This week we learned that one Michigan campus will outsource its entire IT department. I’d like to explore the story, as well as reflect on this as a way of thinking about the future of outsourcing in higher ed.
1. The story
Washtenaw Community College decided to drastically redesign campus IT after a major network outage. WCC’s board and president, Rose B. Bellanca, worked with consultants to identify what they saw as serious IT problems:
Even with increased support for its IT staff, the review suggested, technical challenges facing the college continued to outpace its resources. Cybersecurity threats, aging IT systems, increased demand for online learning and classroom technology, and difficulty attracting and retaining IT talent are putting pressure on many colleges, not just WCC.
Campus IT staff are outraged, unsurprisingly. Inside Higher Ed adds that some faculty members protested the move as well.
“Please don’t do this to us,” [Nicholas Hunt, who has worked within the department for 12 years] said. “Please do not put 31 families in disarray. Please, do invest in us, because we have invested in WCC as students and as staff.”
2.What else do we know about this story?
There are conflicting views and accounts of what happened to WCC IT over the past few years. Some blame problems on very high turnover for the CIO position, with one anti-outsourcing board member stating: “I take personal responsibility as a member of the board, that we have failed in our mission by allowing our IT department to wallow without strong visionary leadership…”
Others argue that IT costs have shot up: “The college also noted demand for technological services continues to grow, with a projected IT budget of $8.2 million for 2020 – a 25-percent increase from four years ago.”
According to MLive, WCC’s president says she wants to bring back in as many of the current staff as possible:
WCC President Rose Bellanca said she anticipated blowback for the decision to outsource IT services, but ultimately believes it will help the college streamline and expand its IT capabilities. She noted all 31 full-time employees will not only have the opportunity to join Ellucian’s staff, but be guaranteed positions within the WCC.
“I know it sounds like we don’t value our employees, but we do, or we wouldn’t have given them a transition plan that is probably one of the most generous out there,” Bellanca said. “We tried to show our employees that are here facing this challenge that ‘we do value you.’”
Those taking a buyout offer would get one year pay, based on the employee’s current wages, along with medical coverage for themselves and dependents for those who have more than 10 years of service.
Those with five to 10 years of service would get six months salary and medical benefits, while employees with less than five years of experience would receive three months salary and medical benefits.
Saving money doesn’t seem to be a major factor in this story. WCC’s chief financial officer told one local paper that “The outsourcing recommendation isn’t financially motivated.” Which makes sense, comparing $600,000 to the campus annual budget of $110 million. It seems to be about improving service.
(I can imagine that’s a terrible thing to hear if you work in WCC IT. )
One problem with outsourcing is that campuses view personal relationships very highly. In higher education we like to see ourselves as facilitating communities in ways the for-profit world often fails to accomplish. In this view, outsourced staff might not make those personal connections. As Harold Hale observed on Twitter,
The major issue with outsourced IT operations is that the people providing services have zero personal investment in your institution. While it makes sense to outsource some functions, outsourcing everything usually results in poorer service & significant contract hassles.
— Harold Hale (@hhale63) July 8, 2019
Or as one WCC professor stated,
Breege Concannon, a chemistry professor at Washtenaw, also had questions about how the transition would work. “Is Ellucian going to be here? Will I be able to call them up on the day before my lab and say, ‘Can you come and update 24 laptops before tomorrow?'” she asked, adding, “I seriously doubt it.”
(One commentator tartly replied to this: “If you behave this way, you are in sore need of organizational change.”)
Why Ellucian, as opposed to any other provider? WCC already uses Banner, an Ellucian product. But one IHE commentator alleges the decision to go with Ellucian didn’t involve competitive bidding; I can’t determine the truth of this.
3.What does this story tell us about the future of education?
Outsourcing is a well established and fairly popular tool for corporate management. It’s also an established tool for American academic leadership, as Rob Gibson observes. As higher education draws closer to the business world in certain ways, perhaps this idea will become more available to nonprofit leaders. We’ve already seen American higher ed turn the majority of faculty into part-timers; post-Fordist labor relations are already baked in.
Some may also view outsourcing as a more practical way to manage campus tech needs. In May WCC’s president said this to MLive:
“The advances in technology have far outpaced what realistically could be expected from any college IT staff,” Bellanca said. “While technology enables the college’s core mission of teaching and training, our mission is not to be an elite provider of technology resources.”
I’ve heard similar thoughts from multiple campus leaders. They can dread IT’s role as a growing cost center, and want to step away from that, seeking to realize cost control or savings from businesses they deem more devoted to that cause. They might view their staff as incapable of competing with those of Google or Amazon (this is one argument for outsourcing certain services, such as email or storage). Bellanca’s statement is a fascinating one as well for futures purposes. I can imagine senior admin, boards, or state legislators arguing that VR, AI, etc. are steps too far for their campus staff to take… which means campus IT has to fight that much harder, make that much stronger a case, for support.
Susan Scranton went further, asking colleges and universities to collaboratively outsource:
Outsourcing IT functions can save public institutions from financial ruin—in this case, $600,000 over the college's current IT spending. Why aren’t politicians looking at a centralized IT platform so all schools (and students) can benefit from cost efficiencies?
— Susan Scranton (@SusanScranton) July 8, 2019
On the other hand, one expert (and great Future Trends Forum guest) doesn’t see a rising trend in IT outsourcing:
“There is a long history of colleges working with companies like CampusWorks to find temporary IT leadership. But it’s not clear that colleges are outsourcing IT management more now than they did a decade ago, said [Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project]. “These things ebb and flow. There’s not a lot of consistency to it.”
Reasons not to outsource are plentiful and known. Besides what we’ve already discussed (human suffering, cultural disconnections) there are concerns that vaunted quality might fail, that outsourced workers might suffer from low morale and/or poor skills. In addition, Teresa Hartman points to one process problem:
Hospitality industry struggles with this. Even more issues for educational institutions. Problems arise when those that depend on seamless access (users, customers, students, professors, meeting planners) aren't included in outsourcing planning.
— Teresa Hartman (@thartman2u) July 8, 2019
And Art Fridrich identifies another problem. What happens if the business ceases to exist?
The smallest institution, >1k, lasted until the end of contract, then went under. The second, around 3.5k lasted to end of contract. The third lasted until I returned 17 years later, as an employee of the University. It was public, so we had to rebid. (1/2)
— Art Fridrich (@Ahighervision) July 8, 2019
All of this discussion is about outsourcing one aspect of contemporary American higher ed, information technology services. What can we learn from questions around outsourcing others? How far will academia unbundle itself?
(thanks to Anne Elias for sharing links and answering my questions; thanks to Andrew Peterson for requesting the topic; protest photo via MLive; graduation photo by the official WCC account)