Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Organization of Higher Ed in Illinois

Some states, notably our neighbor Wisconsin, have all the public campuses in the state in a single statewide system. (New York is another example of this type of organization structure within public higher education.) It is noteworthy to observe that Wisconsin has implemented its enterprise course management system across all the campuses, which the production instance being hosted in Madison. Moreover, and I believe this is quite novel, they have imposed a common authentication framework for the course management system, so that those who are supporting the production instance only have to manage one type of authentication. (I believe Wisconsin is less homogenous on the Student Information System side. The SIS is used to populate the rosters in CMS course sites and is also where final course grades are reported.)

From where I sit there are substantial economies of scale in supporting a Course Management System, but this is also true for email and for any other like service (for example an ePortfolio service, or a Blog service). The source of the economies of scale is in the back end production service where there are specific types of technical expertise that should be sufficiently redundant. My guess is that there are many other types of service, IT related and not, for which one can make a good argument that there are economies of scale. Offsetting that notion is the idea of local control and local customization. We have that issue on our own campus where there are instances of other course management systems being supported by a department or college. But at least within the campus there will be some move to consolidation to the campus service as the department of Chemistry and the College of ACES each run their own Campus Edition server, but will move over to the Campus instance of WebCT Vista (Illinois Compass is our local branding) within the next year or so.

With the economic crunch that Higher Ed is facing the customization and local control become more a luxury than a necessity and leveraging potential economies of scale becomes more attractive. Given the issues about coordination one might very well argue that there should be consolidation not just in services but in the way Higher Ed is organized in the state. I could see one system for all the four-year schools and a different system for the community colleges. I could also see having only one system overall.

Indeed, I certainly can't explain our current arrangement. There are multiple systems for just the four year schools. For example, Southern Illinois at Carbondale and at Edwardsville form a system. But Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois are not in that system. And neither is part of the U of I. It is very hard to give an efficiency argument for the current arrangement in the present circumstance. Each campus optimizes locally for its own benefit, but it is doubtful that the outcome is even near optimal for the state as a whole. On the other hand, my campus is more unlike the others by its nature as a leading research institution. And with the Chicago Campus also an R1, with a Medical School and a large undergraduate student population, the U of I system already seems plenty big.

So why should anyone expect this campus or this university to take the lead in pushing IBHE and the governor to consider a different organizational structure? But if there isn't leadership from these sources will there be leadership from anywhere else?

I have a tiny role to play here in my support of the Faculty Summer Institute and getting the four-year colleges to play in the same pen as the community college folks who are part of the NILRC group that is talking about a consortial approach to licensing course management systems. This is another area where my economics fails me. I have no clue whether I should try to amplify that role or not. The likelihood of failure seems great but the economies of scale argument makes sense to me.

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