I have often remarked to others that I value being at a small college, and identify as an advocate for such institutions. Heck, when I ran for the EDUCAUSE Board of Directors, which explicitly asks that one not speak only from one’s personal perspective but instead from and on behalf of the entire community, I “campaigned” partially on being able to look through the lens of a smaller institution. There are way more small institutions (sub 5000 FTE students) than large ones, so I was trying to speak to a lot of community members. But what does it really mean to be at a small institution? Well, a lot, actually.
There is scale, and economies thereof. In any department, be it IT, student affairs, marketing and communications, etc., there are simply fewer people doing the same number of jobs. In IT, for example, we have the same burden for information security and privacy as a much larger institution, yet we (at CalArts), do not have a full-time, in-house information security officer, much less an entire department dedicated to security. So we have to get creative and share the burden across multiple staff and use other resources such as “virtual” Chief Information Security Officer (vCISO) services from third party firms, share CISOs between institutions, and/or layer multiple services on top of each other for maximum protection.
We are also very thin in a lot of areas. I do not have the luxury of enough staff to run a 24/7 shop, even for our most critical of systems. We monitor them 24/7 and we act on the alerts we get, sure, but people do need to sleep, and sometimes I’m only 1 deep on a knowledge worker. Sometimes that alert isn’t seen for 8-10 hours, no matter how efficient we are at using instant communication tools. We mitigate this through efforts to shift to the cloud (so someone else is managing our systems), for example, but we’ve run into budget challenges there, to name just one obstacle. At larger institutions, you might have a whole team of people responsible for monitoring the data center, rather than just software (that can easily become out of date as systems change) that are there 24/7 to alert others of issues.
Similar challenges exist for other departments, of course. It’s not just us in IT working at a small institution. Many departments are 1 person deep at best, and several of those are in fact doing 1.5-2 jobs each. If even one person retires or resigns, the impact is disproportionate (many things keep me up at night, and staff retention is one of them, both because I want to know the team is happy, and because it’s so hard to weather the departure of any one of them).
A nice thing about a small college is that most people know each other. I joke that here at CalArts, someone need only say “George” in a sentence and I can figure out which person they mean based purely on context (which is actually only a slight exaggeration). But this can backfire, too. Support requests go to individuals instead of our ticketing system, for instance. Or “personal favors” are asked that break policy that we work so hard to develop and enforce. Sometimes it goes the other way – I find myself wanting to bend my own policy sometimes to help someone that I’ve come to know personally, too.
Another nice/not so nice thing is being involved in day to day operations. On the one hand, I feel I have a good pulse on what is going on in the department. I work hard not to micromanage so I don’t get into the weeds but I know what products we use for what, the general status of upgrades/updates to those solutions, etc. I can answer questions from others (esp. other VPs) effectively. Also, there are few things I haven’t seen before, and seen from the inner workings. I’m not saying I’ve seen it all and I’m definitely not saying that I addressed all those matters the right way the first (or even second) time around, but few things truly surprise me these days. That’s good. The downside is that every single day I get pulled into the tactical and away from the strategic. Sometimes it tires me out and I don’t even want to get into the strategic. I’m just worn out on the day-to-day struggle. Every fire we have to put out leaves me less able to figure out how to avoid ignition in the first place.
These are just some examples. I’m not trying to be comprehensive here. My original goal was to answer for myself the question “what does it mean to be from a small institution?” But then I should I’d share a bit. Would love to hear some other examples.