 1983
ALA American Library Association 1876
Apereo Apereo 2010
ARL Association of Research Libraries 1932
AUC Apple University Consortium 1984
BITNET Because It’s {Time,There} Network 1981 1989
CASC Coalition for Academic Scientific Computation 1989
CAUSE College and University Systems Exchange 1970 1998
CCP Campus Computing Project 1990
CCUMC Consortium of College and University Media Centers 1988
CDS EDUCAUSE Core Data Service 2002
CENIC Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California 1996
CHECS Center for Higher Education Chief Information Studies 2003
CIC Committee on Institutional Cooperation 1958
CLAC Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges 1986
CNI Coalition for Networked Information 1990
CNSTF Computer and Network Security Task Force 2000
CREN Corporation for Research and Educational Networking 1989 2003
CSG Common Solutions Group 1993
CSNET Computer Science Network 1981 1989
CUMREC College and University Machine Records Conference 1956 2005
DPN Digital Preservation Network 2012
ECAR EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis & Research 2001
ELI EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative 2005
EMI EDUCAUSE Management Institute 1998
ESI EDUCOM Software Initiative 1985 1993
EUIT EDUCOM Educational Uses of Information Technology Program 1985 1993
FARnet Federation of American Research Networks 1987 1998
HATHI HATHI Trust 2009
HEIRAlliance Higher Education Information Resources Alliance 1989
HEISC Higher Education Information Security Council 2000
ICPL Institute for Computer Policy and Law 1995
InCommon InCommon Federation 2004
Internet2 University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development 1997
ITANA Enterprise Architects and Business Architects in Academia 2007
ITLP IT Leadership Program (MOR) 2004
JASIG Java in Administration Special Interest Group 1999 2010
JISC Joint Information Systems Committee 1993
Kuali Kuali Foundation 2004
League League for Innovation in the Community College 1968
MERLOT Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching 1997
Mgmt Inst CAUSE/EDUCAUSE Management Institute 1990
MHEC Midwest Higher Education Compact 1991
NACUBO National Association of College and University Business Officers 1962
NERCOMP Northeast Regional Computing Program 1957
NET@EDU Net@EDU 1998 2010
Net+ Internet2 Net+ 2012
NGLC Next Generation Learning Challenges 2010
NLII National Learning Infrastructure Initiative 1994 2005
NLR National Lambda Rail 2003 2014
NMC New Media Consortium 1993
NSF National Science Foundation 1950
NTTF EDUCAUSE Networking and Telecommunications Task Force 1986 1998
Quilt The Quilt 2007
REN-ISAC Research and Education Networking Information Sharing and Analysis Center 2003
RUCC Research University CIO Conclave 2006
SAC Seminars on Academic Computing 1970 2007
Sakai Sakai Foundation 2004 2010
SEGP Internet2 Sponsored Educational Group Participant 2002 2013
SHARE IBM Large Scale Scientific Computing User Group (University subgroup) 1962
SIGUCCS Special Interest Group on University and College Computing Services 1963
TLT Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group 1998
Unizin Unizin 2014
US-UCAN United States Unified Community Anchor Network 2010

Timsons, Molloys, & Collective Efficiency in Higher Education IT

It’s 2006, and we’re at Duke, for a meeting of the Common Solutions Group.PNCportrait_400x40014b2503

On the formal agenda, Paul Courant seeks to resurrect an old idea of Ira Fuch‘s, for a collective higher-education IT development-and-procurement entity provisionally called Educore.

220px-National_LambaRail_logointernet2_logo_200pxOn the informal agenda, a bunch of us work behind the scenes trying to persuade two existing higher-education IT entities–Internet2 and National LambdaRail–that they would better serve their constituencies, which overlap but do not coincide, by consolidating into a single organization.

