TITLE: Academic Computer Science is Not University IT
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: November 03, 2015 4:10 PM
The Department of Biology operates a greenhouse so that its
faculty can cultivate and study a wide range of plants. The
greenhouse offers students a chance to see, smell, and touch
real, living plants that they may never have encountered
before. With the greenhouse as an ecosystem, students get
to learn about the relationships among species and a little
about how species evolve. The ecological setting in which
the plants are grown provides the context needed for faculty
to demonstrate realistically how organisms are connected
Faced with budget cuts, the university has decided that it is
no longer cost-effective to have biology staff operate the
greenhouse. We already have a grounds and landscaping unit as
part of the physical plant, and its staff has expertise for
working with a variety plants as a part of managing lawns and
gardens. To save money, the administration is centralizing
all plant management services in grounds and landscaping. If
the folks in Biology needs anything done in or for the
greenhouse, they call a designated contact person. They will
have to streamline the offerings in the greenhouse, based on
university-wide decisions about what kind of plants we can
afford to support.
The Department of Art has a number of faculty who specialize
in drawing, both pencil and ink, and in painting. All students
who major in art take two courses in drawing as part of the
foundations sequence, and many studio art majors take painting.
Both media help students learn to see and teach them about how
their materials interact with their vision and affect the shape
of their creative works.
Faced with budget cuts, the university has decided that it is
no longer cost-effective to have the art faculty select and
buy their own pencils, ink, and paints. We already have a
couple of units on campus who purchase and use these materials.
Operation and Maintenance does a wide variety of carpentry
projects that include painting. All campus staff use pencils
and ink pens, so Business Operations has purchasing agreements
with several office supplies wholesalers. These agreements
ensure that university staff can stock a range of pencils,
pens, and paints at the best possible price.
When one of the drawing faculty calls over for
a particular set of soft graphic pencils,
ranging in hardness from 9B to H, she is told that the university
has standardized on a set with a smaller range. Satndardization
allows us to buy in bulk and to save management overhead. "At
least they aren't all No. 2 pencils," thinks the art prof.
When one of the painting faculty calls over to Facilities for
a particular set of acrylic paints,
the warehouse manager says, "Sure, just let me know what colors
you need and we'll by them. We have a great contract with
Sherwin Williams." The prof isn't sure where he'll put all the
one-gallon cans, though.
... just kidding. No university would ever do that, right?
Biologists run their own greenhouses and labs, and art faculty
select, buy, and manage specialty materials in their studios.
Yet academic Computer Science departments often work under
nearly identical circumstances, because computers are part of
university's IT infrastructure.
Every few years at academic institutions, the budget and
management pendulum swings toward centralization of IT services,
as a way to achieve economies of scale and save money. Then,
a few years later, it swings back toward decentralization, as
a way to provide better and finer-grained services to individual
departments. Too often, the services provided to CS faculty
and students are forced to go along for the ride.
My university is going through one of its periodic
recentralizations, at the orders of the Board of Regents. Every
time we centralize, we have to have the same conversations about
how Computer Science fits into the picture, because most non-CS
people ultimately see our use of computers and software as
fundamentally the same as, say, the English department's or the
Psychology department's. However interesting those departments'
use of technology is (and in this day, most faculty and students
use technology in interesting ways, regardless of discipline),
it is not the same thing as what Computer Science does.
Academic computing has never been limited to computer scientists,
of course. Many mathematicians and physicists rely on a very
different sort of computing than the folks who use it only for
library-style research, writing, and presentation. So do faculty
in a few other disciplines. Just as Biology and Art need
specialized laboratories and materials, so do those departments
that are working at the edge of computing require specialized
laboratories and materials. Computer Science is simply the
discipline that is farthest out along this curve.
The same thing goes for support staff as for equipment. Few
administrators would think of "centralizing" the lab technician
and supplies manager for Biology or Chemistry into a non-academic
unit on campus, or ask academic departments to depend on a
non-academic unit to provide discipline-specific services that
are critical to the departments' mission. Lab technicians and
equipment managers need to be hired by the departments (or the
college) that need them and serve the departments directly. So,
too, do certain departments need to have system administrators
and lab managers who work for them to meet the specialized needs
of academic computing, serving the department or college directly.
Hardware and software are a computer scientist's greenhouse and
artistic media. They are our our library and our telescopes, our
tallgrass prairie preserves and our mass spectrometers. It is
essential that university administrations think of -- and provide
for -- Computer Science and other computation-laden departments
as academic disciplines first, and not just as consumers of
generic IT services. Doing so requires, among other things,
leaving control of essential hardware, software, and policies for
their use within the academic departments.
Disclaimer. The vignettes above were written by me.
I am very much neither a biologist nor a studio artist. If any
of the details clash with reality, please see them as creative
liberties taken by the author to serve a theme.