IT: the faculty friend at Buffalo

By John O'Hanlon

The State University of New York at Buffalo (UB), the largest public university in the northeastern United States, has roots going back to the first half of the 19th century. It has 30,000 enrolled students on three campuses, and as well as the traditional arts and science subjects, has associated schools of medicine, dentistry, architecture and planning, engineering and business. It is renowned for the breadth and depth of the research undertaken by its faculty. In short, it is a powerhouse of learning and a highly diverse and complex organization.

IT at the top table

Like any such institution, the university has had to address the opportunities offered – indeed demanded – by the growth of technology. So in 2013 when the university board and its President, Satish Tripathi, were recruiting a new CIO, they scoured the United States to find someone who had the breadth of strategic vision to lead a digital transformation.

To reflect this the job was elevated to the level of Vice President. Brice Bible, appointed in October that year, was hired not only for his 20 years' experience in higher education (culminating in a successful spell as CIO of Ohio University) but also for his capacity to work closely with the university leadership in achieving Tripathi's strategy to leverage IT to transform UB into a 'sustainable, secure and service-focused organization’. His stated aim was to ensure the position had a broad enough reach and could take advantage of today and tomorrow's technologies for the overall good of the institution.

IT is critical, Bible says, to the success of every organization, but in education it is the lifeblood, tying the learning and research institutions together with the wider community. “Nowhere is more challenged by innovation than a university. By design, as a research university we have one of the most open environments of any organization.”

He points out that while encouraging innovation and new thinking, security and reliability have to be built in to the systems and underpin them. “There is a tug both ways and you never can find the middle ground because it is always shifting.”

Matters have shifted from the earlier days of his career, when universities were the place where cool things happened. “Universities produced the first networks, the first e-mail environments, the first collaboration tools. Students would flock to universities just to be at the cutting edge. Now we are in a place where the consumer side of IT is sometimes leading the charge, so universities have to be more cautious: to support those technologies and also provide and environment where that can be fertilized, grow, and be part of the learning process.”

To illustrate this, around 100,000 different devices are connected in some way to UB's IT network. The university only officially owns and manages a quarter of those; the other three quarters are owned by individual faculty members or students. Ten years ago, he points out, even if students brought their own computer it would be hard wired to the network, and therefore under some degree of control. “Today we have gone the other way,” he says. “We have very little control over the end user device, and that is fine, though it has changed the way offices like mine have to be equipped to support the institution.”

The transformation journey

Brice Bible established a talented team. He has since built this up to around 500 IT employees, 60 percent of them working in a central IT office and 40 percent spread around the colleges and schools of the university. Like any CIO coming in, the first thing he set out to do was to understand that environment, the needs of his 'customers', and start to map out the journey forward. Listening to staff and students, he realized that IT services and activities needed to be more closely aligned to the real-life demands of teaching and research. “I took that as the first pillar of the new strategy. The second pillar, again based on the input of our users, was to modernize some of the IT environment, in particular wireless and networking. The third was to align IT with student success and outcomes: to make sure they are progressing as they would like and we are able to guide them in that.”

The last of these is a concern nationally, indeed globally, and it is all about big data. Universities, like most large organizations, hold plenty of information on its stakeholders, but it is siloed. HR and admissions, faculty related data, and student information becomes simple statistics, but this information viewed holistically can be a powerful tool to help students recognize their own success path, as well as giving the university and the instructors indicators of how they are doing. Add to this the information yielded by all those mobile devices on location, types of activity and the like, and a picture can be built up of a student's academic path.

IT knows how to handle big data but there is a balancing act between the potential, the permitted, and the right to privacy. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. “For example, students can ask not to be in a directory,” Brice Bible points out. “And if you are going to video a class they have to be aware and give consent.” But used right the benefits are huge. The analogy with medicine is irresistible, he adds. “UB is very much involved in genome research, and our researchers hold a lot of data that can identify trends using algorithms and detect disease. In the same way we can start seeing trends and perhaps identify anomalies in student performance even before they know it themselves.”

Bible gives full credit to the forward-looking leadership at UB, which did not hesitate to support the IT transformation and fund essential changes. One of the big wins was the creation of a new department of customer engagement. There are now IT offices on campus to make the services more accessible, and a problem-solving system has been introduced that allows students to log and track any concerns they may have. Social media are now being used to put out information and obtain feedback. This fall, returning and new students will be able to create and follow a 'trouble ticket' if they have any IT problems, and for the 9,000 on-campus residents, if that does not solve the problem, they will be able to schedule a visit to their apartment from a member of IT staff.

The CIO has a philosophy that technology should never be a hindrance, always an enabler. “Some students may have multiple devices, but I do not want any student who was not able to bring that level of technology to be hampered by that. We are here to make sure they can still do the work they need to do to be successful – and not wait days for any problem to be fixed. If you do not have the technology, it has at least to be available. Grades must never depend on access to technology. That's why we maintain an accessible computer lab, and also check out laptops on a short or long term basis.” Mobile devices will soon have to be added to the equipment that can be loaned, he anticipates, given that 75 percent of the devices on UB's network already fall in that category.

Faster and smarter

One of the big-ticket items on the journey was the installation of a very dense version of the superfast WI-Fi platform known as 802.11ac now being rolled out at all three campuses, and even in parts of downtown Buffalo. By mid-2017 the number of Wi-Fi access points will have been upped from around 3,000 to 6,600. This ensures that for the foreseeable future, UB will have the network capacity to support any expansion in its user numbers and the inevitable increase in research data. It also takes a step towards creating a truly smart campus, while partnership with commercial and city interests will help establish Buffalo as a 'smart city'.

Moving data around is one thing: storing it another. No amount of directly managed storage will be enough for the future needs of a university like UB, which is why it is moving to a cloud based file storage environment with UBbox, managed by the online file sharing and content management service Box. “We have rolled out an unlimited storage environment on the cloud, available from every device or location. One of the advantages is to do with security. We have seven health schools including a large medical school and these are linked to other health providers, research organizations. The question is, how can we make the use of technology seamless across these organizations?”

He didn't find any health coalition in the USA that has a truly seamless, hyper-protected environment, so is creating UB's own that may well become a benchmark. “In any one day a doctor teaching at UB may have a tranche of data, teaching materials and e-mails from students, then move a few doors away and be a practicing medic with patients, then step over to the Roswell Park Cancer Center for research. He or she does not want to switch devices or log in and out constantly, which is why I want to build a seamless organization. I am excited about that.”

Brice Bible is in fact irrepressibly enthusiastic about his work at Buffalo. From his office window, he can see southern Ontario, which to him means a great opportunity to draw on the talent residing in Canada to complement the dynamism of western New York State and its premier university.


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