The University of Pennsylvania's Online Computing Magazine

May 1996  Volume 12:6

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Breaking the box

By James J. O'Donnell

A time will come when it is no longer possible to do what a dedicated band of Penn patriots did this fall: Come together to take the long view of the state of "computing" at Penn and draw from that view a coherent strategy for the future. "Computing" is like a virus that has been incubating for the last five decades since the ENIAC's first media event. It began to be widely infectious a bit over a decade ago with the introduction of the personal computer, and now it explodes into ubiquitous use in every aspect of daily life. "Ubicomp" is what the wizards of the future at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center call it, and the evidence was perhaps in the greeting card playing "You are my Sunshine" that Vice President Gore showed us in his speech here on February 14 - the tiny chip that held every bit as much computing power as the thousands of vacuum tubes of the original ENIAC.

After the explosion has had another decade to run, it will not be possible or desirable to think of "computing" as a single function that can be plotted and coordinated throughout a complex institution. For the moment, it is still just possible to do that, and as we worked this fall, it was clear that we had come upon our task at a fortunate time. One of the first pieces of news we had on convening in September was that all measures of demand for computing service at Penn were up not just sharply but almost exponentially. First Call was struggling to handle its flow of reported problems even while the modem pool was setting new records for connectivity and reliability (20,000 connections on a day is now typical) while still giving too many busy signals.

Such booming demand for a service in an environment of level to constricted budgets looks in one way like very bad news. If the University's budget is a zero-sum game, then every enhancement of computing service is a disenhancement of some other service. For an institution committed to taking its place as "the leading university of the information age" (President Rodin's words in her keynote speech on ENIAC day), such tradeoffs are painful to imagine.

no member of the Penn community is merely a custodian of the University that has been handed to us

But a better perspective is possible if we let ourselves see and feel the power of the electronic information technologies for transforming what we do and how we do it. The most immediate and transforming such tool will be available this summer, when FinMIS, the new financial management system, comes online. If we fear change, there is plenty to fear in FinMIS - why rock the boat? Because FinMIS is not just a new software package, it's a new way of doing business. It ties responsibility and authority closer together than ever (good news in our responsibility center management economy) and gives us more, and more timely, financial information about more of what we are doing. Thus - if we are canny users - it extends our power to manage our resources effectively and creatively, while spending less time on the bookkeeping and more on pursuing our central missions of teaching and research.

Let that example stand for many. The central message of the restructuring task force was that in myriad ways, "computing" will be that kind of strategic and transformative tool for shaping the future of the University. The model we propose is one that begins the shift away from thinking about "computing" per se by resolutely putting the user at the center. How do users (student, faculty, librarian, or staff) take up their responsibility not merely to do their job but to revitalize the University?

No member of the Penn community is merely a custodian of a University that has been handed to us. The University is us and its excellence consists of what we do. Our task force worked hard on "computing" but came away with a model that puts those boxes and wires firmly in the service of the creativity and the energy of the members of the wider community. There is a clear call here at the same time for leadership that takes seriously the need for innovation across the board - innovation starting now with our financial accounting system, happening already in the Provost's Classroom Committee's first steps to create the high-tech classroom of the 21st century, and sprouting up hydra-headed all across the University. Ours is a model that places a high value on technology not for its own sake but for its protean capacity to lend itself to the vision and the imagination of Penn's best people. (See "A new model for computing services across Penn")

Professor JAMES J. O'DONNELL, who has taught in the Department of Classical Studies at Penn since 1981, took up appointment as interim Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing on March 1. In the fall of 1995 Professor O'Donnell served as co-chair (with outgoing Vice Provost Peter Patton) of a University-wide task force on restructuring computing services.

Task Force to Restructure Computing Services across Penn

In the fall of 1995, Provost Stanley Chodorow and Executive Vice President John Fry appointed a University task force to make computing services easier and more cost-effective for those who use them. The task force comprised more than 30 members of the Penn community, ranging from computer support personnel to administrative staff, faculty, and deans. Its charge was to design a new structure for organizing, staffing, and funding computing services across Penn.

Next steps

Consultation with leaders of Penn's units continues. Pilot projects will test the new model. A steering group will guide and coordinate the pilots, drawing lessons and laying the ground work for transition. ISC and other units are beginning the internal restructuring that will help make the model work.

Comments invited

Please send suggestions and comments to Linda May (; 215/898-0005). For a fuller version of the text of the model (below), contact Linda May or see the task force Web site (