April 21 University IT Town Hall Q&A with Don Welch

If people aren't comfortable returning to campus, will they still be able to work remotely?

The University has a task force that's working within the constraints of the governor and guidance from others, including public health officials. My guess is that we will come back through a transition period. I think that will be the case, but that's not even guaranteed. Where people want to remain working from home, we will work that out with your leaders on a case-by-case basis. The University, Penn State IT, and I'm sure your units are thinking about this, trying to make sure that we are fair and consistent across the entire University.

Is the University considering creative ways of offsetting some of the financial burden that the institution is facing?

The University has a task force to study how we can get past this period. We're planning for all kinds of contingencies, and in the short term, we should hear something this week. The University is basically considering a lot of different options. My guess is we'll probably use a lot of different tools. Some of them will be narrowly focused, some of them will be widely focused. But no answers for you yet.

Where can we see progress on IT Modernization projects and priorities that Penn State IT is focusing on?

Some are going faster than we had expected because of the work from home, and some are going a little bit slower than we'd hoped. There are a lot of benefits that come from the projects that we're doing, like removing duplicated services. Certainly that is one way to save money, but it's also a way that we can get our arms around our data when data is stored in multiple applications. One of the questions that came in ahead of time was around purchasing. Purchasing is an initiative where the University can save money. We know from our contracts with Dell that we could do much better buying computers across the University and narrowing down to just a few models. In light of the budget constraints that we've got coming up, it's going to be even more important that we execute these projects in the near future.

There are two questions from people wondering if you are going to play the guitar that is behind you.

I would much rather you think that I am an acceptable guitar player than let you hear me. So we'll leave that little veil of mystery there.

If students do not return for fall, at what point will faculty be informed to provide them time to think differently about their course delivery?

We are already working to improve classes for the summer, and move from just remote learning to online education. We are very good at that, based on our experience from the World Campus, and we already have a lot of good content developed in TLT and in your teams in your colleges and campuses who are working with faculty. The provost was talking to the deans today and said we will try to make those decisions with as much lead time as possible so people know exactly what to plan for. We won't know about the fall until at least early summer.

Can you speak a little bit about the update on the hiring freeze and how will this impact internal positions, and are there any opportunities to shift to other areas of need?

Across the University, we felt it wise to pause on all hirings except in extreme cases. We are trying to share people internally to meet needs. When things open up again, we can make them more permanent. We also want to avoid the financial commitments of people moving to positions where that might be a promotion. It is prudent until we understand our situation more to not make permanent commitments that we might not be able to live up to going forward. There are exceptions in some really critical positions that have to be approved on a case-by-case basis.

The cross collaboration that was happening early on seemed really promising for knowledge sharing, networking, and globalization. Will that be supported and encouraged over the summer and into the fall?

I was in a meeting of the Strategic Planning Oversight Committee, and we were talking about how the University was able to accomplish things in the face of the crisis that if we try to do it in normal times might take us years, if we could even do some of the things at all. The provost was saying how important it is for us to not lose that momentum or roll back into our old ways. We have a very decentralized distributed IT structure that is both a strength and a weakness. We have IT people in units who understand the units very well and do a great job supporting their units. But there are advantages that we could get through scale, collaboration, and backing each other up that are more difficult when we're distributed. Keeping those good parts is really going to be important.

Is the SIMBA project on track to go live on July 1?

Simba by all accounts will be delivered on time and with full functionality. Kudos to that team for taking on a difficult task in normal times, let alone with the stresses of the move to work from home. Once again, they made it look easy and they're not missing a beat. Everything is on track.

Are there policies for those who need to stop into the workplace to accomplish tasks?

Check with your unit because I know that each unit is keeping track of that a little differently.

Is there a chance that staff might be able to go back to work on campus before the campus opens up to students again?

I would imagine that students coming back will be the final step, that we will start transitioning back and then students will transition back in a hybrid way. You can't hold me to that because no decisions have been made, but I couldn't see how we could have students come back and us, the staff who support the students, not being there.

Have students been surveyed as to their positive or negative experiences with respect to their remote collaboration, teaching, learning, research, and service as outlined in your one-page summary of the University's IT impact?

A lot of the colleges have been doing that. I've seen some of the results of those surveys, and students appreciate the difficulty of what we've done. That's indicative of the good job that the faculty, with the support of the staff, have done to move to remote learning. From talking to them and getting their feedback, we're trying to learn from that and do better over the summer. One of the things that we have gotten a lot from student feedback was the importance of the synchronous sessions, that there was the ability to connect and keep in touch with their old world of being on campus. It was really important emotionally to students.

Do we know anything yet about the state budget impact?

We know it's going to be bad. Their estimates of how bad it is going to be are all over the place. We can assume the state is going to be stressed. We don't know what that means for us in terms of the state support, but that's one of the variables that is going into our budget planning for next year.