In 1981, Robert Gillepsie, the now-retired vice provost for computing at the University of Washington published a report stating, “higher ed has been slow to respond to the rapid challenges and opportunities of technological change.”


IT officials at EDUCAUSE 2013 reflected on the early days of campus technology budgets.

More than 30 years years later, Kenneth C. Green, the founding director of Campus Computing Project, quoted the report to a crowd of educators and asked, “Does that part sound current to any of you? Seem rather fresh?”

There were murmurs of agreement from those in the audience — instructors and administrators who had gathered for a panel discussion at the 2013 EDUCAUSE conference in Anaheim, Cal.

The panel was taking a look back at the historical National Science Foundation report “The Accidental Revolution,” which proposed that advances in computing on college campuses had been largely unplanned and unanticipated.

This left colleges unprepared for decades of technological advancement — an issue that the panel said continues to this day.

David Smallen, vice president of libraries and IT at Hamilton College, said part of the problem can be found in budgeting issues, particularly the slow start of computing budgets.

Smallen recalled, how in the 80s and 90s, campus leaders were debating whether computing would just be a one-time cost, not an ongoing budgetary concern.

“I remember at that point many institutions were purchasing technology with what was called ‘budget dust,'” Smallen said, “meaning that leftover at the end of the year.”

Hamilton College didn’t have a fully funded computer replacement plan in place until the late 1990s, nearly 20 years after Gillepsie’s report.

As educators and administrators recognize the opportunities of technological advances on campuses, budgets must reflect that, and that doesn’t always happen, Smallen said.

“Plans without sustainable budgets are just wishes,” he said.

Planning and budgeting can be difficult as it is “intensely political,” said Theresa Rowe, Vice President and CIO at Oakland University. But there’s another difficulty: so much of what must be planned for arises from unplanned developments.

“Things sneak and creep into the environment,” Rowe said. “Those are unintentional plans that we have to react to.”

She offered up email addresses as an example.

When they first were adopted on college campuses, email addresses were handed out only to IT employees. Then, they “creeped out” to faculty members who were friendly with the IT department.

Next, they creeped out to those who could demonstrate a need for one. Finally, after several years, everyone had an email address.

And this happens over and over again with technology, Rowe said.

“At first everyone did not quality for a desktop computer,” she said. “Or a printer. Or a laptop. There were processes and politics and relationships that decided who would get access to this technology.”

This is a process that still occurs today, she said, but just at a much quicker pace. The sudden explosion of mobile devices on campus and the accompanying bring your own device (BYOD) policies was not something many campus leaders predicted.

Now, the issue is one of the most popular topics of this year’s EDUCAUSE conference, and similar conversations are taking place on campuses across the country.

“I believe the accidental revolution continues today,” Rowe said.

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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