A large, US-based public university faced significant challenges in keeping up-to-date computing facilities for students and faculty. Because the budgeting process for the university could be unpredictable, and funding and funding sources for a particular department, school or college were changeable, deans and department heads were forced to choose between information technology expenditures and other necessities. In a given year, a dean might be forced to choose between physical infrastructure (such as office renovation for staff), supplies (such as a new photocopier) and information technology (such as new faculty desktop PCs). The dean might have no assurances that the same level of funding would be available in a future year, making long-term planning difficult.
In the late 1990s, the subject university recognized several important facts:
Little standardization in information technology purchases and practices existed, resulting in many different and hard to maintain microcomputers and related facilities, with little staff to effectively maintain them.
Specialized software for particular disciplines was available in some laboratories, but not others. Centralized university-wide practices for software acquisition was available for the lowest common denominator software only (e.g., Microsoft Office and operating systems, statistical software from SAS, and desktop applications and utilities such as Norton Anti-Virus).
Centrally administered computing laboratories were extremely popular, but also very expensive to run. Regular upgrades to hardware and software were required, and staffing and infrastructure were required, as well as space.
Many faculty members, as well as departmental computing laboratories for students, were languishing with computers more than four years old. Some buildings had not yet been updated to bring 10baseT networking to all classrooms and offices. Wireless standards, while emerging, were too changeable for campus-wide deployment.
Increasing numbers of students owned computers, from a variety of vendors, in laptop and desktop formats. These students made use of network connections in the dorms, libraries and elsewhere to do their work. Students without their own computers would visit computing laboratories, but many laboratories lacked modern hardware or software.
Computers were becoming critical to the everyday academic lives of students and faculty. Several leading departments, combined with the overall technology prevalence on campus, made it clear that ubiquitous networked computing was a near-term expectation for constituencies.
These and other facts led the campus administration to seek to control costs through increased centralization of computing services and facilities and to create standard expectations for student computer ownership. In early 1998, a plan was announced that was intended to control costs while mandating student ownership of laptop computers. The plan was put into effect for all undergraduate freshmen incoming in fall 2000, who were required to own a laptop computer compliant with university specifications. While there was no specific requirement for graduate students, several graduate programs decided to implement their own laptop ownership requirement. The decision to require student ownership of computers was not unusual among higher education institutions (see Communications of the ACM, 1998). The subject university was an early adopter and one of the earliest large public universities to require computer ownership.
After an open bidding process, the university negotiated with a leading multinational hardware vendor to supply laptop computers to the university at a moderate discount, with customizations and warranty services not otherwise generally available in 1998. Students, as well as campus departments and faculty, could purchase this vendor's computers via the university, or they could purchase a computer elsewhere, as long as it met the minimum performance requirements.
In spring 1999, as part of the overall program for increased centralization and standardization, several academic departments that had substandard computing facilities were upgraded. These departments, including biology and English, would also deliver some of the first laptop-customized content for the freshmen of 2000.