The University Office of Information Technology

The University Office of Information Technology

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The University Office of Information Technology


In this paper I report on the history, mission, organization, finances, evaluation strategies, and current issues of a university’s office of information technology. I will use the term “office of information technology” throughout the paper. This term needs to be defined here because it is very general and each university seems to have a unique definition for it. Within this paper, office of information technology will refer to those areas of the university whose primary mission is to serve the information technology needs of the institution.

Information technology needs include “that collection of technologies that enables data and knowledge to be stored and exchanged, assessed, displayed and communicated, and in some cases, synthesized and created.” (Iowa State University, 2000, p. 2). In other words, the computer hardware and software, communications hardware (phone and network) and software, media-related instructional technologies, and the organization needed to support this information technology infrastructure. These services touch the entire university and all its faculty, staff, and students.

As with any administrative unit on campus, the organization of that unit will depend on the context in which it is set. Another term that I will use loosely in regard to the office of information technology is the university. While all institutions of higher education rely on information technology as a basic service to provide products to their clientele, I will try to keep my discussion and analysis confined to the concept of Kerr’s “multiversity”, or research university satisfying multiple goals. This is not to diminish the role of the office of information technology at smaller universities and colleges but only to focus this discussion.

One area within a university that is often lumped into the “information” infrastructure is the library. While my definition does not include the library within the office of information technology, the technology used for many of its services is included.

Lastly, I would like to preface the ideas presented within this paper through the perspective of Weick’s (1976) theory of loosely coupled systems. As discussed throughout, the office of information technology is a unit on campus that is intertwined with all other areas in some manner. Thus it must go beyond the “niche” perspective of individual units and departments and engage itself directly in the politics of the university as a loosely coupled system. As the reader will see, this has affected the history, mission, and organization of the office of information technology and is embedded in many of its

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A Brief History Of The Office Of Information Technology

Although the history of information technology can be traced back thousands of years, this discussion, as it was defined earlier, has its roots in the “electronic age” defined as 1940 to present (Butler, n.d.). To focus the discussion even more, we will limit ourselves to the roots of the office of information technology, or the period Butler shows as the “Third Generation of the Electronic Age (1964-present).” It is here where information technologies matured to the point that organization of these resources started to become an issue (Mulhollan, 1989). So unlike the university in general, the establishment of the office of information technology has occurred relatively recently on campus.

Like many new areas within a fairly mature structure, the formation of the office of information technology is still evolving in many, if not all university environments. Mulhollan (1989) describes this evolution in terms of “a decentralized model in its early stages of development”, to coordinated laissez-faire, imperialism, centralized, back to decentralized, and now to coordinated decentralization. Types of computer systems, networking structure, and managerial styles determined much of this back and forth change in attitude and structure. While this evolution was happening with information technology in all types of organizations, it was especially prevalent at the university where, as Weick (1976) described, “loosely coupled” systems reign. Today we find this resultant “coordinated decentralization” structure as the major environment at many universities (Harvard University, 2002; UCLA, 2002; Iowa State University, 2000).

The Mission

The mission of an organization defines its purpose and the need for its existence. While each office of information technology within a university has most likely created its own unique mission statement based on their own culture and the evolution of the office as described above, most can be distilled into some primary functions. These include access to hardware, software, and related teaching technologies; a pervasive technology infrastructure; and an organization that provides facilities and support. Descriptions of these functions range from collaborative, communicative, pervasive, connected, managed, delivered, enabled, enhanced, ensuring, ubiquitous, committed, and many others. (Harvard University, 2002; UCLA, 2002; Iowa State University, 2000).
The overriding themes in these mission descriptions boil down to providing an all encompassing, connective, and supportive environment for academic and administrative computing and telecommunications. In reading through many mission statements and descriptions, the terms pervasive and ubiquitous come up an amazing number of times. Although these are current buzzwords in the area of information technology, they tell a tale of the recent history of information technology not only at the university but also throughout the business, and increasingly, our personal worlds. Webster defines pervasive as “to become diffused throughout every part of” and ubiquitous as “existing or being everywhere at the same time: constantly encountered.” In essence, the contemporary university requires information technology to be everywhere on campus, with easy access to all at any time, adequately supported by a centralized unit while managing this in a decentralized manner defined by the loosely coupled system. This is quite an ambitious task.


The current organization of the office of information technology has been shaped by the short but evolving history of the technology, the mission of the office, and above all by managerial issues (Mulhollan, 1989). Mulhollan also states that after defining the universities technology functions and examining the campus strategic direction for information technology, only then is the determination of management and organization structure for the office made.

Academic vs. Administrative vs. Infrastructure

Organization and structure of the office of information technology seems highly variable within the larger university structure. One of the newest organizational pushes is to combine all areas of information technology on campus into one large area, one that can truly be called the “Office of Information Technologies” and headed by the chief information technology officer or CITO. The CITO is in charge of academic, administrative, communications, network, and teaching technology areas.

