COVID-19 Coverage : See how the pandemic is impacting the world of higher education.
Access the Business Officer Magazine menu by clicking or touching here.
Business Officer Magazine logo, click or touch this logo to return to the homepageClick or touch the Business Officer Magazine logo to return to the homepage.
Get back to the Business Officer Magazine homepage by clicking the logo.

Business Intel

April 2014


IT With an Eye on the Bottom Line

By late 2012, the business model for the telecommunications and networking (T&N) department at Illinois State University (ISU), Normal, was no longer sustainable. For various reasons, the unit had evolved into an internally focused group with inefficient and bureaucratic processes that made for some dissatisfied users throughout the university community.

From a technology perspective the networking capacity was robust, with multiple wide-area network connections and sufficient bandwidth streaming to the midsize Illinois campus. However, a growing service and fee structure and a complex system of forms and communications required extra customer service “handholding” and one full-time-equivalent (FTE) staffer devoted solely to answering questions from the community, often about the request form itself. 

While the unit’s technologists had created some exciting tools, little thought was given to the business sustainability for supporting such solutions. The large administrative infrastructure that resulted eventually reached a point where it was no longer sustainable, particularly for a state-funded institution. 

We made the decision to take a step back and refocus.

Analysis and Advice

ISU’s chief academic and chief administrative technology officers discussed options and made the decision to seek outside assistance to help with an unbiased assessment of the technology and networking unit’s operations. The university engaged Higher-Ed Solutions LLC (HES), Austin, Texas, to analyze the maturity of the current business model, and recommend improvements, including: 

The consulting firm based its approach on the IT Infrastructure and Operations Maturity Model (described by Gartner, Inc., an IT research firm) to evaluate the technology unit’s maturity with respect to people, process, technology, and business management (see Figure 1). 

Toward Transparency and Efficiency 

After conducting the department evaluation and reviewing the results with ISU leadership, consultants and ISU administrators identified two interrelated root causes for the department’s issues: 

Isolation and a lack of checks and balances. The technology and networking unit was isolated, with little-to-no accountability to the rest of the university community. The review revealed an organization with no oversight from the campus’s two principal IT governance groups. The unit implemented the services it felt appropriate with no external filter to help evaluate whether the services should be provided, plan how to provide them, or assess how well they added value.

A few examples of the inefficient department’s byproducts, which had evolved for this campus of just over 20,000 students, included:

An initial step to solve the isolation issue was to merge the T&N unit with the broader administrative computing unit, which would provide governance of the units’ decisions and activities. 

Misguided good intentions. In spite of enthusiastic technology personnel, some ideas and implementations had created overly elaborate fixes, fees, forms, billing systems, and other processes that frustrated the community of customers. This also resulted in part because of decreasing state funding that indirectly led many universities to commoditize infrastructure services in order to offload administrative costs to those consuming the resources. 

Although this approach is certainly understandable, ISU’s analysis revealed that the cost recovery process could be greatly simplified, as 95 percent of T&N’s revenues came from only three sources, which did not vary during the year (see Figure 2).We identified two ways to more efficiently serve the campus community:

Impact and Next Steps 

Within nine months of the unit’s assessment, ISU has benefited from significant savings that will ultimately result in a reduced budget of up to 50 percent. Savings from the residence hall network outsourcing alone is estimated at $500,000 per year, while other savings will come from a reorganized staff and a greatly simplified fee and billing system. For example, the new approach resulted in the repurposing (via attrition) of nine full-time administrative positions, and several more technical roles that were no longer necessary under the new business model. 

In addition to these concrete results, integrating the planning and governance of the T&N team with the rest of the administrative computing community has increased trust, collaboration, and transparency. And, while this exercise has not been without pain, the benefits far outweigh those challenging points. As the university continues to work through other suggested changes, the business sustainability problem will eventually transform into an effective balance between technical services and the right-sized business model, as recommendations are fully implemented. 

SUBMITTED BY Andrea S. Ballinger, vice president and chief information officer, the University of Illinois Alumni Association, Urbana, and former associate vice president and chief administrative technology officer, Illinois State University, Normal; and Fred Friedrich, founder of Higher-Ed Solutions, Austin, Texas


ONU Commits to Lower Costs, On-Time Completion

Affordable excellence is the driving force behind “The Ohio Northern Promise,” announced last fall by Daniel DiBiasio, president of Ohio Northern University, Ada. While ONU has remained financially strong despite nationwide financial challenges to higher education, “The conventional high-tuition and high–financial aid model is not working today and is no longer sustainable,” says DiBiasio. The university’s “promise” is an initiative designed to reduce tuition, lower student debt, and help students graduate in four years.

Adjustments and Enhancements 

Focused on academic excellence at an affordable price, the plan is based on four key elements:

Positioning Underpins Promise 

Fortunately, ONU is well-positioned for such a bold move, operating from strength in a number of areas. For example, total enrollment in 2013 was the highest in four years; the university recently completed a comprehensive campaign that raised $110 million (against a $100 million goal); and endowment earnings have returned to prerecession rates. Following two years of study and implementation, ONU improved operating efficiency and made investments to enhance enrollment and financial modeling. 

In the past year, the university gave more attention to the kind of changes needed to sustain its positioning and academic quality, while becoming more affordable for qualified students and their families. After completing and analyzing a pricing study, university leadership convened campuswide forums focused on financial and enrollment trends. Last spring, nearly 200 full-time faculty members engaged in more than a dozen small-group conversations. The result of the transparency and open dialogue are the changes that ONU believes are best-suited for the times. 

The Ohio Northern University Board of Trustees reviewed the details of the proposal at its annual meeting in early October. John Bishop, board chair, said at the time that the initiative “confirms the university’s realization that a new model is needed, expanding access to college while insisting on excellence.” 

Quick Clicks

Still in Recession?

This year’s Inside Higher Ed “Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers” reveals that provosts believe that the era of cuts and tough choices is not yet over. While others—some governors and college presidents, for example—are celebrating the end of the downturn, only 5 percent of survey participants strongly agree and another 18 percent agree that the economic downturn is “effectively over” at their institutions. In contrast, 21 percent strongly disagree and another 37 percent disagree with the idea that the economic challenges are behind them.

Re-up for a Year

Beginning this month, West Hills Community College District, Coalinga, California, will make it possible for students at the district’s three colleges to register in advance for classes for an entire year. The new policy, Reg365, encourages signing up for the following three semesters’ worth of courses—summer, fall, and next spring. The schedule for 2014–15 was available for viewing on March 31; open registration for the academic year begins on May 5.

By The Numbers

Seattle Stats

Sources: Washington State Convention Center; “Sea-Tac Airport Sets Passenger Record for Third Straight Year With Double Digit Rise in International Travelers” (Port of Seattle Newsroom, Feb. 6, 2014); Northwest Weather (; University of Washington Quick Facts; “The Economic and Societal Impact of the University of Washington” (TrippUmbach, 2010); U.S. Census Web site Quick Facts; “The 15 Most Caffeinated Cities in the U.S.” (