Decisions, Data and the Universities as a Business

Declining revenues and public support are simultaneously coupled with increased competition, performance requirements, constituent accountability, globalization and changing political climates. All of this has forced a new reality for higher education in America, one that requires greater efficiency, effectiveness and business-like processes. The mission of public institutions in particular has been impacted significantly by these changes. Reductions in state appropriations are forcing public institutions to rely on tuition and fees to the extent that they are quickly approaching the financial model of private institutions. This is occurring simultaneously with the need to recruit more students and to reduce operating costs.

Institutions today are faced with the reality that their fates lie primarily in their own abilities to respond to these challenges. The days of consistent, secured funding for public institutions are long gone. Some authors, such as Robert Zemsky, have argued that universities today are too often "market-smart" at the expense of being "mission-driven." This may be a bit naive, at least in light of the challenges facing many institutions that are dealing with the challenges of keeping their houses in order and their doors open. Expressions such as "Information Age" and "New Economy" actually constitute a very new environment for universities in general and public universities in particular. For the most part, institutions have faired poorly in responding to these challenges. Technical and community colleges have seen a surge in enrollment, online degree programs through virtual universities have made major inroads in graduate programs and corporate training centers are the largest providers of education in the nation. As a result of these and other developments, universities have suffered and must formulate effective responses.

The requirement for faster, more informed decision-making is upon us and, while none of us want to become more like Walmart, the days of arrogance and insularity that have often characterized academia are giving way to sound business management practices and strategic planning for competitive advantage. There is a critical need for real-time data to support informed decision-making in these and other processes. This requires excellent data accessibility, availability and analysis. This decision support is not limited to institutional research and senior administrative officers. All administrative and academic units at institutions must be engaged in continuous assessment and improvement driven by data. IT organizations are faced with the challenges of facilitating access to data stores through the most effective means possible, while ensuring the security and integrity of that data.

It is easy to understand why Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems have become such a critical part of the enterprise in higher education. These systems integrate all aspects of the resources and processes of the institution, including student admissions and records, human resources, accounting and finance, development, etc. The prominent players in this market are SCT, PeopleSoft and Datatel, among others. These systems are typically real-time information engines that process transactions and update data for immediate availability such as that found in banking and airline reservation systems. This is exactly the kind of information system that is needed to support management and planning for universities. Front-ending these systems are usually data warehouses that provide very focused datasets specifically designed for the needs of knowledge workers. These data warehouses are continuously updated to ensure synchronicity with the ERP. Funneling queries to the data warehouse rather than the ERP preserves the processing power and performance of the ERP for transactions such as student registrations and fee payments.

Enhanced data warehouses often have key data indicators and broadcast capabilities that provide instant notification of the most vital information. It might be important, for example, to be kept constantly aware of the number of applications received or the financial aid packages awarded. These "dashboard indicators" provide this information through Web pages on the desktop, or through emails or instant messages sent directly to specified recipients. Cognos is one of the leading providers of this type of software. Systems such as this constantly provide key decision-makers with needed information.

Today, data is the fuel that drives the institution, at least those concerned with sound management and effective strategic planning in response to increasingly serious challenges. IT organizations play an essential role in ensuring that data is available and accessible in support of these processes. If it sounds like higher education is in a business environment today, make no mistake, we are.


David W. Dodd is vice chancellor for Information Technology and CIO at the University of South Carolina Spartanburg. He can be reached at 864/503-5960 or .

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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