Skip to main content

Notes on Web governance

Topics/tags: Rants, Grinnell, Web

About five years ago, Communications staged a coup of sorts. They decided that the primary purpose of was to advertise Grinnell to prospective students and their families, and, in essence, tossed everything else off [1]. Did they make plans for what to do with the other material? No. They assumed that ITS would figure it out. But we had an interim director of ITS and, well, he had no clue. His replacement had more of a clue, but had too many fires to fight to deal with the broader issues at hand. Our third new director of ITS [2] also had a lot on his hands. And so Grinnell’s Web presence has languished for the past half a decade.

We now have a Web Governance Committee. It’s the third or so that’s been created since the coup. I’m hoping this one gets it right. I hear that (a) it did not meet much during its first year and (b) there are hopes that it will become a regular committee.

I had thought that there was an expectation that a member of the CS department would be on the committee. But it appears that’s not the case. However, we do have some really good faculty reps. And I do think the CIO does want to make things better.

In any case, someone from the committee asked me for comments. This musing represents my attempt to put my thoughts in order before I send comments. It is based, in large part, on messages that I have sent to folks around campus in the past [3].

From my perspective, there are four main problems with the current state of Web services at Grinnell; three came into play about half a decade ago when was significantly reworked without a broader plan of action. First, we’ve taken information that is valuable and that people outside of Grinnell should be able to see, and have made it impossible to get. That makes us bad citizens in the world of higher education, and it also misses opportunities to promote Grinnell. Second, somewhere along the way we’ve also made it much more difficult for people on campus to find information that’s on the Web. Third, we seem to have given up on our strong commitment to providing a public platform for students, staff, and faculty members to post their ideas publicly.

I, and many other faculty members, raised all three issues when the re-design was made. At the time, we were told that the issues would be addressed relatively promptly. It’s now five years later. That’s disheartening. In the time since, I’ve observed that we’ve introduced a fourth significant problem: We must now replicate information between Grinnell’s different sites manually.

1. Making materials public

I (and many other faculty) think we have an obligation to the broader academic community to ensure that these documents are both publicly accessible and publicly indexed (so that they can be searched on Google). I regularly see faculty, staff, and students at Grinnell make use of documents that other institutions keep public. For example, in drafting our accessibility policies two years ago, the task force (and subcommittees) regularly read and adapted the policies of other institutions. That our own policies are not equally available is inappropriate. Something seems wrong when the only public information available about, say, course tags, is that which appears in the essays I write about them. (Try searching for course tags on the Grinnell site.)

But that’s not the only reason we should make our materials public. While prospective students and our parents are one audience for our public site, faculty at other institutions, current students, alumni, and prospective employees are also audiences. People judge us on the materials we make available. For example, candidates consider applying, in part, based on what they can find about support for faculty. That information is no longer available to a casual searcher; most is trapped on GrinnellShare.

I’ve been told that in the transition to the no-longer-new, CLS lost most of their materials on helping students find jobs and internships. Think of how much better Grinnell would appear to prospective students if the wonderful new resources that CLS has made, which currently appear only on GrinnellShare, were there for prospective students to see. The same holds for many of the materials that the writing lab creates.

I would recommend that we provide a clear public location for such materials. I’d prefer if that was, but I understand some people’s desire to put it elsewhere. In any case, it’s now five years since the common public server was promised; it’s time to have one.

I would also suggest that we develop, or at least discuss, a policy that suggests that the default for many documents should be public rather than on GrinnellShare. I understand that not everyone would agree with this policy, which is why it should be discussed. Certainly, the massive shift of everything to GrinnellShare was not a decision made with any real public discussion, only with public dissent.

2. Searching and indexing

Putting things on a public server will make them easier to find. Right now, looking for materials requires two searches; one using Google (or an alternative) and one using SharePoint’s less-good search engine. And the GrinnellShare search is not available to those off campus, even in the few cases in which we are able to post public materials on GrinnellShare.

3. Personal sites

Since the advent of the World-Wide Web, Grinnell’s encouraged students, faculty, and staff to use Grinnell’s Web services as a venue for free speech, a core College value. Our policies still state that,

Grinnell College supports the free expression and exchange of ideas and opinions and hopes that users of its computer systems will actively explore the possibilities of electronic publication on the World Wide Web. The College encourages students, faculty, and staff to develop and publish WWW pages through its servers (, and

For the past five years, it has not been possible for students, staff, or faculty to post their own pages on That’s reasonable, given that the focus of has become prospective students. But an alternative that is less technically cumbersome than seems appropriate.

More recently, it appears that has permitted faculty to create their own sites for academic and professional use. But, as far as I understand, there are no such provisions for students or for staff members.

I would suggest that we create a separate server for personal Web sites that is clearly branded as Not the opinions of Grinnell College. Something like or might be appropriate.

4. Duplicating material

I expect that there’s an enormous effort involved in duplicating materials from site to site. Why do we spend resources on the landing pages on GrinnellShare, which are available only on campus, when most of the information on those pages would be of interest to alumni, prospective students, prospective faculty, and beyond?

GrinnellShare was planned as an intranet, a place for groups to work together on projects. Because no open Web server was available, GrinnellShare has evolved into a more traditional Web site, but a walled-off one. But creating this second site requires extra work, both to decide where materials go and, in some cases, to copy materials from place to place. Information is also harder to find as members of the campus community must look on both our Web server and GrinnellShare.

Final thoughts

I realize that the task force has many goals. However, it strikes me that two of the most important jobs of the task force are to determine a location or locations for public materials and to develop guidelines for what materials belong on the public server and what belong on GrinnellShare.

Postscript: I’m going to let this sit for a day or two before I email my comments to the committee.

Postscript: Perhaps I should have titled this Five years is too long to wait.

[1] Yes, I realize that’s a bit over-stated. That’s really how it felt.

[2] Officially, our Chief Information Officer.

[3] I see that many parts also ended up in an earlier musing on this topic, which appears to be musing #54. I don’t feel bad about repeating myself [4,5].

[4] However, I do feel bad that I have to repeat myself two years later. It is inappropriate that these issues have not yet been addressed.

[5] I see that I eliminated the next three sentences because they were too impolite for public posting. I wonder what those three sentences were.

Version 1.0 of 2018-09-17.