Budget pressures cause fee conflict

By Jordan Duncan

SIU administration reduced a fee this semester intended to centralize funding from colleges to the university to improve technological infrastructure.

The university instituted a fee to every college starting Feb. 28, 2013 to support the Department of Information Technology. Because of budget cuts and the fee’s unpopularity, university administration met with the IT department to reduce the fee by 20 percent during the summer. Interim Chancellor Paul Sarvela announced the decision in the State of the University address in September.

Interim Provost Susan Ford said the Department of Information Technology is vital to the university because it ensures the university’s network security, efficient management of payroll, Internet access and maintenance among other responsibilities.

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Ford said this is not a student fee, but a surcharge dealt to the colleges and their departments to subsidize essential, campus-wide upgrades. This includes, but is not limited to updating wireless Internet so it is accessible throughout campus, standardized hardware replacement, information security, the campus-wide email system and telecommunication services.

The fee also supports directory services such as the university’s “people finder,” according to the university’s overview of the fee. The fee does not cover non-standard items or services specific to a department’s needs, according to the overview.

Part of the fee includes a program to replace hardware across campus. Computers more than five years old are replaced with a Dell model, unless otherwise requested by the college.

David Crain, chief information officer of SIU, said colleges pay for the fee with state funding not budgeted for faculty salaries. He said the fee is based on a headcount of faculty users in each department, similar to the university’s health insurance model. He said it does not include graduate students, student workers or undergraduate students.

Ford said while the fee was implemented when the university experienced financial problems, it is needed to fund IT services.

“This is a very difficult year, financially,” Ford said. “We inherited a lot of debts and there was a tuition shortfall.”

Ford said reducing the fee was a popular decision but has negative effects for colleges.

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“We made the decision that we would reduce the fee by 20 percent so it would seem less painful,” Ford said. “The exchange is that they can’t get as much.”

She said when the fee was introduced last year, the departments considered the sudden charges onerous, especially since the departments would not see any immediate benefits.

Crain said administrators often do not understand how the university subsidizes the fee. He said while colleges must pay the fee, IT must cover half the cost.

Crain said two departments that had trouble with the fee were the colleges of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and Liberal Arts.

Mark Stoffel, digital media systems specialist for the college of MCMA, said while centralization is a good concept, the plan to execute it does not cater to the needs of the college.

Stoffel said the college had its own budgetary system to maintain its technological standards, which the fee interrupted. Now the college cannot afford to update its technology to meet educational needs.

“We understand the whole reasoning behind it,” Stoffel said. “I think what’s tough for us is the fact that there is the assumption that one model fits all, and our college is unique in terms of technology.”

He said MCMA students require specialized hardware to prepare them for the job market.

Stoffel said MCMA uses primarily Macintosh computers, which are more expensive than the Dell computers offered by the IT surcharge.

“Macintosh, or Macs, are just the de-facto industry standard in most areas in media production,” he said.

The college has nearly six Macintosh computers for every Dell computer, according to documentation provided by Stoffel. He said the document’s figures do not account for broadcasting services because they have a vast amount of computers, but MCMA has about 500 computers. The Macintosh computers can range from $1,000 to $10,000.

Crain said the Dell computers cost about $950.

“It’s not like we’re trying to say they shouldn’t have the Macs or that they should have cheaper computers,” he said. “The fee is only designed to cover basic computing needs, and MCMA has a lot of needs that aren’t basic.”

Stoffel said IT offered to pay part of the cost of the Macintosh computers, as long as MCMA paid the difference. He said this upcharge could be anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 per computer in addition to the fee. Crain said this would ensure MCMA got the same value from the fee as other colleges.

“All I was trying to do was make sure that they got the same dollar value out of the same basic tech fee they are paying as anyone else,” Crain said.

Stoffel said the state’s budget cuts along with the IT fee makes it difficult to pay for maintenance up to the college’s standards.

“We can not update and upgrade a lot of our faculty and staff computers because we just don’t have the money,” he said. “That has a direct effect on what we can do in terms of technology, in terms of teaching and it has an effect on the quality of teaching we can give our students.”

Stoffel and Crain both said the Dell replacements have been efficient.

Stoffel said the Dell computer replacements have been beneficial for the university because it makes technical support easier.

“It’s really difficult if you have a zillion different computer models all connecting differently,” Stoffel said. “The whole idea of streamlining that, and having everyone in the active directory, which has happened in the last couple years, really just makes it much easier to perform updates.”

Ford said the previous model of letting the colleges handle equipment updates led to problems for the university, including departments not updating their computers often enough.

“If they didn’t absolutely die, you just limped along with it,” Ford said. “We had computers in some units, particularly that student workers were using, that were 10 or even 12 years old.”

Crain said the outdated system exposed the university to cybercrime, and universities are the largest targets for hackers worldwide.

“There are two types of university,” Crain said. “One is the kind that has been hacked, and one that doesn’t know they’ve been hacked.”

He said the university had millions of confidential records on its network, which were stored in older Windows XP machines that no longer develop supportive software. Exchanging most of the older machines decreased a risk to students’ financial records, patents and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research data.

He said the system is much more secure and efficient after updates funded by the surcharge.

Just a few years ago, 31 of the 131 campus buildings had wireless Internet and the university had 175 web servers and 36 email systems before centralization, according to documents provided by Crain.

Crain said security has been improved since the fee was created.

Ford said when Sarvela announced the fee reduction, it resulted in the loudest applause during the state of the university speech.

Crain said that cheer deeply affected him.

“I feel like we’ve made a ton of progress on a very small budget,” Crain said. “For people to be applauding what is basically a draconian budget cut for the IT department was very discouraging.”

Stoffel said he understands Crain’s situation.

“I feel for him because right now he is probably being pushed on his ideas and his plans and projects,” he said. “It’s a huge bloodletting for all this money that goes out of what little budget they have left without much say of what they can do with it.”

Ford said she wants to revisit the issue with the college’s deans in the spring.

“This is what you were able to get year one and this is how it got scaled back,” Ford said “Is it better for you to pay a little less but have less service?”

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