Campus technology officials have joined the ranks of department heads vying for shrinking funds in a sagging economy, and many IT chiefs say defending their budgets is complicated by jargon that some university decision makers don’t fully understand.

IT officials have seen programs trimmed, slashed, and delayed over the past year, and the struggle for campus dollars is expected to last throughout 2009, perhaps worsening as states hedge public university funding and endowments are hit by a haywire stock market.

With IT budgets among the highest line items on many college campuses, making adjustments that save tens of thousands of dollars is often easier for budget officials than paring budget items for every department on campus. This makes IT departments an easy target, officials say.

Faculty and staff charged with pitching new technology initiatives to those who control campus purse strings say IT officials should plan ahead, explain tech-related jargon in layman’s terms, show they sympathize with college deans and presidents about the current fiscal crisis, and show exactly how the school can save money in the long term with an immediate, reasonable investment. 

"The time to plan for disaster is not when the tidal wave has reached your doorstep," said Tim Roe, web project manager at Butler University in Indianapolis, describing the approach IT officials should embrace during budget discussions. Roe added that it’s crucial for IT heads to "earmark," or reserve, funds for updated technology systems "so that the spending is planned in advance."

Proposing IT projects and initiatives–such as campus-wide laptops for faculty–well ahead of budget negotiations is critical in winning support, said Nadine Stern, vice president for information technology and enrollment at the College of New Jersey.

"I try to introduce concepts way in advance of budget proposals," she said.

Getting other departments on board with IT initiatives that could benefit classroom instruction and save money in the long run, Stern said, is another key to securing tech dollars.

"It is important to have ongoing IT discussions through governance structures so that there is comprehension of, and support for, IT initiatives from constituencies across campus," she said.

The impact of the economic downturn on higher education has been well documented. "Managing the Funding Gap," a report released in December by the higher-education technology group EDUCAUSE, shows American universities facing budget cuts of from 5 to 15 percent in 2009.

Interviews with IT officials showed many were not prepared to pitch ideas that could shield campuses from devastating budget cuts if the economy continues to stagnate, according to the EDUCAUSE report.

"No one was confident that if the president or provost called and asked for an outline of a vision for how technology could support a restructuring of the institution, they could provide a complete answer," the report said. "They did believe, however, that it was becoming more likely that the question would be asked of them."

Stern said her college could save money this year by rearranging computer equipment to "more appropriate locations," rather than purchasing expensive new equipment. Reviewing the college’s computer replacement cycles to ensure no money is wasted in the coming years was another idea.

Matt Eventoff, a partner with New Jersey-based Princeton Public Speaking, has helped chief technology officers nationwide better communicate with deans and provosts who pass down final budget decisions. Eventoff said "removing the tech speak and presenting in terms that a [university official] can understand" is vital to defending IT budgets, regardless of the economic outlook.

"In the majority of instances, anytime IT is seen as less essential than other departments, it is [owing] to the lack of messaging and communication. When competing for dollars, it’s important to note that the onus doesn’t fall on higher-education officials, who dole out funding, to understand the language of IT," he said. "The onus falls on IT leadership to message the importance and relevance of IT in clear, coherent, compelling terms that a higher-education official would clearly understand."

In explaining the importance of IT security funds, Eventoff said, CTOs should simply tell officials that a vulnerable campus network could lead to devastating hacks, resulting in stolen student information. This would directly impact enrollment–and therefore, tuition–as students lose trust in the school and leave for campuses with more secure, reliable technology.

With colleges and universities of every size investing in technology infrastructure, a school’s high-tech offerings–such as campus-wide Wi-Fi, advanced platforms for online classes, and iPods and iPhones for incoming freshmen–have transformed into a recruiting tool.

"It’s an investment that has the potential to increase [a school’s] competitive advantage," said James Hilton, vice president and CIO for the University of Virginia.

Many IT chiefs are pushing for centralization of campus computers, instead of having a multitude of computer clusters spread across campus. The scattered approach wastes space and ultimately costs more money, they explain.

Outsourcing also could save cash. If an outside contractor can manage eMail services and save the school money, proposals should be written and introduced immediately, officials say.

Hilton said the nationwide fiscal strain could have a bright side: encouraging the exchange of ideas among technology officials looking for ways to save money and gain favor with those who control the campus budget.

"This kind of thing breeds camaraderie," said Hilton, who serves as a board member for EDUCAUSE.

Initiatives that might have received a thumbs-up in 2007 or 2008 are suddenly being scrutinized as budget realizations hit campuses hard. At Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., a program that would have given laptops to faculty members was scaled back last year. Now, the school might be able to buy only a few laptops.

"We’re left with close to nothing," said Gary Ploski, assistant director of academic computing at Sarah Lawrence. "We’ve seen it completely chopped. … If we had more money, we’d be able to do this."

Links:

EDUCAUSE

Sarah Lawrence College

Butler University

University of Virginia