The merged organization would both lease capacity with some restrictions (the I2 model) and “own” it free and clear (the NLR model, the quotes because in many cases NLR owns 20-year “rights to use”–RTUs–rather than actual infrastructure.) The merged organization would find appropriate ways to serve the sometimes divergent interests of IT managers and IT researchers in higher education.

westvan_houweling_doug-5x7Most everyone appears to agree that having two competing national networking organizations for higher education wastes scarce resources and constrains progress. But both NLR and Internet2 want to run the consolidated entity. Also, there are some personalities involved. Our work behind the scenes is mostly shuttle diplomacy involving successively more complex drafts of charter and bylaws for a merged networking entity.

Throughout the process I have a vague feeling of déjà vu.

educom-logo-transcause-logoPartly I’m wistfully remembering the long and somewhat similar courtship between CAUSE and Educom, which eventually yielded today’s merged EDUCAUSE. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to achieve something similar for national higher-education networking.

5238540853_62a5097a2aAnd partly I’m remembering a counterexample, the demise of the American Association for Higher Education, which for years held its annual meeting at the Hilton adjacent to Grant Park in Chicago (almost always overlapping my birthday, for some reason). AAHE was an umbrella organization aimed comprehensively at leaders and middle managers throughout higher education, rather than at specific subgroups such as registrars, CFOs, admissions directors, housing managers, CIOs, and so forth. It also attracted higher-education researchers, which is how I started attending, since that’s what I was.

AAHE collapsed, many think, because of the broad middle-management organization’s gradual splintering into a panoply of “caucuses” that eventually went their own ways, and to a certain extent its leaders aligning AAHE with too many faddish bandwagons. (To this day I wince when I hear the otherwise laudable word “assessment”.) It was also affected by the growing importance of discipline-specific organizations such as NACUBO, AACRAO, and NASPA–not to mention Educom and CAUSE–and it always vied for leadership attention with the so-called “presidential” organizations such as ACE, AAU, APLU, NAICU, and ACC.

change_logoTogether the split into caucuses and over-trendiness left AAHE with no viable general constituency or finances to continue its annual meetings, its support for Change magazine, or its other crosscutting efforts. AAHE shut down in 2005, and disappeared so thoroughly that it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page; its only online organizational existence is at the Hoover Institution’s archives, which hold its papers.

Fox_Student_CenterAt the Duke CSG meeting I’m hoping, as we work on I2 and NLR leaders to encourage convergence, that NLR v. I2 won’t turn out like AAHE, and that instead the two organizations will agree to a collaborative process leading to synergy and merger like that of CAUSE and Educom.

We fail.

Glenn-RicartFollowing the Duke CSG meeting, NLR and I2 continue to compete. They manage to collaborate briefly on a joint proposal for federal funding, a project called “U.S. UCAN“, but then that collaboration falls apart as NLR’s finances weaken. Internet2 commits to cover NLR’s share of U.S. UCAN, an unexpected burden. NLR hires a new CEO to turn things around; he leaves after less than a year. NLR looks to the private sector for funding, and finds some, but it’s not enough: its network shuts down abruptly in 2014.

In the event, Internet2 survives, especially by extending its mission beyond higher education, and by expanding its collective-procurement activities to include a diversity of third-party products and services under the Net+ umbrella. It also builds some cooperative ventures with EDUCAUSE, such as occasional joint conferences and a few advocacy efforts.

Educause_LogoMeanwhile, despite some false starts and missed opportunities, the EDUCAUSE merger succeeds. The organization grows and modernizes. It tackles a broad array of services to and advocacy on behalf of higher-education IT interests, organizations, and staff.

Portrait of New York Yankees guest coach Yogi Berra during spring training photo shoot at Legends Field. Tampa, Florida 3/2/2005 (Image # 1225 )

But now I’m having a vague feeling of déjà vu all over again. As was the case for I2/NLR, I sense, there’s little to be gained and some to be lost from Internet2 and EDUCAUSE continuing as separate organizations.

unizin2Partly the issue is simple organizational management efficiency: in these times of tight resources for colleges, universities, and state systems, does higher education IT really need two financial staffs, two membership-service desks, two marketing/communications groups, two senior leadership teams, two Boards, and for that matter two CEOs? (Throw ACUTA, Unizin, Apereo, and other entities into the mix, and the question becomes even more pressing.)

