The University Record, March 8, 1999

Letters

 

ITD needs to be managed as a business, not an academic enterprise

I felt like a survivor of the Titanic as I read your Feb. 15 issue, pointing out that my old ship, the SS ITD, might soon be managed by a ‘federation.’ I escaped from ITD in 1995, as the manager of database administration. What I saw on the horizon terrified me, and I jumped. I retired, at age 52, soon after they had cancelled the Y2K project (they said all of the systems would be replaced in five years as part of the M-Pathways/PeopleSoft project). As I write this, the Y2K project is back online, PeopleSoft’s shortcomings are in the news, and I’m grateful for good eyesight.

Back in the ’80s the U-M combined its academic and administrative computing into one enterprise called ITD, removing administrative computing from the domain of Business and Finance and putting it largely under academic leadership. It was a gruesome mistake. It moved important computer-based systems—accounting, admissions letters, student registration, etc.—out of the domain of Business and Finance and down deep into the bowels of Academic Affairs.

It was a mistake because managing those big administrative databases and systems (whether they are on a mainframe or a stack of servers) is a business, not an academic affair. That part of ITD needs to be handled as a business enterprise, under the auspices of a vice president for business and finance, with top-level management that is identifiable, accountable and paying attention everyday; i.e. not a “federation.”

Imagine for a moment—U-M’s motor pool managed by a federation of Mechanical Engineering and Architecture and Urban Planning. The campus police managed by, say, a federation of ROTC and the School of Social Work. Financial services managed by the Business School and the Economics Department, among others. Computers are, indeed, a ubiquitous presence on any university campus. But so are transportation, security, money management and human resource management. There is nothing unique about computers in that regard. It is only those engaged in the dubious occupation of trying to be an ‘information technology visionary’ who will tell you otherwise.

U-M’s executive officers need to start paying attention. ITD has become a huge, unmanageable menage of talented but disparate souls, a great number of whom have grown Dilbertly cynical over the years. By the time I retired, ITD had become a small city of almost 800 people. Its upper management consisted of people who had never been technically involved in the implementation of a large computer system. And there were so many layers of management that each of us reported to at least three people. It is in that suicidal environment that ITD sold its soul to PeopleSoft, a company that had never dealt with an institution the size of U-M, but nonetheless promised to replace, in five years, the systems that had taken over 30 years to bring to fruition. You are beginning to see the painful results of that promise. And no ‘federation’ is going to save that sinking ship I’m afraid—only good, strong management.

Neil Haldeman