The other major organizational model of the university information technology structure is one that developed early on and because of the highly vertical nature of the university is still predominant. In this system there is no one head of all areas but individual leaders in the areas mentioned above that a CITO would supervise. In this organizational structure there might be a head of academic computing, another as head of administrative computing, another of telecommunications, etc. Making this structure even more difficult to manage is the fact that parts of this organization reside under academics and the office of the provost and others under an administrative leader such as the vice president for finance. While many universities have successfully merged this organization into a CITO based structure reporting directly to the president, others have had a more difficult time bridging the academic and administrative gap.

Centralized vs. Decentralized

The debate over whether the office of information technology should have a tightly controlled, central authority or that the responsibility be shared and distributed more evenly across the campus is one that grows each day. Over the past twenty years a growing proportion of information technology resources have been allocated (both financial and expertise) outside of the office of information technology and into departments and operating units. “On many campuses, significant decisions about information technology resources seem increasingly like decisions about curriculum: they occur in academic departments, not in central administrative units (Green and Jenkins, 1998).”

This is one more reference, like loosely coupled systems, that show how the office of information technology is reflective of the university structure as a whole. I believe this is the result of the pervasive quality of the office of information technology and especially its tight relationship with the academic parts of the university. It would be interesting to compare this administrative unit with others in terms of the “looseness” of their organization and structure.

Planning and Finances

I have included the office of information technology planning functions while discussing finances because it seems the two go hand in hand. McCredie (2000) states, “an ongoing IT (information technology) strategy formulation and funding cycle is necessary if your college or university is to remain competitive in every respect.” McCredie gives examples of how the University of California at Berkley (where he is Chief Information Officer) uses a multiple cycle planning approach for its information technology strategic and financial planning. At the high frequency cycles (ongoing to quarterly) recruiting, retention, and retraining of staff and budget, program, and project planning take priority. Structure and organization design and strategy, mission goals and objectives happen less frequently (3-5 years) but are usually more involved both in time and staff involvement. All of the pieces of the planning/finance approach use values, communication, and measurement as underlying guides. Assessment is part of this process at every step (McCredie, 2000).

While this blend of strategic and financial planning is being put to good use at UC Berkley and other universities the fact is that most others have difficulty tracking information technology spending and thus have surprisingly little information about their annual expenditures on information technology (Green and Jenkins, 1998). There are many excuses offered for this including the organizational problem of administrative versus academic structures as discussed earlier. Green and Jenkins surmise that the real answer is in the problem of centralization vs. decentralization. Budgets for the office of information technology (even if split into academic and administrative pieces) can be totaled but the real difficulty is tracking information technology spending in departmental and operating units.

As discussed earlier, information technology has spread across campus in a very decentralized way, especially with the advent of the microcomputer. To support this trend, information technology experts, once the domain of the office of information technology, have also decentralized as each department looks for its own “on call” support. This has made the task of following information technology budgeting and spending even more difficult for the university that has called upon the office of information technology to track not only its own budget but the decentralized university information technology budget as well. Very few universities have found a comprehensive financial planning method to address this issue. Recent studies have found a lack of a coordinated acquisition, deployment, and management planning for technology at most institutions (Green and Jenkins, 1998).

Other reasons for the failure of effective financial strategies include not establishing effective asset management programs for technology, budgeting which does not include a life-cycle approach to technology, failure to match technology expenditures to appropriate funding streams, and failure to develop reliable benchmarks for measuring technology return on investment. When corrective actions to these problems are addressed, the institution stands to meet future market and organizational challenges in its information technology financial health.

Evaluation Strategies

With the increase in decentralization of information technology at the university, the office of information technology has found it harder and harder to evaluate theses resources. “For example, when CAUSE expanded its annual member survey beyond management information system topics to include desktop computing issues (one of the main causes for decentralization), many institutions admitted they had no way of finding out how many PCs the institution owned (Green and Jenkins, 1998).” In the environment described throughout this paper, universities need to be increasingly aware of their investment in information technology resources and the need to assess their progress in providing them (Higher Education Information Resources Alliance #1 [HEIRA], 1995).

Based upon contemporary self-evaluation methods and experience from accreditation teams, the HEIRAlliance constructed guidelines of general requirements for an office of information technology evaluation. HEIRA states that Information resources must be of “the quality, depth, and currentness necessary to support the institution’s articulated mission, strategies, directions, and goals for academic programs and institutional management.” These guidelines go on to state that information should be accessible to the campus community and, where appropriate, areas outside the university; that information resources be managed to support academic and community service missions and administrative requirements; and that institutional databases include a wide variety of computational and communications services in both administrative and academic structures (HEIRA #1, 1995).

Individual areas of evaluation within the office of information technology include academic program support, administrative support, access to information, resources, and support both in the traditional workplace and on and off campus, technology planning, technology advisory and policy structures, and staffing. Key questions have been identified for each of these evaluation areas and can be found in the HEIRA report (HEIRA #2, 1995).