7192011124606AMBut partly the issue is deeper. EDUCAUSE and Internet2 are beginning to compete with one another for scarce resources in subtle ways: dues and memberships, certainly, but also member allegiance, outside funding, and national roles. That competition, if it grows, seems perilous. More worrisome still, some of the competition is of the non-salutary I’m OK/You’re Not OK variety, whereby each organization thinks the other should be subservient.

1294770315_1We don’t quite have a Timson/Molloy situation, I’m glad to say. But with little productive interaction at the organizations’ senior levels to build effective, equitable collaboration, there’s unnecessary risk that competitive tensions will evolve into feudal isolation.

If EDUCAUSE and Internet2 can work together on the basis of mutual respect, then we can minimize that risk, and maybe even move toward a success like CAUSE/Educom becoming EDUCAUSE. If they can’t–well, if they can’t, then I think about AAHE, and NLR’s high-and-dry stakeholders, and I worry.

Posts On Usage and Such

A while back I wrote here about hyphens, and some related usage issues. Since then I’ve taken that line of commentary over into my LinkedIn posts, and I’ll update this post periodically with the relevant links. Here’s what they are so far:

Revisiting IT Policy #3: Harassment

OwlBThe so-called “star wars” campuses of the mid-1980s (Brown, Carnegie Mellon, Dartmouth, and MIT) invented (or at least believe they invented–IT folklore runs rampant) much of what we take for granted and appreciate today in daily electronic life: single signon, secure authentication, instant messaging, cloud storage, interactive online help, automatic updates, group policy, and on and on.

They also invented things we appreciate less. One of those is online harassment, which takes many forms.

Early in my time as MIT’s academic-computing head, harassment seemed to be getting worse. Partly this was because the then-new Athena computing environment interconnected students in unprecedentedly extensive ways, and partly because the Institute approached harassment purely as a disciplinary matter–that is, trying to identify and punish offenders.

Those cases rarely satisfied disciplinary requirements, so few complaints resulted in disciplinary proceedings. Fewer still led to disciplinary action, and of course all of that was confidential.


imgresWorking with Mary Rowe, who was then the MIT “Ombuds“, we developed a different approach. Rather than focus on evidence and punishment, we focused on two more general goals: making it as simple as possible for victims of harassment to make themselves known, and persuading offenders to change their behavior.

The former required a reporting and handling mechanism that would work discreetly and quickly. The latter required something other than threats.

stopit poster (2)Satisfying the first requirement was relatively simple. We created an email alias ( to receive and handle harassment (and, in due course, other) complaints.  Email sent to that address went to a small number of senior IT and Ombuds staff, collectively known as the Stopits. The duty Stopit–often me–responded promptly to each complaint, saying that we would do what we could to end the harassment.

We publicized Stopit widely online, in person, and with posters. In the poster and other materials, we gave three criteria for harassment:

  • Did the incident cause stress that affected your ability, or the ability of others, to work or study?
  • Was it unwelcome behavior?
  • Would a reasonable person of your gender/race/religion subjected to this find it unacceptable?”

Anyone who felt in danger, we noted, should immediately communicate with campus police or the dean on call, and we also gave contact information for other hotlines and resources. Otherwise, we asked that complainants share whatever specifics they could with us, and promised discretion under most circumstances.

To satisfy the second requirement, we had to persuade offenders to stop–a very different goal, and this is the key point, from bringing them to justice. MIT is a laissez-faire, almost libertarian place, where much that would be problematic elsewhere is tolerated, and where there is a high bar to formal action.

