The modern academy works on computer technology. Ours is not as reliable as it should be. Here is the text of a letter that I sent to the director of network operations this evening; it is strategically designed so as to make my point without alienating the administration. We shall see what, if any, effect results.
Recent difficulties with the computer systems at the university have driven home to me precisely how dependent I am on a reliable computer network for my daily work. I appreciate the fact that the university provides faculty members with electronic mail and the ability to access the World Wide Web, but the recent interruptions in those services proved to be a fairly major inconvenience to my work flow at a critical time of the semester. The university really needs to make a more direct commitment to enhancing network reliability through the purchase of redundant hardware and robust software in order to truly enable faculty members such as myself to continue to do their work in the most effective manner.
I should point out that by "network reliability" I mean principally the reliability of the two university network services with which I interact the most on a daily basis: e-mail and access to the World Wide Web. (To be honest, I could live without Web access for a while as long as e-mail was working properly -- and by "properly" I mean that messages sent to non-university addresses are being delivered promptly and also that messages from outside of the university are being delivered to me promptly.) I am very dependent on e-mail to keep me in continual contact with my students and with my colleagues at other institutions, including many in other countries. Even a minor interruption in this channel of communication causes major headaches.
Let me give three brief examples. I am presently coordinating a study abroad program in Poland for this summer. In this capacity I and my program assistant are in touch with a number of people in Krakow, Warsaw, and Prague as we try to get travel and living arrangements finalized. The inability to send e-mail to our contacts, or to reliably receive messages from them, means that we are hampered in our ability to negotiate for better rental rates for apartments, finalize internship placements, solidify plans for receptions at embassies, and so on. We are also holding an orientation meeting for this program tomorrow (Wednesday), and coordinating that meeting has been complicated immensely by the interruption of network services (for instance, until today we were not able to access some of the web-based materials that we wanted to include in the orientation packet that we were putting together this week).
I am also involved in putting together a workshop for the 2005 ISA meeting. Invitations were sent out last week, but I was unable to respond to potential participants in a timely manner this week because of the interruption in network services. As far as I know there has been no lasting damage to the plans for the workshop, but as e-mails (both those that I composed and those that were sent to me) continue to be delivered over the next day or so I will have to see whether there were any serious problems.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly given the task of the university to facilitate the instruction of students, I have final papers due in two classes this week -- papers that students have questions about. Those questions are ordinarily sent to me via e-mail, especially by those students who cannot make it to my office hours. But if I am not receiving their messages, and if I am not able to reply to them in a timely manner, this adversely affects their ability to complete their assignments in a timely manner and my ability to instruct them as they do so. E-mail interruptions are most problematic in this regard; the router issue that recently took away access to the broader InterNet from on-campus also eliminated the possibility of using Instant Messenger to work around this problem.
Is it possible to work around these issues by using other technologies? Yes. Is it convenient to do so? No. As I said, I greatly appreciate the fact that the university provides networking technology to enable a better way of working, but I am concerned that the university's networking technology is not as reliable as it really needs to be to enable me (and other faculty members) to do their work effectively. I really think that the university needs to make an investment in redundant network architecture so that the computer networks are as reliable as the telephone system, given that I for one use the networks more often and more effectively than I use the phone system. And in particular, a more sustained effort needs to be made to keep the network operational in such a way that communication between on-campus and off-campus locations is sustained. It does me as a faculty member little good if the campus network is operating internally but is cut off from the rest of the 'Net, as such a situation makes it impossible for me to communicate with my students who are off-campus (or who use e-mail services other than ours) and with my colleagues at other institutions.
If the telephone network abruptly ceased to enable calls from on-campus to off-campus, this would count as a major emergency. If the telephone network suddenly went off-line, and did so every few days for varying periods of time, this would indicate to me a need to seriously overhaul the telephone system. But both of these issues are, in my experience, characteristic of the campus computer networks, especially over the past few months. (The recent router problem was foreshadowed by network slowness and occasional brief service interruptions; e-mail service has been erratic for a good portion of the year, particularly when trying to use an IMAP connection.)
My ability to do my job effectively has been impaired by these network technology issues. My ability to do my job would be enhanced greatly by a commitment to, and an investment in, more reliable and redundant technologies. I would urge that this be a major priority for the coming months.
The computer network system on campus should be as reliable as the telephone system. I need such a reliable infrastructure to really do my job properly. I also need not to have to spend inordinate amounts of time lobbying and putting pressure on the administration to provide that infrastructure.
[Posted with ecto]