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A Dozen Thoughts to Stir the Pot

by Brian Hawkins
Brian Hawkins is president of EDUCAUSE.

Incremental change on college and university campuses, no matter how desirable, is not possible, as Patricia Battin and I argued in The Mirage of Continuity:

For the past two decades, libraries and computer centers have radically altered both themselves and the higher education landscape, albeit in an incremental fashion. True transformational change continues to be constrained by the misguided belief that the technological revolution can be contained within the old organizational structures. Succumbing to the mirage of continuity that denies the need for financial and management reorganization and the belief in a technological panacea that will miraculously transform an historic tradition of knowledge creation and transmission by the simple substitution of digital for analog technology will only increase dysfunction and paralysis. To recognize the new conception of the library is to recognize and accept the inevitability of a new conception of the university.1

The preceding presentations and the case studies have informed us about several projects and plans for making change, but I want to challenge conference participants to consider twelve ideas meant to stimulate debate, “A Dozen Thoughts to Stir the Pot.”

  1. Transformation is inevitable, as the current system is under pressure that makes an incremental approach futile.
  2. Scholarly communication has not yet been substantially affected by information technology, and that is part of the problem.
  3. The self-contained college library is not sustainable, economically or intellectually.
  4. In defining transformational change, learn from the Euro! It seemed impossible for European countries to give up their individual currencies, but when the perceived value of collective action was great enough, they made the transition.
  5. Information technology costs have been an add-on expense because there has been no substitution or replacement.
  6. Budgetary silos are killing us. We need to understand new units of analysis and use them to define solutions.
  7. Information technology is no longer a choice, it is a competitive mandate.
  8. The issues of assessment and cost-benefit analysis are a conundrum for both information technology and higher education in general.
  9. The roles have blurred between libraries, information technology organizations, and other information service providers and, therefore, we need new structures and budgetary approaches to leverage change.
  10. To introduce change successfully, one must be an anthropologist, trying to understand and interpret different cultures.
  11. Technology must not define the institutional mission.
  12. Beware the adage, “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

The old ways of thinking about independent roles for the library and the computer center are not only counterproductive, they are also impossible to sustain. As university and college administrators look for ways to curtail spiraling costs, they cannot expect to make line-item budget cuts. Instead, they must work with members of the campus community to reconceptualize the work to be done and the methods of doing that work.

The scholarly communication process affects the entire institution, and it is certainly not merely a “library problem.” As changes are made in the way knowledge is generated and transmitted, inevitable changes in the promotion and reward system for faculty will also occur. Universities will, out of necessity, rethink their institutional policies about intellectual property rights. And the effects of these changes are so big that institutions must plan for the new organization, rather than tinker with parts of the old.

Information technology, while promising a great deal, has thus far been additive rather than transformational. Too many instances can be cited of colleges and universities bearing great costs to use technology to do the traditional work of the institution. It is important that administrators carefully consider how technology can be used to do things in an entirely different way. How can technology be used to help make a faculty member more productive, for example? What part of the faculty member’s work can now be done through the Web, leaving more time for discussion and critical assessment in the classroom? Colleges and universities have not been especially good at assessing the costs and benefits of technology, but for universities to realize maximum benefits, we must be able to show that technology leads to real improvements in educational outcomes.

Students and their parents have come to expect information technology, so it is no longer an investment option for colleges. The challenge is to use the technology effectively-to enhance the institutional mission. Distributed and distance learning are obvious areas where technology can be enormously helpful, but there is a great deal of competition from the corporate sector in this area. Corporations are likely to develop educational programs in highly sought-after fields-such as business-that can be offered at low cost to high volume markets. Will this leave only the more specialized-and more costly-courses to be offered by universities?

We must stop thinking about the library budget or the computing budget, and instead focus on the most effective deployment of the institution’s information resources. Compartmentalized budgets that are the norm in higher education do little to stimulate transformational change, so we must find new financial models that facilitate new ways of supporting the broad educational mission.

To implement comprehensive changes, each of us must become an anthropologist, that is, one who seeks to understand and interpret the different cultures represented by different campus groups-faculty, librarians, and information technology staff. Collaborative problem-solving and planning are necessary so that the best of each community’s thinking can be brought to bear on reinventing the college’s or university’s information services. Since change is no longer a choice, collaborative creation offers the best chance for successful institutions of higher education.


1Brian Hawkins and Patricia Battin, eds. The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the 21st Century, (Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources and Association of American Universities, 1998), 5.

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