Current Issues

While the amount of literature on the history of the office of information technology seems sparse, and the amount written about the organization, mission, strategic planning, and finance is moderately abundant, it is the amount of written material devoted to information technology current issues and challenges that seems plentiful. I will devote space here to address the two that have been repeated through many references in this paper and then will list many more which should be considered within this topic.

Integration of Academic and Administrative Systems

All universities implement their information technology resources within the two main campus structures, academics and administration. In the past the uniting of these two areas has been difficult at best (Mulhollan, 1989). Many schools have overcome this barrier and have combined their resources under a chief information technology officer (CITO) having responsibility for both administration and academics and reporting directly to the president. Iowa State is an example of a university moving in this direction as well but initial signs of hiring a CITO show this person reporting to both the provost and the vice-president for business and finance, a situation that could continue the fractured information technology implementation in academics and administration.

Central Direction Vs. Distributed Responsibilities

As has been stressed throughout this paper in other headings, constant attention should be given to the fact that information technology on campus is organized centrally while the majority of the implementation happens in a very decentralized manner. This means the information technology manager must solicit input not only from their own staff but also from constantly listening to constituents from across campus. As McCredie (2000) states, when soliciting campus-wide information technology participants for input “they are much more likely to do so when they played a meaningful role in some part of the process. In addition, they are more likely to participate energetically in crucial implementation efforts.

Other current issues and challenges for the office of information technology include new classroom and instructional technologies, delivering more productivity tools to the desktop, universal access, funding strategies, recruitment and especially retention of staff, distance education, online student services, and network infrastructure (HEIRA, 1996 and Lembke and Rudy, 2001). Like all areas of the university, the office of information technology has plenty to plan for and respond to in the future


In writing this paper several themes seem to dominate throughout. First, the structure of information technology on a university campus truly is ubiquitous. It is needed everywhere across campus and should be looked at and evaluated from this perspective. Second, although most campuses have an “office of information technology”, no matter what it is called and how many of the functions described within this paper are contained in this unit, this office must deal with the decentralized way that technology is implemented across campus. Third, because it is a broad-based and decentralized function, the laws of the loosely coupled system affect the office of information technology more so than some other academic and administrative units where there is less daily interaction with multiple other campus units. This is an important fact to keep in mind when discussing the university’s information technology organizational decisions and also the management staff it chooses to run the office, especially the Chief Information Technology Officer. This person must have the ability to see the multiple facets of their office and deal with clientele and issues from across the “multiversity.”

As a final note, I’d like to once again comment (as I did in the literature review assignment) about the availability of literature materials about this topic from the Internet. I am very pleased that so much material is so readily available online. It would make sense that if any discipline’s research should be available this way it would be in information technology. It is good to know that when the literature talks about the need for information accessibility we are actually making it happen that way as a discipline.


Butler, J. (n.d.). A History of Information Technology and Systems. Retrieved March 29, 2002, from the University of Alabama, Telecommunication and Film Department Web Site: .

Green, K. and Jenkins, R. (1998). IT Financial Planning 101: Developing an Institutional Strategy for Financing Technology. Retrieved April 2, 2002, In NACUBO Business Officer Website: .

Harvard University, (2002). IT at Harvard: Supporting the University’s Mission. Retrieved April 1, 2002, from Harvard University Information System Web Site: .

Iowa State University. (2000). Building a Competitive Future for Information Technology for the Iowa State University Community: A Vision and Strategic Plan, 2001-2003. Information Technology Planning Committee Iowa State University. Ames, IA. Web Site: .

HEIRA (Higher Education Information Resources Alliance) [#1]. (1995). What Presidents Need to Know About Evaluating Institutional Information Resources. In HEIRAllince Executive Strategies Report #6, July 1995. Retrieved March 20, 2002 from the Educause Web Site: .

HEIRA (Higher Education Information Resources Alliance) [#2]. (1995). HEIRAlliance Evaluation Guidelines For Institutional Information Resources. In HEIRAllince Executive Strategies Report #6, July 1995. Retrieved March 20, 2002 from the Educause Web Site: .

HEIRA (Higher Education Information Resources Alliance). (1996). HEIRAlliance Executive Outlook on the Transformation of Higher Education. In HEIRAllince Executive Strategies Report #7, July 1996. Retrieved March 27, 2002 from the Educause Web Site: .

Lembke, R.L. and Rudy, J.A. (2001). Top Campus IT Challenges for 2001. Retrieved April 2, 2002, In Educause Quarterly Web Site: .

McCredie, J.W. (2000). Planning for IT in Higher Education: It’s Not an Oxymoron. Retrieved April 2, 2002, In Educause Quarterly Web Site: .

Mulhollan, P. (1989). Information Resource Management: Why Centralize? In Proceedings of the Current Issues Forum of the 1988 CAUSE National Conference: Professional Paper Series, #2 (Information Technology – Can it All Fit? pp 2-7). CAUSE Publications, Boulder, CO. Also on web at .

UCLA, (2002). Strategic Plan Areas of Emphasis. Retrieved April 1, 2002 from UCLA Information Technology Planning Board Web Site: .

Weick, K. E. (1976). Education systems as loosely coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21. 1-19
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