if I were president…

For a university, that is, looking to cut costs in a world where we spend more and more each year to meet basic expectations.

Far too long ago, I hypothesized a scenario where a university might choose to outsource strategic decision-making on technology.  Let me clarify exactly what it is to which I am referring – right now, just about every university has a person or group that looks at different trends out there, considers what current needs exist, and try to balance all of that within a general framework of “being innovative.”  I challenge anyone to point to a university that doesn’t want to be innovative and therefore consider my last stipulation a reasonable one.

Provided that there is some semblance of logic to this process, what we’re talking about is strategic decision-making, not just outsourcing in general.  A method through which an over-arching theme emerges that guides when to say yes and when to say no.  When to invest in that $250,000 ERP system that must replace the aging system in place and therefore sacrifice the time-saving management system for staff.  Or how high student productivity ranks on the list of priorities.

Rather than having people in charge of this, why not just outsource it all?  That is the question that I put forth.

If I were a university president, this would be a tantalizing option for cost-savings.  Everything about running a university involves rising costs, but some things just cannot be sacrificed.  If you need top-notch faculty and they collectively lead to a cost of $X, then you must spend $X.  If you decide that a new Welcome Center will help put a pretty face for visitors and you must invest $Y over the next 3 years, then you allocate and spend $Y.  Plain and simple.

Right now, staff salaries are rising faster than most other operations (insert appropriate citation here – I’m pretty sure it’s in DIY EDU somewhere).  And a lot of staff are needed to manage, maintain, install, learn, use, train, and just be around technology.  And deciding how much to spend on what and then implementing those decisions involves a lot of people, too.  Overall, the number of staff that surround the need to be “innovative” technologically is increasing.  So what do we do?

Get rid of all of them, right?

First, let’s presume that outsourcing of storage, e-mail, and even major systems like Student Information Systems (SIS) and financials is acceptable.  I argue that this is not all that absurd – if the encryption is there, if the security restrictions are sufficiently high, then there isn’t really a FERPA or other problem.  Yes, due diligence would take a while and it would be a hard pill to swallow, but it is actually not that crazy of an idea.  At least I don’t think it should be.

So right off the bat we get rid of system administrators and data center managers.  The former would include separate specialists of all kinds (Novell vs. Windows environments, ones that know different flavors of Linux, ones that work primarily on maintaining Peoplesoft, etc).  You also get rid of software-specific administrators – the people that write the queries that get Peoplesoft to talk to e-commerce systems.

Lots of support people would go away – e-mail support would come from Google or Microsoft or Zoho, for instance.  Power  consumption would go down, facilities costs for the actual data center would vanish.

And this is before we even get to the actual strategic part of things.

A President could bring in a consulting firm whose sole job is to examine trends in technology and provide reports on what is next, how much things cost, and to performa the occasional audit on the state of technology at the school (to find out if that old ERP system needs to be replaced or not).  Different technology could be done on a pick and choose basis.

If the technology solution presented by the consultants were designed correctly, then support and training would be included.  This means that training staff go away, too.  Maybe lots of material goes online, including end-user training and support.

The strategy, therefore, is to just follow everyone else’s lead.  Cut as many jobs as possible, outsource everything, make sure everything you buy comes with a service level agreement so that training and maintenance is included, and spend money on having other people do things for you, rather than having people of our own.

Scary, isn’t it?  Yet I think a president would be dumb to not at least consider this as an option, and on a large scale (this only works as a legit cost-savings model if you go big and broad).

So what’s next?  How does one prevent this?  By cutting costs through increasing efficiency of existing staff and especially of faculty, by changing the way classes are taught and how technology is used.  By making innovation at the university just a half step behind the bleeding edge, rather than a distant following of the cutting one.  By completely reinventing how we make use of end-products, so that the infrastructure becomes critical and integral.

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