The subject of this case study is a large US-based public university with a liberal arts focus. Ranked well within the top 50 universities by US News and World Report (2001), and within the top 10 public universities overall, the institution had a solid history of leadership in education. Like most public universities, a large component of the subject's mission was to bring low-cost and high-quality education to the undergraduates of the state. With tuition under $5000 per year for in-state students, and numerous nationally recognized academic programs, the university had a good record of accomplishment on this mission.
Universities, by definition, are composed of schools and colleges. All universities have a variety of undergraduate academic programs based in the schools and colleges, typically including liberal arts (such as humanities and social science), the sciences (physics, biology, chemistry), and professional studies (business, journalism). Graduate programs at the subject organization included the range of undergraduate programs listed here, plus medical professions and others, with more than 100 different Ph.D. and master's degrees offered.
The different schools and colleges within the subject university had different needs and uses for information technology. By 2000, all students and faculty, regardless of their academic program or home department, made significant use of information technology. Students made regular use of email and the Internet for class research, communication with their peers and faculty, and fundamental activities such as course registration and tuition billing.
Within the university, there had historically been inequity across academic units (the schools, colleges and academic departments that compose them) for information technology access and support. Units with strong internal and external funding (from grants and other sources) might have been able to provide laboratory or research facilities for students and faculty, while units without such funding needed to split their technology funds for a variety of purposes.
Laboratory and research facilities would include materials that were discipline specific (such as Bunsen burners for wet chemistry labs), but all disciplines relied on general-purpose microcomputers and servers. In addition, these computers required staff support to purchase, configure and maintain. In many disciplines, specialized software was required that could be quite expensive or time consuming (in support staff hours) to acquire, configure and maintain.
Special-purpose laboratory and research facilities supported faculty and graduate students, but undergraduates tended to require general-purpose computing facilities. The subject university, like most universities of its size, had a centralized nonacademic unit that controlled most general-purpose computing facilities. This academic computing unit ran central servers for the campus (backup servers, email servers, Web servers, etc.) and numerous computing laboratories with microcomputers, printers and a variety of software. The unit also offered training and support on a variety of topics, from basic email use to advanced statistical computing.
Because the academic computing unit focused on student needs, departments could effectively outsource their requirements for microcomputer support, software maintenance and staffing to the unit. Historically, this meant that schools and departments without significant specialized computing needs and flexibility in funding had very little discretionary budget for information technology. The result, which was most apparent in the humanities and some other academic disciplines, was that faculty and staff had woefully outdated desktop computers, little or no appropriate software, and no departmental support or funding for upgrades.
To summarize the organizational setting:
A top-ranked public university, with a mission to educate undergraduates from across the state at a reasonable cost.
A centralized nonacademic computing department, offering centralized servers, training, software and support. This department ran numerous microcomputing laboratories on campus for student use.
Many academic units (schools, colleges and the departments that composed them) with strong internal infrastructure for information technology, including specialized computing facilities, personnel and a recurring budget.
Many other academic units that relied on the academic computing department for their students' needs but had little or no budget or staffing resources to meet the needs of their faculty, or the specialized needs of their discipline, or to equip classrooms or other shared spaces.