As I wrote in an MIT Faculty Newsletter article at the time, we knew that directly accusing offenders would trigger demands for proof and long, futile arguments about the subtle difference between criticism and negative comments–which are common and expected at the Institute–and harassment. Prosecution wouldn’t address the problem.


And so we came up with the so-called “UYA” note.

“Someone using your account…”, the note began, and then went on to describe the alleged behavior. “If you did not do this,” the note went on, “…then quite possibly someone has managed to access your account without permission, and you should take immediate steps to change your password and not share it with anyone.” The note then concluded by saying “If the incident described was indeed your doing, we ask that you avoid such incidents in the future, since they can have serious disciplinary or legal consequences”.

keep-calm-and-change-your-password-1Almost all recipients of UYA notes wrote back to say that their accounts had indeed been compromised, and that they had changed their passwords to make sure their accounts would not be used this way again. In virtually all such cases, the harassment then ceased.

Did we believe that most harassment involved compromised accounts, and that the alleged offenders were innocent? Of course not. In many cases we could see, in logs, that the offender was logged in and doing academic work at the very workstation and time whence the offending messages originated. But the UYA note gave offenders a way to back off without confession or concession. Most offenders took advantage of that. Our goal was to stop the harassment, and mostly the UYA note achieved that.

heatherThere was occasional pushback, usually the offender arguing that the incident was described accurately but did not constitute harassment. Here again, though, the offending behavior almost always ceased. And in a few cases there was pushback of the “yeah, it’s me, and you can’t make me stop” variety. In those, the Stopits referred the incident into MIT’s disciplinary process. And usually, regardless of whether the offender was punished, the harassment stopped.

So Stopit and UYA notes worked.

Looking back, though, they neglected some important issues, and those remain problematic. In fact, the two teaching cases I mentioned in the Faculty Newsletter article and have used in myriad class discussions since–Judy and Michael–reflect two such issues: the difference between harassment and a hostile work environment, and jurisdictional ambiguity.

Work Environment

fishbowl.57Judy Hamilton complains that images displayed on monitors in a public computing facility make it impossible for her to work comfortably. This really isn’t harassment, since the offending behavior isn’t directed at her. Rather, the offender’s behavior made it uncomfortable for Judy to work even though the offender was unaware of Judy or her reaction.

The UYA note worked: the offender claimed that he’d done nothing wrong, and that he had every right to display whatever images he chose so long as they weren’t illegal, but nevertheless he chose to stop.

But it was not correct to suggest that he was harassing Judy, as we did at the time. Most groups that have discussed this case over the years come to that conclusion, and instead say this should have been handled as a hostile-work-environment case. It’s an important distinction to keep in mind.


001Michael Zareny, on the other hand, is interacting directly with Jack Oiler, and there’s really no work environment involved. Jack feels harassed, but it’s not clear Michael’s behavior satisfies the harassment criteria. Jack appears to be annoyed, rather than impaired, by Michael’s comments. In any case the interaction between the two would be deemed unfortunate, rather than unacceptable, by many of Jack’s peers.

Or, and this is a key point, the interaction would be seen that way by Jack’s peers at MIT. There’s an old Cambridge joke: At Harvard people are nice to you and don’t mean it, and MIT people aren’t nice to you and don’t mean it. The cultural norms are different. What is unacceptable to someone at Harvard might not be to someone at MIT. So arises the first jurisdictional ambiguity.

In the event, the Michael situation turned out to be even more complicated. When Kim tried to send a UYA note to Michael, it turned out that there was no Michael Zareny at MIT. Rather, it turned out that Michael Zareny was a student elsewhere, and his sole MIT connection was interacting with Jack Oiler in an the newsgroup.

There thus wasn’t much Kim could do, especially since Michael’s own college declined to take any action because the problematic behavior hadn’t involved its campus or IT.

