by Russell L. Kahn
Faculty Member, State University of New York at Utica/Rome
In August of 1996 I completed fieldwork at three campuses in the Pennsylvania State University system studying how technology has transformed that organization and helped it cope with drastic structural changes. The fieldwork was done at a point of intense change at the university, which is trying to respond to rapidly changing demographics and changing financial exigencies internal and external to the system. In particular, this field study has tracked how the university has embraced new technologies as a way out of chaotic times.
Pennsylvania State University (PSU) encompasses 23 campuses offering 141 baccalaureate and 23 associate degree majors. Penn State Harrisburg, the system's only upper division only campus, offers an additional 29 baccalaureate degrees. Graduate students may choose from 149 approved fields of study and medical degrees are offered out of the College of Medicine at The Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. The faculty has grown from four when it was founded in 1855 to 5,596 today and the number of courses offered has grown from 40 to over 6,700 undergraduate and 3,100 graduate courses. Control of the institution is vested in a 32-member Board of Trustees comprised of professionals from a wide variety of occupations. This fall, the University Park campus enrolled approximately 39,000 students, while another 32,000 attended one of the branch campuses. In 1989-90 PSU conferred more bachelor's degrees than any other Big 10 school in the nation.
A proposal for the redesign of the entire Penn State system - known collectively as the Commonwealth Educational System (CES) - involves altering virtually all the campuses and changing many of the underlying administrative concepts for the operation and management of the system. Over the last two years, as the strategic planning has taken place, all college and university presidents have been invited to take part in one or more sessions with the Senior Vice President, the Dean of CES, the Executive Vice President and Provost, and the President of PSU.
The redesign includes giving each of the 17 undergraduate campuses a college "home," changing the reporting line for the system's graduate center, and merging four campuses into two units. Whereas in the past the 17 campuses were considered extensions of the main campus at University Park, each site will now develop its own identity. For example, the university system's only upper division campus, at Harrisburg, will combine with the largely lower division campus at Schuylkill, to become Capital College with two campuses. Similarly, the Allentown and Berks campuses will merge and become the Berks-Allentown College, with two campuses. The Altoona Campus will become Altoona College and the Abington-Ogontz Campus will become Abington College. Another 12 campus sites will become the Commonwealth College. Along with this re-organization are coming a myriad of physical changes that include new additions to buildings and libraries, new baccalaureate degrees, new faculty, and new buildings. For example, in the brief five-year span ending this year the University added 25 new buildings at all the campuses, at a cost of $420 million.
Interestingly, all this is coming just as the Penn State enrollment has reached a new all time high. In 1995-96 total credit enrollment is 71,870 students at all 22 locations, an increase of 4.4 per cent over Fall 1994 total enrollment. But administrators worry that demographics will soon catch up with college enrollments, bringing them down unless something is done soon. Since 1976 the number of graduates from Pennsylvania's high schools has dropped nearly 38 per cent and since 1982 the total population of the state has increased a very modest 1.9 per cent. Moreover, there is an increasing minority population and a major shift in the workforce distribution across the state from manufacturing to service industries. The PSU system is also being told to generate more funds on its own, as state funding has dropped from 56 per cent in 1975-76 to 36 per cent in the current fiscal year. As a result, tuition and fees have jumped from 37 to 55 per cent of the total university budget.
Along with these changes has come a transformation in the way technology is being used in nearly all phases of the university. Developing new technologies and adapting current technology to new uses appears to be how key elements of the university are responding to systemic change. World Wide Web sites and other technologies are providing vital communication links for discussing changes among key players, reducing the need for personnel, recruiting new students and promoting the campuses, and positioning the system for the future. A prime example is how the university's library is utilizing technology to cope with change. Web sites, increased use of online sources, developing new ways of acquiring, storing and accessing information, and digitizing more and more of their collection is providing a way to reduce costs, cut staff, while at the same time, in many cases, improving service.
Interviews with 21 members of the faculty, staff, and students, and a review of the historical literature reveals an underlying theme that at PSU technology holds the key to the university's future. The interest can be explained at least in part as a reaction to the uncertainty engendered by the redesign process as well as a response to a clear message that is being sent from management at the school. The result are moves by nearly every university entity to gain network centrality and acceptance by taking up the gauntlet for new technology. Clearly, it is important to be seen as being one of the early innovators during these times of uncertainty. Much of the literature on organizational theory has found that those who initiate change and champion new technological standards will become better positioned to survive and even gain power in turbulent times.
