Emerging Technology (Enhancing, Engaging, Connecting)

Institutional Resiliency

Hurricane Katrina. 9/11. Pandemic influenza A (H1N1). Superstorm Sandy. These events and more have presented colleges and universities with stark reminders of how incidents resulting from terrorism, natural disasters, epidemics and other vectors can impact and even preclude the ability to continue normal operations. For most schools, these operations include but are not limited to academic, administrative and research programs. However, they also include supporting the health and safety of our campus communities, including students for whom we provide housing, food, heating and air conditioning, security and other basic services.

Our institutions exist to educate students, and in turn it is student enrollment that enables our institutions to remain viable in many ways — including financially. The majority of institutions depend on student tuition and fees for operating funding. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, many institutions cease functioning and cannot remain viable given even a relatively short disruption of tuition generation. Most importantly (but only with the understanding that personal injury or illness is avoided), the impact of a substantially disrupted or cancelled academic term can prove hugely problematic for students and their progress toward degrees.

Planning Ahead

Today, some institutions are incorporating the concept of institutional resiliency into their strategic planning. According to Merriam-Webster online, resilience is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Within the context of this discussion, institutional resiliency is the capacity of an institution to remain fully operational through changing and deleterious conditions by being agile and adaptable. This implies careful planning concerning people, technology, procedures and other factors.

Unlike basic business continuity that traditionally incorporates a number of assumptions concerning the continuation of operations in a “normal” manner, institutional resiliency makes no such assumptions and in fact assumes that fundamentally different approaches may be required. For example, consider the impact of having to abandon a campus entirely and what that would mean for an institution. Most institutions do not plan for, nor would they be able to, operate in a completely virtual manner if necessary. Classes could not be held nor administrative activities conducted, as institutions have experienced in previous incidents (such as Katrina).

Lessons From Personal Experience

In 2012, my own institution, Stevens Institute of Technology, was one of those directly impacted by 1,000-mile-wide Superstorm Sandy. I had arrived at Stevens only weeks earlier and subsequently found we were ill equipped for such an incident. The impact was sobering, but from that event we gained both experience and resolve. We began planning. Our planning was based on a fundamental goal: institutional resiliency that would allow Stevens to continue operating and educating students with the fewest possible dependencies, including our campus and its infrastructure.

Over the past four years Stevens has utilized a number of strategies to achieve this goal. We have moved our web presence and most of our mission-critical systems to the cloud. User authentication to these systems has also been enabled via the cloud. Even our scientific and engineering software has been virtualized for access over the Internet through our own private cloud. The myStevens intranet now provides authenticated access to cloud-based file sharing and collaboration. To support the ability to continue classes virtually, Stevens has deployed Canvas for every course offered.

One of the most interesting parts of this story, ironically, ties directly back to Superstorm Sandy. Following Sandy, researchers in our Davidson Laboratory were asked to develop the capability to forecast coastal flooding and storm surges related to severe weather events. Stevens met this challenge and now provides information to a range of public, private and governmental agencies in order to support a variety of critical operations and public safety. Today, Stevens has the Pharos high-performance supercomputer housed in our new high-resiliency Data Center, but in a rather stunning turnaround from the time of Sandy, these capabilities were actually designed for and now provide their most vital function during hurricanes.

Some institutions can survive if their operations cease and students cannot complete their studies for one or more semesters due to their large endowments; however, most do not even approach that capability. And even if the institutions can survive financially, institutions have a fundamental responsibility to students and their academic programs — the reason they come to us.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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