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Long-term concerns

Topics/tags: Rants

A little while ago, I wrote to a colleague that I have long-term concerns about the ability of students to create personal sites. In response, they asked for a bit more detail.

I began with the following.

Five years ago, the College shut off personal Web sites on the and domains without providing an alternative, even though we had a policy statement that indicated that, in the interest of free speech and academic exploration, we provided such sites.

But five years felt wrong, so I decided that I should figure out how long ago it was. Since I wasn’t sure how to search for that directly, I chose an indirect route. The changes to the site were made under the interim director of ITS, whose name escapes me. That director immediately preceded Donald Tom, so I looked to see when Donald Tom started. Donald came to Grinnell is July 2013. That suggests to me that the change happened in the Fall of 2012. So I said seven years. That’s a long time.

Then I went through my email archives to see if I could find the announcement for the new Web site. I see that I have a message from Sarah Anderson ’98 dated September 10, 2013, that indicates that the launch of the New Website would be on October 1, 2013. But I think that’s the new new Web site, representing a transition from Drupal 6 to Drupal 7 and a corresponding redesign, rather than the let’s kick everything off of new site. It looks like we made the transition to Drupal on January 10, 2010, after a year and a half of transition work. But I think that site was still open to a broader set of content.

Hence, I’m going to stick with about seven years ago, or Fall 2012 as the time of the initial campus Web chaos and destruction. Those terms are not intended as criticisms of the new Web site, which I think serves the purpose for which it is intended. Rather, they are about the other changes made and the lack of broader consideration of the impact of those changes.

What happened then? Well, it was the time in which we were bringing in consultants regularly [1]. Some consultants, perhaps from Promet Source, appear to have advised the College that the primary purpose of a college Web site is to promote the College to prospective students and their parents and that other uses are pointless.

At the time, our Web sites served many other purposes. They provided a home for many people’s personal Web pages, including students, faculty, and staff [2]. They provided a public-facing repository for academic materials that other institutions might find of use, from the wonderful documents prepared by our Writing Lab [3] to the policies and procedures that support academic life at the College. Believe it or not, but people at other institutions care about these things. I know that every time we write new policies at Grinnell, we try to look at the policies at other institutions. It is only appropriate that we keep ours equally accessible.

Our Web site also had many other audiences, including people on campus, prospective faculty, and alumni.

But the determination was made that would be for prospective students and their families and that everything else needed to move.

Where would the other stuff go? That was someone else’s responsibility. For many years, I’ve blamed Communications for that decision, since they spearheaded [4] the change. But they did so in cooperation with ITS, and I’ve come to understand that the folks at ITS said something like Don’t worry, we’ll find another home for all of that.

But they didn’t.

And they still haven’t.

And no one seemed to have discussed the broader implications, whether it be individual sites, our responsibility to the broader academic community, or what would be best for the folks on campus.

Then the interim director left [5].

When our new director came in, it was determined that we would use Sharepointless for our intranet and portal, whatever those are [6]. When I pushed about our need to address the issues I mentioned above, I was told not to worry and that, at worst, we would set up a second, public, Sharepoint site once we got used to running Sharepoint.

Then that director left [7].

When our new CIO [8] arrived, his focus ended up being security and privacy, two issues that had long been neglected. And, though he knows that Web governance is (and should be) an issue, it has not been his top priority. Do I blame him? A bit. But I also know that he faces an incredibly complicated technology landscape, he did not make the original decision, and it appears that only a few of us on campus are pushing on these issues.

So, five years later, we still don’t have a place for public materials, we don’t have policies on which materials should be public and which should be on GrinCo, we don’t have a natural place for many members of campus to host their Web content.

It doesn’t help that ad-hoc interim solutions have been put in place. For example, we serve our on-campus audience by putting the landing page for on-campus people on GrinCo. I still don’t get that; you’d think that prospective students and faculty would want to see what’s happening. But what do I know? A lot of effort was put into those landing pages, even though they represent some duplication of information, so no one is inclined to make changes.

Another potential solution for some of these problems is, which provides personal/professional sites for some members of the campus community. However, as far as I can tell, there are no clear policies about the use of those sites.

There’s also the MathLAN Web server; for the past few years, I’ve heard people from a variety of positions suggest that it is supposed to serve many of the purposes that the old and served. But that’s never been determined formally, and it sounds like it’s going away over winter break.

There also has not been campus-wide discussion about these issues. That makes me sad. It may be that people don’t care about them as much as I do. It may be that people aren’t aware of them and would care if they did. And none of the interim hacks addresses our broader responsibility to the academic community to make our documents public. I realize that not everyone may agree on that responsibility, which is why we need broader discussion rather than ad hoc decisions.

I also know that some important other people feel as I do. Richard Fyffe was an important force in pushing for these issues to be addressed. Erik Simpson tried to explain their import and did so much more eloquently than I did. Other members of my department have certainly made their voices heard. When Rachel Schnepper was here, she advocated for hosting of student sites. But, in spite of all of those advocates, nothing formal has happened.

Over the years, I’ve heard promises from ITS, from President Kington, and from others that they would make sure that these concerns were addressed. But they haven’t been.

Seven years is an insanely long time to wait. I wish I could put things off for that long [9].

Is it time to give up and move on? I was going to say I don’t know. But that’s the wrong response. The correct response is No [12]. We have an amazing new Dean. We’ll soon have a new president. I’m pretty sure that I can write them a note that suggests we need a broader campus discussion about what information should be public and what information should be behind a password wall. Maybe writing a good letter can be one of my projects in Ralph’s class.

[1] The focus on external consultants characterized President Kington’s early years at Grinnell.

[2] I recall talking to a staff colleague soon after the transition about how much they had valued being able to have a person Web page on the College’s site and how the removal made them feel less valued.

[3] One of my favorite stories about the time has to do with someone copying the Writing Lab’s excellent handout on citation, rebranding it, and failing to cite.

[4] Insisted on.

[5] It was a good thing. He had no clue about the academic side of computing and appeared to have no interest in learning.

[6] It’s pretty clear that there was no agreed-upon meaning at the time, other than these will solve all of your problems.

[7] That was likely also a good thing. Although I valued my relationship with that director and admired his willingness to openly criticize problems at the College, I know that others had different experiences.

[8] Or is that CITO?

[9] I’ll get you my assessment plan … In seven years [10].

[10] Conveniently, I’ll have moved to SFS in seven years [11].

[11] That is not a commitment to move to SFS. But I’ll certainly be eligible.

[12] Some readers are likely saying Sam, the correct answer is Yes! I hope they will read a bit further.

Version 1.0 of 2019-12-13.