Nowhere is this phenomenon better exemplified than in how nearly every facet of PSU has become involved in World Wide Web activities, developing key strategic alliances and access to power and prestige along the way. Examples follow:
Technology has taken hold in many other, perhaps more subtle ways in the Penn State system. University-wide cable TV is used for regular television conferencing amongst the campuses. Administrators at the various campuses communicate with the central administration at the University Park campus via satellite teleconferencing. Contract Outreach, a Distance Education Program, uses teleconferencing to provide interactive certificate and professional degree programs at work sites that include some of the most rural parts of the state. On campuses, well over 200 traditional courses use electronic bulletin boards to expand classroom discussion outside the classroom, and faculty have expanded their office hours by regularly using e-mail. Penn State and The University of Iowa have formed a unique educational partnership allowing students nationwide to earn academic degrees at home. "Technology is enabling all of this," said CAC director Russ Vaught, "That's why it's so valuable."
The President of Penn State, Dr. Graham B. Spanier, plays a key leadership role in promoting technology use and development on campus. In addition to the virtual tour of his office on the Web, discussed earlier, Spanier utilizes a more basic Internet technology-e-mail-to interact daily with students, staff, and faculty. He publicizes his e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) at every public speaking opportunity and receives and responds to as many as 50 messages daily over the campus computer network, according to an interview in Harrisburg magazine. In the one year since coming to PSU, Spanier has received over 10,000 e-mail messages, and has responded to nearly all. He extends that reach by use of a more traditional technology: hosting a weekly radio call-in talk show on the university's public radio affiliate.
Spanier's commitment to technology is reflected in his position as vice chair of the Commission on Information Technologies of the National Association for the State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. The commission was created to identify and develop policy positions and advisory assessment on information technology and related policy issues. It helps determine public education's role in the National Information Infrastructure. Spanier's character fits the profile of an executive often associated in the literature with someone who promotes technological innovation - he's relatively young (48), personally interested in technology (e.g., he even reads demographic studies in his spare time), new to the organization (and therefore not ensconced in the technical status quo), and well educated in the technologies.
The university's interest in using technology extends to some direct ways of helping to ease the uncertainty now faced by faculty and staff as the PSU system goes through a major redesign. A faculty and staff survey was commissioned in January 1996 which sought input on how they felt about changes in the system. The study asked some 12,100 PSU employees what they valued, what they thought administrators valued, and what they felt should be rewarded. Additionally, 20 attitude items, focusing on working conditions and job satisfaction, were evaluated. Simple descriptive statistics were generated and administrators in each grouping were given the results and asked to consider how they could be incorporated into that unit's strategic planning process.
Perhaps nowhere is this interest in technology more manifest than in the Penn State library system. At the main campus the library staff is in the midst of a major "digital library" project, which is providing extensive automated electronic information systems. "Technology is enabling us to provide better access to our holdings while allowing us to reduce costs," noted Nancy Cline, the Dean of University Libraries. "Quite frankly, technology is how we get things done around here. We are always pushing the use of technology, in curricular, instructional, and traditional library issues," she said.
At the main campus at University Park changes appear to be endemic to the culture. The main library is undergoing a major renovation, with a new Paterno wing expected to increase space by almost one third. Lee Stout, university archivist and librarian for PSU, noted the strong connection between technology and the library's role in an article on "The Role of the University Archives in the Campus Information Environment. He noted that
Libraries and computing centers are working more closely than ever before, using information technology to make fundamental changes to the ways they provide services to the campus. Libraries, in particular, are struggling to hold down the costs of traditional access to on-site collections; deal with declining budges and cost increases for materials, automation, and preservation; and develop new prototypes for acquiring, storing, accessing information. (p. 125)
Perhaps the most obvious illustration of this combining of roles is at the Altoona campus, where Head Librarian Tim Wherry, had been in charge of the campus computing center long before he took on the role of library administrator. He now holds both positions.
The use of the Internet is one manifestation of this move toward technology. The World Wide Web can provide critical value at minimal cost by "providing seamless access to library on-line catalogs, scholarly communications and electronic data files, texts, and journals," he explained (p. 125).
Fundamental changes in the library system extend well beyond the University Park campus. At Harrisburg, the state capital, the campus has broken ground on a $17.3-million "library of the future" where most of the 712 carrel, table, group study and lounge seats in the library will have data ports linking users to University information services, and to the Internet. The library will be equipped with a state-of-the art library instruction lab, two technology-enhanced classrooms, two wired seminar rooms, a faculty group studies area and even a snack bar-the Internet Cafe-with 20 data ports. Harrisburg's Division of Library and Information Services Head Hal Shill has hired five research librarians in the last four years, many of whom are experts in Web design and are already developing sites for the schools 2,400 undergraduates and 1200 graduate students to use. Web sites already accessible to students all over the campus and at home provide access to 25 proprietary data bases, such as LIAS, Lexus, Dow Jones, and OCLC.