Looking Ahead

The point to all this is straightforward, and it’s relevant beyond the issue of harassment. In today’s interconnected world, it’s rare for problematic online behavior to occur within the confines of a single institution. As a result, taking effective action generally requires various entities to act consistently and collaboratively to gather data from complainants and dissuade offenders.

Yet the relevant policies are rarely consistent from campus to campus, let alone between campuses and ISPs, corporations, or other outside entities. And although campuses are generally willing to collaborate, this often proves difficult for FERPA, privacy, and other reasons.

It’s clear, especially with all the recent attention to online bullying and intimidation, that harassment and similarly antisocial behavior remain a problem for online communities. It’s hard to see how this will improve unless campuses and other institutions work together. If they don’t do that, then external rules–which most of us would prefer to avoid–may well make it a legal requirement.

You Report. We Decide?

botstein “It’s one of the real black marks on the history of higher education, ” Leon Botstein, the long-time President of Bard College, recently told The New Yorker’s Alice Gregory, “that an entire industry that’s supposedly populated by the best minds in the country … is bamboozled by a third-rate news magazine.” He was objecting, of course, to the often criticized but widely influential rankings of colleges and universities by US News & World Reports.

Two stories, and a cautionary note.


leydonSeeing Wired magazine‘s annual “wired campus” rankings in the same way Botstein viewed those from US News, some years ago several of us college and university CIOs conspired to disrupt Wired‘s efforts. As I later wrote, the issue wasn’t that some campuses had different (and perhaps better or worse) IT than others. Rather, for the most part these differences bore little relevance to the quality of those campuses’ education or the value they provided to students.

wiredWe persuaded almost 100 key campuses to withhold IT data from Wired. After meeting with us to see whether compromise was possible (it wasn’t) and an abortive attempt to bypass campus officials and gather data directly from students, the magazine discontinued its ratings. Success.

But, as any good pessimist knows, every silver lining has a cloud. Wired had published not only summary ratings, but also, to its credit, the data (if not the calculations) upon which the ratings were based. Although the ratings were questionable, and some of the data seemed suspect, the latter nevertheless had some value. Rather than look at ratings, someone at Campus A could look and see how A’s reported specific activity compared to its peer Campus B’s.

Partly to replace the data Wired had gathered and made available, and so extend A’s ability to see what B was doing, EDUCAUSE started the Core Data Survey (now the Core Data Service, CDS). This gathered much of the same information Wired had, and more. (Disclosure: I served on the committee that helped EDUCAUSE design the initial CDS, and revised it a couple of years later, and have long been a supporter of the effort.)

Unlike Wired, EDUCAUSE does not make individual campus data publicly available. Rather, participating campuses can compare their own data to those of all or subsets of other campuses, using whatever data and comparison algorithm they think appropriate. I can report from personal experience that this is immensely useful, if only because it stimulates and focuses discussions among campuses that appear to have made different choices.

cds postitBut back to Botstein. EDUCAUSE doesn’t just make CDS data available to participating campuses. It also uses CDS data to develop and publish “Free IT Performance Metrics,” which it describes as “Staffing, financials, and services data [campuses] can use for modifications, enhancements, and strategic planning.” The heart of Botstein’s complaint about US News & World Reports  isn’t that the magazine is third rate–that’s simply Botstein being Botstein–but rather that US News believes the same rating algorithm can be validly used to compare campuses.

Which raises the obvious question: Might EDUCAUSE-developed “performance metrics” fall into that same trap? Are there valid performance metrics for IT that are uniformly applicable across higher education?

mckMany campuses have been bedeviled and burned by McKinseys, BCGs, Accentures, Bains, PWCs, and other management consultants. These firms often give CFOs, Provosts, and Presidents detailed “norms” and “standards” for things like number of users per help-desk staffer, the fraction of operating budgets devoted to IT, or laptop-computer life expectancy. These can then become targets for IT organizations, CIOs, or staff in budget negotiations or performance appraisal.

