As promised, here’s the first post from our guest blogger, Tracy Mitrano.
When I asked Diana Oblinger, president of Educause, what the biggest college-technology issue is for 2009, she said: “The most immediate challenges for IT in 2009 will be to show how IT can help address the financial challenges our institutions are experiencing. IT isn’t just a place to spend money — it can also provide an avenue to saving money.”
Nail on the head! In keeping with the Chinese adage about crisis and opportunity, these uncertain economic times provide information technologies with a lemons-to-lemonade moment in which we can re-evaluate the integral, and even progressive, role that we play within our institutions. Many colleges are undergoing revised economic modeling (more on that in future posts), and so it’s a good time to make sure that technology is part of the planning process and that IT leaders bring innovative ideas to the table — such as moving to paperless communications, saving energy through monitoring devices, and cutting travel costs by using remote video conferencing.
The most challenging aspect of this process is not the machinery. Rather, it is in selling the value of the ideas and forging the trust with colleagues to create affective partnerships. David Smallen, vice president of information technology at Hamilton College, has this to say about the meaning of those efforts: “I’ve always enjoyed collaborating with others to achieve results. In this domain I believe that little of importance is done by people working alone. What makes this a big challenge is that collaboration is hard work and only succeeds if there is a strongly felt need, and ultimately strong relationships develop. Over my career, I have experienced mixed success with such activities, but when they succeed it usually has a big payoff and is very satisfying.” Our current economic circumstances might be just the time to forge those new relationships to make real, positive change happen.
Certainly that is true in the realm of policy. What made the New Deal relevant and lasting was not its success in jump-starting the engine; in fact, politicians and economists are using the counter-example of the New Deal as the foundation of their current government stimulus plan. But New Deal legislation laid the foundation for a more modern political economy once the engine got rolling again in the 1940s.
Here is history’s lesson. Isn’t it time that we asked hard questions about universal broadband deployment and network-neutrality rules that preserve the value of free speech and open inquiry while still making Internet companies competitive? Shouldn’t we address fairly the intellectual-property rules that mesh with the technology and restore a reasonable balance to innovation and incentive? Finally, who — what entities — will govern this global technology equitably? And how — with what rules?
In these troubled economic times, higher education can act as a driver to meaningful progressive change. American society looks to historians, economists, and other academics for ideas and direction. So let us use this moment wisely to call upon wisdom and knowledge to ask forward-looking questions and entertain fierce conversations to provide the kind of leadership that this society, and indeed the world, needs to create a prosperous global information economy.
So let’s put all of these macro and micro pieces together: We need to integrate information technologies into other pressing policy issues of the day, such as environmental sustainability and international communications, together with affective, trusted relations. What is the first step in this direction? On a practical and strategic level, I suggest that the United States government create a regulatory federal agency devoted to issues surrounding the Internet.
Tracy Mitrano, our January guest blogger, is director of information-technology policy in Cornell University’s Office of Information Technologies, where she also directs the computer policy and law program.