Describing his interest in technological change, Shill said, "We are very progressive. We operate by the Nike expression [regarding technologies]: `Just do it.' In fact,, I do everything I can to hire people who are innovative. Then I sit back and let them innovate."
The emphasis on technology's place in the library system is also clearly seen at the Altoona campus, where, as mentioned earlier, Head Librarian Tim Wherry, now holds both the position as director of the campus computing center and head librarian. He's planning on knocking down the wall separating the computing facilities from the library, so there will be no physical separation of the two facilities. The move is not just symbolic. "I see us as being in the information business, both the computing center and the library have that in common," he said, explaining that both computing and the library will work as a single operation. "Technology is what makes the [library] system run," he said.
The library and computing center are already being jointly used by Project Vision, a pilot program in which courses are delivered completely over the computer network from class lectures to administration of exams. The four courses include library studies, health education, history, and science, technology, and society. "I see use of technology not as a support service," noted Shill, "but as a question of survival. The [library] profession will become obsolete without it."
University Archives at Penn State is responsible for providing both archival and records management services for all campuses. It operates with five FTE (full-time equivalent) faculty and staff and a varying number of work-study students, interns, and graduate assistants.
In a university environment so steeped in the value and need for technology it would follow that archivists would have to consider how to capture such a culture for future generations. Namely, how do you archive such technologically-based artifacts as electronic records and e-mail. Rather than being confounded by such critical issues, Archives has used just such concerns to advance its mission. Most obvious is its ground breaking Electronic Records Appraisal Project, which ran from September 1990 through June 1993. The effort was begun with the assumption that electronic records would have to be included for the Archive's records management program to be successful. The project closely analyzed the ability of records managers to retrieve old electronic records (dating back to the 1970s) and archive them in a recognizable and retrievable format. The project has led to an ongoing role for Archives in the management of such records.
Another outgrowth of Archives' effort to concern itself with new technologies has been an ongoing attempt to develop policies regarding the retention and maintenance of e-mail records on the campuses. Over the past three years, the University's Records Management Advisory Committee (RMAC), which Archives oversees, has been reviewing a number of options and guidelines for retention and maintenance of e-mail as an historic artifact.
Developing policies for electronic records in general and e-mail in particular has led to development of alliances between archives and nearly every administrative, academic, and facilities group at University Park and at many of the outlying campuses. At least 21 have formed such alliances with Archives. They include Business Services, Audit and Control, Office of Administrative Services, the Center for Academic Computing, the University's Public Information Department, Financial Aid, Facilities/Property Inventory, Budget Operations and Planning, and Human Resources.
Technology has forced Archives to redefine its image. "Our experimental uses of new technologies-such as becoming involved in appraising administrative computing datasets or scanning and storing on optical disks images of archival documents," writes Stout, "are efforts to reach out into the administrative community and demonstrate that our competence in apparently new areas is simply an extension of previously established skills."
The role that technology plays at PSU is transforming all levels of the PSU organizational structure, in particular research, instruction, financial aid, personnel, recruitment and admissions. It appears that technology has been embraced as the agent of change that will direct the university system in these times of ferment. The case of electronic records is an illustration of the importance of this change. When considering email, without an active decision to save something, the media will not last, the technology to use it will not be there, and the contextual documentation to understand it will not survive. In many ways this same argument holds for technology and the university as a whole. Without an active involvement with technology and the change it brings the very survival of the university may be in jeopardy.
A sampling of Web sites posted by Penn State and its faculty and staff follows:
See, for instance, Burkhardt, Marlene E.; Daniel J. Brass. 1990. "Changing Patterns or Patterns of Change: The Effects of a Change in Technology on Social Network Structure and Power." Administrative Science Quarterly 35 : 104-127, and Eisenhardt, Kathleen M.; Behnam N. Tabrizi. 1995. "Accelerating Adaptive Processes: Product Innovation in the Global Computer Industry"." Administrative Science Quarterly 40 : 84-110
Interestingly, Spanier, who has been president of Penn State for less than a year, was in the SUNY system from 1982-86, when he was vice provost for undergraduate studies and professor of sociology and psychiatry until 1986 at Stony Brook. From there they wen to Oregon State University, where he was provost and vice president for academic affairs. In 1991, at the age of 42, he accepted the chancelorship of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Howell, Jane M. and Christopher A. Higgins. 1990. "Champions of Technological Innovation." Administrative Science Quarterly 35 : 317-341.
American Archivist, Vol. 58, Spring 1995
American Archivist, Vol. 58, Spring 1995