Some of those “norms” are valid. But many of them involve inappropriate extrapolation from corporate or other different environments, or implicitly equate all campus types. Language is important: “norms,” “metrics,” “benchmarks,” “averages,” “common”, “typical,” and “standards” don’t mean the same thing. So far EDUCAUSE has skirted the problem, but it needs to be careful to avoid asserting uniform validity when there’s no evidence for it.

US News

lake desertA second story illustrates a different, more serious risk. A few years ago a major research university–I’ll call it Lake Desert University or LDU–was distressed about its US News ranking. To LDU’s leaders, faculty, and students the ranking seemed much too low: Lake Desert generally ranked higher elsewhere.

patA member of the provost’s staff–Pat, let’s say–was directed to figure out what was wrong. Pat spent considerable time looking at US News data and talking to its analysts. An important component of the US News ranking algorithm, Pat learned, was class size. The key metric was the fraction of campus-based classes with enrollments smaller than 20.

tutorialPat, a graduate of LDU, knew that there were lots of small classes at Lake Desert–the university’s undergraduate experience was organized around tutorials with 4-5 students–and so it seemed puzzling that LDU wasn’t being credited for that. Delving more deeply, Pat found the problem. Whoever had completed LDU’s US News questionnaire had read the instructions very literally, decided that “tutorials” weren’t “classes”, and so excluded them from the reporting counts. Result: few small classes, and a poor US News ranking.

usnewsUS News analysts told Pat that tutorials should have been counted as classes. The following year, Lake Desert included them. Its fraction-of-small-classes metric went up substantially. Its ranking jumped way up. The Provost sent Pat a case of excellent French wine.

In LDU’s case, understanding the algorithm and looking at the survey responses unearthed a misunderstanding. Correcting this involved no dishonesty (although some of LDU’s public claims about the “improvement” in its ranking neglected to say that the improvement had resulted from data reclassification rather than substantive progress).


But not all cases are as benign as LDU’s . As I wrote above, there were questions not only about Wired‘s ranking algorithm, but about some of the data campuses provided. Lake Desert correcting its survey responses in consultation with analysts is one thing; a campus misrepresenting its IT services to get a higher ranking is another. But it can be hard to distinguish the two.

whistleAuditing is one way to address this problem, but audits are expensive and difficult. Publishing individual responses is another–both Wired and US News have done this, and EDUCAUSE shares them with survey respondents–but that only corrects the problem if respondents spend time looking at other responses, and are willing to become whistleblowers when they find misrepresentation. Most campuses don’t have the time to look at other campuses’ responses, or the willingness to call out their peers.

If survey responses are used to create ratings, and those ratings become measures of performance, then those whose performance is being measured have incentive to tailor their survey responses accordingly. If the tailoring involves just care within the rules, that’s fine. But if it involves stretching or misrepresenting the truth, it’s not.

More generally, it’s important to closely connect the collection of data to their evaluative use. Who reports, should decide.




Notes on “Swag”

logo(…with apologies to Susan Sontag, of course.)

Visiting the trade show at the EDUCAUSE conference requires strategy. At one time it was simple: collect every pen being given away (having some conversations with vendors in the process), so that back home the kid could give them to his friends at school. Kid grew up, though, and there came “No more pens, Dad, please.”

After that I usually walked around with Ira Fuchs, who had an excellent eye for the interestingly novel product. But Ira hasn’t been attending, so I’ve taken to observing two things: how vendors staff their booths, and what they give away–the swag.


The interesting thing about staffing is what it tells us vendors assume about higher-education IT, and especially what they assume about our procurement decisions. I track two variables: whether booths are staffed by people who know something about the product and higher education, and whether they’re chosen for reasons other than expertise.

This year the booth staff seem reasonably attuned to product and customer, and, with the exception of some game barkers, two people dressed up as giant blue bears, and two women dressed like 1950s flight attendants, most of them pretty much looked like the attendees, except with logos on their shirts.

