URBANA -- A top information officer at the University of Illinois has resigned to protest administrative changes that she fears could harm the Urbana campus' status as a world leader in information technology.
Sally Jackson, chief information officer for the campus, resigned that post on April 8, though she will remain as professor and associate provost.
The move came shortly after UI officials announced that Jackson and the chief information officers at the Springfield and Chicago campuses would now report to a new university-level CIO rather than their respective provosts.
The change is part of an ongoing administrative restructuring that has sparked concerns in Urbana about more centralized university control over the campuses. The Urbana faculty senate, which has clashed with President Michael Hogan on other initiatives, may consider a resolution Monday critical of the latest change.
"This seems to us to be once again a diminution of the academic authority of campus officials," said Associate Professor Joyce Tolliver, chair of the campus Senate.
Michael Hites, associate vice president for Administrative Information Technology Services, was appointed "executive chief information officer" in February. He will receive a stipend of $21,600, bringing his total salary to $267,615.
Central administrators say the new position will better coordinate IT operations and ultimately save money and won't threaten academic autonomy. Hites said last week he is committed to supporting the campus' academic enterprise in his new role.
But campus officials worry that having their chief information officer answer to university administration, and bypassing the chancellor's office, risks turning IT into a "back-office" function rather than an integral part of learning and research.
"It's not a change I would have initiated," said Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard Wheeler, the campus' top academic officer.
"What's important here is that the reporting line to the academic leadership has been broken," Jackson said last week. "Once you isolate authority in a vertical silo, eventually academic influence disappears and technical values take over."
Her fear is that eventually "we'll lose our edge. We'll start spending more money on information systems that matter to administrators, and less money on technology that matters to students and faculty and researchers."
Jackson was hired in spring 2007 by then-Provost Linda Katehi to bring a strong academic presence to information technology services, Wheeler said. She held a similar post at the University of Arizona.
Officials credit her "IT@Illinois" initiative with reducing duplication, saving money and promoting collaboration across campus.
"She has been very successful," Wheeler said. "I'm sorry to see her leave the job."
"Information technology is a huge, huge strength for our campus," he added. "We are a national and international leader in the development of IT. We have hundreds of relationships with other universities and researchers around the world. ... Any change that threatens to disrupt that relationship is going to be a cause for interest and concern.
"It's entirely possible that this new arrangement will make things better than they were before. We'll see."
The plan for a new executive CIO grew out of the UI's Administrative Review and Restructuring effort, which concluded the UI could save $60 million by streamlining services, including about $18 million in information technology. The UI spends $250 million annually on IT services.
But the executive CIO position was not part of the final Administrative Review and Restructuring report, or the information technology subcommittee report written by Jackson, Hites and other IT officials. The full report did recommend strengthening the role of the University Technology Management Team (the five chief information officers from the three campuses, the UI hospital and university administration) in "coordinating strategic planning to help achieve more university-wide policies that govern the direction and use of IT services at all levels of the institution."
The new executive CIO position surfaced later, in a report by the Huron Consulting Group, an outside firm hired to "provide an external perspective and further validation of the findings, conclusions and recommendations made by the ARR Working Group," said UI spokesman Thomas Hardy. The firm was paid $19,800.
Huron issued its final report on Feb. 2. Hogan announced to the technology management team a week later that he planned to name Hites executive CIO, said computer science Professor Roy Campbell, faculty representative on the team. Hites was appointed on Feb. 15.
Jackson and Campbell said they and other members pushed for more discussion of the consultant's report, to no avail. Wheeler said he was not consulted on the change.
"I am told that it has been done as a way of introducing cost savings. It does seem to represent a general trend toward centralizing functions that had been largely the purview of the campus in the past," he said.
Hites said the new position was developed by Hogan and the Administrative Restructuring and Review steering committee led by former Vice President Avijit Ghosh, now a special assistant to Hogan.
Hites, who holds a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the UI, was hired three years ago.
He said more than 500 people work in information technology units across the university, but their role is to support academics and research, not define what the colleges do with that support. He sees his role the same way.
Hites said he will oversee university and campuswide central IT units, such as AITS or Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services, known as CITES.
College-level information officers will report to their deans, who in turn report to the provost, he said.
The campus chief information officer will continue to act as a "bridge" between the central IT staff and academic units, he said. It's still an "extremely important position," he said, noting two-thirds of IT spending is on the academic side.
Hardy said the campus CIOs will continue to oversee "campus-level IT, with the same authority they have always had, while also taking on the additional responsibility of participating in University-wide IT infrastructure support and governance."
Some information technology activities are naturally centralized, such as human resources or financial information systems, Hites said.
And it makes sense to consolidate other functions, such as data centers and backup systems, to save on utilities, space and staffing, he said. Many of the servers in Urbana already run out of a Chicago data center, as does the Banner information system.
"If you were building a house, you wouldn't put a kitchen in every bedroom," he said. "You have a shared place."
But each campus also has unique IT needs related to teaching and research, he said. Urbana has higher networking demands with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. The UI Springfield has an extensive online learning program, and the Chicago campus has a huge medical enterprise.
Hites said he has met with Wheeler and Interim Chancellor Robert Easter several times to discuss IT issues, and he hopes to build on Jackson's work to promote IT collaboration across campus.
Hites said he isn't sure how Jackson's position will be filled but will meet this week with an academic council of information officers from colleges and departments. He also plans to work with Wheeler.
Tolliver said Jackson is "very well-respected in her field," adding, "It's a blow to the reputation of the University of Illinois to have someone of that caliber resign."
A professor of communication by training, with three UI degrees, Jackson has researched the impact of the Web on teaching, developed distance-education projects, co-founded a consortium to create financial and research software for higher education and won a National Science Foundation grant for "institutional transformation" to improve conditions for women in science and technology.
Jackson said she couldn't "make the kind of difference that I want to make" under the UI's restructuring.
"I don't think that IT treated as a back-office function has the same potential as IT treated as potentially transformative," she said. "I think that the president's ideas about restructuring are likely to limit how much influence Illinois can have nationally and globally."
Hardy said Hogan and Jackson "agreed to disagree."
Tolliver and other faculty complained that Hogan didn't consult sufficiently with faculty about the change.
Hardy said Hogan discussed the IT recommendations extensively with the University Senates Conference and other bodies. He said they don't involve changes to academic or research policies, which under UI statutes require faculty collaboration. He also noted that UI trustees approved Hites' new position in March.
But Tolliver said: "Consultation is not a matter of spending time in a room telling those present what you plan to do."
Minutes show Campbell and other professors raised several concerns about the provost's role in the new system. Campbell argues that any major IT changes, such as network upgrades or the new unified communications system, require investment by the campus and affect research and education, but are now outside the provost's control.
Since the beginning of December, Tolliver said, a "dizzying number of changes" have been approved that could affect the UI for years to come. "Decisions are being made in a way that is not reflective, that is not careful, and that is not inclusive of all of the affected stakeholders."
Hardy said the restructuring process began before Hogan took office last July, and "there's been compromise on various topics."
"Neither the president nor the board of trustees would countenance anything that would be a diminishment of any of the campuses or any level of the university," Hardy said.