SACS responds to Tulane's tech plan

April 9, 2001

Mark Miester

Complete an inventory of the university's technology assets. Make a commitment to adequately fund upgrades and maintenance of information technology infrastructure. Align the strategic plan for technology more closely with President Scott Cowen's overall plan for the university.

Appoint a cabinet-level chief information officer to coordinate and oversee all IT functions. These are among the recommendations of a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools consulting team that visited Tulane in January to review the university's strategic plan for technology. The plan, assembled by a 21-member steering committee chaired by Hugh Lester, vice president for academic affairs, was a part of Tulane's recent reaccredidation as the SACS Alternate Model Improvement Project.

The 186-page report outlines a vision for information technology at Tulane and offers five broad strategic initiatives to develop electronic systems aligned with the instructional, research and administrative needs of Tulane.

Starting with the premise that content and programmatic material should be separate from the infrastructure to support the delivery of content, the plan set out to "define the role of a centrally administered technology infrastructure and support system that cuts across the boundaries of schools and colleges, while the choice, development and use of specific applications and technologies are distributed outward to the units."

The strategic initiatives set forth in the report include designing a technological environment that supports new learning and training strategies, developing online information systems to support the university, integrating information systems throughout the university, supporting network growth, and establishing a system of funding and resource management aligned with the mission.

One of the primary recommendations of the plan is the need to appoint a chief information officer responsible for maintaining an overview of technology needs, priorities and available resources. Under the current model, responsibilities for information technology are spread through both central administration and various units. Hardware, software and servers are the responsibility of Tulane Infrastructure Services.

Support for academic computing is provided by the Academic Centers for Learning, Research and Technology (ACLRT) on the uptown campus and the Office of Educational Research and Services (OERS) at the health sciences center. TAMS handles the university's financial computing while the Millennium system is used by institutional advancement. The law school maintains its own mail server, the business school maintains its own intranet and there are a dozen Web masters across the university.

"How do you pull all that together?" Lester says. "You hire a chief information officer to oversee and coordinate all of it, a vice president for information resources who has the ability to do the kind of technological inventory necessary to find out where the assets are and negotiate the best place to spend that money."

While the consultants praised parts of the report, they expressed concern about three areas of the plan. The first was a percieved lack of connection between the report and Tulane's strategic plan. The consultants felt the report failed to reference specific instances where technology can play a strategic role in furthering the goals of the university. Lester says the point is well taken.

"I think as we began to put the whole thing together we embraced the rather high-level priority in Scott's [strategic] plan that we needed to develop a technology that in essence encompassed the entire workflow," Lester says.

Because of this, he adds, the committee wrote the report as a stand-alone document that supports the technology goals within the strategic plan without attempting to make "linkages" to other initiatives of the strategic plan. Another issue raised by the consultants was a lack of sufficient funding to implement and sustain the technology plan.

"That didn't come as a surprise," Lester notes. "We are underresourced, but at the same time it's not so much the hardware but the people resources."

The consultants' third critique echoes the Tulane plan's call for a chief information officer but goes further, calling for the position to report directly to the president. A cabinet-level CIO, the consultants write, with the responsibility for coordinating and overseeing all central IT functions, is critical to achieving a coordinated and seamless information technology strategy for the university as a whole. With the search for a chief information officer currently under way, Lester feels the university's technology strategy is moving in the right direction.

"We can now use these comments on the strategic plan and the answers to some of the questions we asked to begin to move forward and implement the things that are in the plan."

The consultants who reviewed Tulane's strategic plan were Earving Blythe, chief information officer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute; Randy Ebeling, assistant vice president for technology at university of Texas; and Gary Greenberg, director of technological planning at Northwestern University.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000