To be be more precise, the place wasn’t full of what are sometimes called Demo Dollies, attractive young women with no product knowledge deployed on the assumption that they will attract men to their booths (and therefore on the assumption that men are making the key decisions). That there aren’t many of them is good, since a few years back things were quite different, reaching a nadir with the infamous catwomen. We don’t want industry thinking of higher education as a market easily influenced by Demo Dollies.


20140930_213554931_iOSThe interesting thing about swag–the stuff that vendors give away–is that it tells us something about the resources vendors are committing to higher education, the resources they think are available from higher education, or both. There are two dimensions to swag: how swanky it is, and how creative it is.

I spent some time on this year’s tradeshow floor looking for swag that rose above the commonplace, and here’s what struck me: there wasn’t much. There were lots of pens (which I’m still not allowed to bring home), lots of candy, and lots of small USB thumb drives, all of course bearing vendor logos. I count those as neither swanky nor creative.

20140930_221214136_iOSThe growing swag sector is stuff made out of foam or soft plastic. This includes baseballs, footballs, various kinds of phone-propper-uppers, can holders, and a few creatures and cartoon characters. Some of this related in some way to the vendor’s product or slogan or brand, but most of it didn’t. The foam stuff was mildly creative, except it’s less and less so each year; there was lots more of that this year than last.

20140930_215951875_iOSThere were also various items that weren’t intrinsically creative, and also not swanky, but were distinctive, if only because few vendors offered them.

There were keychain carabiners (which I always look for, since I keep leaving them in rental cars–and this year only two vendors had them), earphones, t-shirts (remarkably few of those compared to previous years, when they were ubiquitous), USB chargers, corkscrews, can openers, pens that light up, baseball caps, and kitchen utensils (my personal favorite, I think). Several vendors told me the one to get was a jump rope with blinking handles, but I couldn’t find it. Next year.

(I’ve uploaded photos of the distinctive swag to an album on my Facebook account.)


…here’s the thing. That most of the available swag was low-end and uncreative may disappoint those who take lots home for friends or family or colleagues or whomever. It also may mean that vendors selling to higher education aren’t as flush as they once were, or think we aren’t; both of those are probably somewhat true, and neither is especially good news.

Combined with the dearth of Demo Dollies, though, I see the situation somewhat more positively. It seems to me that even though they may be less flush, this year’s vendors are taking the higher-education market seriously, using knowledgeable staff rather than artifice to engage customers, who may also be less flush, and sell product wisely.

That, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing!


Kim reread the message from Jack Oiler:

My concern is about one Michael Zareny, who is using his University identity to post comments in Reddit and elsewhere and to send messages with extremely derogatory claims about gay men. Normally I would be most solidly against censorship, but if similar remarks about the immorality of Jews or Blacks were made, they would probably be illegal. I have tried at great length to reason with MZ, but his prejudices seem to be beyond reason. He was previously using an account elsewhere before he moved to the University. I am disappointed to see Zareny’s trash emanating from the University. I also think that if the hate laws covered gender orientation, he would be in violation of the law.

Could you please respond to my plea? As I said, I am very uncomfortable with censorship of any form, but MZ has been going on for more than three years now, and his views are quite beyond rational comment. I have suggested that we take the debate to philosophical journals instead of the Internet (he suggested the same thing, but shows no signs of doing so, despite my having published papers on issues underlying the topic), since there are some established standards there. He has made unsubstantiated remarks about my character and relations with my students, that if I might consider taking legal action over.

This, Kim thought, was going to be a tough one. Kim went to the keyboard computer, fired up Reddit, and went looking for Oiler and Zareny.

© 2013 Gregory A Jackson

This case is to promote discussion, not to document good or poor handling of a situation. All names have been changed.


“All I really wanted to do last night,” Kim complained to a friend, “was find out how badly the Red Sox had lost in the afternoon game.”

Then, the way these things unfold on the Internet, one thing led to another. I started looking at blog posts about the game, then at game pictures random people had posted on Facebook, and all of a sudden I was looking at a tagged, time-stamped picture of Bobby there eating a hot dog at the game—a picture taken at the very same time I’m pretty sure Bobby was supposedly clocked in here at work on campus.

“I don’t know whether I should mention this to Bobby’s supervisor—in fact, I don’t know whether I’m allowed to mention this at all, or whether the supervisor could act on it if I did. So I decided to come ask you what to do, and whether we have any college policies that might help.”

© 2013 Gregory A Jackson

This case is to promote discussion, not to document good or poor handling of a situation. All names have been changed.


“You can’t possibly be serious!,” Jamie shouted, near the end of a long meeting, one that no one thought would turn out so controversial. “Are you saying that privacy is more important than security?” The issue was whether to put surveillance cameras in the campus’s parking-lot stairwells, in the hope that the cameras would discourage loitering and assaults—or at least make incidents easier to investigate and prosecute.

When the campus security office proposed installing the cameras, with the EVP’s support, it listed hundreds of campuses that had done so without incident. But a small group of faculty was raising concerns, and the provost was listening. Alex, the dissidents’ leader, had made several points, calmly at first, but with increasing vehemence. “What if,” Alex said, “the cameras aren’t just used for security?”

What if they record union employees arriving or leaving at times that don’t correspond to when they clocked in and out? What if the cameras are where a faculty member routinely leaves with someone other than a spouse, and the aggrieved spouse’s divorce lawyer demands access to all of the camera tapes just in case they contain evidence of infidelity? What if the feds demand access for some reason I can’t even imagine?

Jamie had tried to point out that none of this was likely, and that people sneaking around doing things they shouldn’t be doing perhaps don’t deserve privacy protections. Jamie even suggested, thinking it was a compromise, that perhaps the city police might install and monitor the cameras instead of the campus security office.

To Jamie’s surprise, that set off an even stronger reaction from Alex: “It sounds an awful lot like Big Brother to me. I hadn’t even thought about cops having access, and that makes me all the more opposed.”

© 2013 Gregory A Jackson

This case is to promote discussion, not to document good or poor handling of a situation. All names have been changed.


Is there a computer cluster somewhere where someone can be safe from pornography and harassment? I’m sick of this.

Kim, the University’s Director of Academic Computing, knew from a conversation with the University Ombudswoman what Judy Hamilton was complaining about: she had gone into a public computing cluster and sat down next to a male student whose screen was displaying a graphic image of a sexual act. Judy had asked the student to remove the image, since it was interfering with her ability to work comfortably, and he’d refused—loudly and contentiously. After a shouting match, Judy left to find someplace else to work. She complained to friends, and to the Ombudswoman, who sent her to Kim.

Kim knew that hard-core displays such as had offended Judy were relatively rare, but that other offending images—nudes, for example, and even animal-experiment photos from a server maintained by an outspoken faculty member. Many students would quietly remove offending images when someone else complained, but others would refuse, citing free speech. “I like this stuff and it helps me keep working,” a male student had written Kim in another instance. “Why,” the student had concluded, “is my work less important than hers?”

The University’s policies forbade harassment, but not pornography. The harassment policy probably applied to Judy’s case, Kim thought, but its remedies fell short of what Judy wanted: for Kim and the University to forbid the display of pornographic images, and perhaps to enforce the ban technologically. Kim would need to define “pornographic,” which was not necessary under the University’s current policy. Then again, Kim needed a definition “harassment,” which didn’t appear any easier.

Kim perceived two tasks: to respond to Judy’s message, and to decide whether the University needed better or different policies to deal with her situation.

© 2013 Gregory A Jackson

This case is to promote discussion, not to document good or poor handling of a situation. All names have been changed.