After tech fee reallocations, the ‘magic’ is gone

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Spencer Tordoff / Web Editor

The UA technology fee, like so many others tacked on during registration, evades notice, having largely faded from institutional memory since its implementation almost 20 years ago. The charge is easy to confuse with the UA Network Fee, which would seem to cover the same educational needs. And costing a maximum of $60 per semester for a full-time student, it’s one of the easier pills to swallow.

So what does the technology fee pay for at UAF? As of now, mostly smart classroom and computer lab maintenance. That was not always the case.

Planning for the Unknown

In 1997, the potential impact of the Internet and information technology as a whole was becoming apparent. The UA Board of Regents responded with a $5-per-credit fee covering unforeseen technology needs. The new fee applied at each of the three major campuses; Fairbanks, Anchorage and Southeast. The Regents’ tech fee mandate specified that funds will be spent only at the campus where they were collected — UAF tech fees would only fund projects at UAF, and so forth.

The fee resolution also stipulated that:

“Each chancellor, director or president will ensure that student representatives participate in the decision-making process related to the use of the revenue at each campus.”

Beyond this requirement, no guidelines were given. Each campus was left to determine its own spending priorities and methods. UAS allocated funds through its Teaching, Learning and Technology Roundtable (TLTR), UAA created the University Technology Council (UTC), and UAF formed its Technology Advisory Board, commonly known as TAB.

A Focus on Innovation

Similar to its Anchorage and Southeast counterparts, the TAB was staffed with a cross-section of UAF personnel, but with more of an emphasis on students. Indeed, students held a voting majority in the tech board’s makeup: four undergraduates, one graduate student, two staff members and two faculty holding voting seats, with three non-voting members — typically department heads, deans or the provost.

One could argue that UAF’s structure was the most pragmatic of the campuses. One could also argue that it constituted a giveaway to savvy departments who had members in their corner. In any case, what the structure favored in terms of student-focused grant proposals and selections was unparalleled at any other UA campus.

Nearly every UAF department benefitted from TAB grants at one time or another. Departments as diverse as journalism and geophysics were able to seek funding for everything from simple computer lab upgrades, to completely unexpected ideas such as video backup servers, specialized microscopes and video camera-equipped drones.

Joe Hayes was UA student regent in 1997 when the technology fee was approved and emphasized the flexibility offered by allocating funds through the board’s grant process.

“It did allow for the university to be able to shift or change at a moment’s notice and be able to give the students the best level of technology,” Hayes said in a 2012 interview.

Southeast

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 4.51.55 PMUA’s Southeast campus formed their technology board in 1995, predating the Regents’ action by a few years.

“It was actually originally part of this big nation-wide thing for fostering more innovative use of technology in instruction,” said Vice Chancellor for Administration Michael Ciri, UAS head of Information Technology Services.

The whole principle was getting students, faculty and administrators “collectively talking about this stuff in a somewhat informal way,” Ciri said. “So it was kind of neat because you had a variety of different people at the table.”

The Regent’s new fee put money behind the ideas under discussion at UAS. Initially, after infrastructure and other set costs were covered, there was an amount left over to fund grants and special projects. But over time, the cost of those set expenses increased.

“Since the mid 2000s, really, UAS’s credited enrollment hasn’t changed enough to radically change the amount of money that comes in through the tech fee,” Ciri said. “The amount of money left over no longer even covers the replacement of even general use [equipment].”

Anchorage

Anchorage’s tech council is structured similar to the Southeast setup. The council is staffed with faculty and staff, with one student post selected by UAA’s student union. Though tech fee funds are held by the school’s Information Technology Services, they are distributed at the discretion of the council.

“We just do the bookkeeping,” said Associate Vice Chancellor Pat Shier, UAA’s chief information officer.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 4.52.04 PMUAA’s tech council wasn’t centered on individual proposals like those seen at UAS and UAF. Instead, a percentage of the tech fee was allocated to departments to spend on tech upgrades and upkeep to meet student needs. As of 2014, grants were no longer offered to UAA departments through the council. The tech fee is now spent entirely on infrastructural needs and support services.

“That’s how we’ve addressed the decline in revenues,” Shier said, “and the increase in the cost of doing business [in recent years].”

According to Shier, the council still has a larger role than its Fairbanks and Southeast counterparts.

“I rely on the UTC not just to allocate funds,” Shier said, “[but for] strategic planning.” He said the council also has a hand in solving on-campus technology issues such as internet connection speed and wi-fi service.

“Not a reflection on the board”

In a June 2014 memo, then-Chancellor Brian Rogers announced a new distribution of the technology fee diverting 60 percent of collected funds to the UA Office of Information Technology, the organization that provides computer infrastructure and support for both the UA statewide administration and here at UAF.

Another 25 percent is now routed to the Rasmuson Library, to fund computer labs and equipment for checkout. The remaining 15 percent is distributed by the school’s Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity group, funding so-called Innovative Technology and Education grants.

“The decision to change the allocation process is not a reflection on this board,” Rogers said in the memo, “but rather on the current fiscal situation at the University and the need to ensure that existing technology services continue to be available.”

Karl Kowalski, UA’s chief technology officer, understands the enthusiasm and creativity behind the original TAB award process.

“Being a technologist, I fully understand the benefit of providing seed money for wild and crazy ideas that may spawn innovation and creativity and new things that may scale to be a benefit to everyone,” Kowalski said. “There’s no doubt.”

Fee allocation changes are all about practicality in the face of dwindling budgets “slowly whittling away at our ability to keep classrooms and labs up to date,” Kowalski said. Previously, the Rasmuson and OIT were required to request grants through TAB for their equipment needs.

“The chancellor decided it was better to do something more strategic that benefitted everybody.”

Kowalski has argued that OIT receive the entirety of the tech fee revenue. He said he sees the value in the former TAB funds now going toward undergraduate research and library media technology grant program, but believes that the fee should benefit the greatest number of people possible.

Even with the increased funding following from TAB’s demise, according to Kowalski, his department still struggles to keep up with smart classroom maintenance.

“We’re constantly still running around ‘putting out fires,” Kowalski said, “with bulbs that burn out and people that accidentally walk away and rip the cord out of the wall.”

Fees and seeds

The lone part of UAF’s allocation process that best embodies the old Technology Advisory Board philosophy — the fees now paying for undergraduate research— are divvied up by UAF’s Office of Undergraduate Research & Scholarly Activity, which did not request the funding in the first place.

URSA co-director Trent Sutton said he isn’t sure “ why that pot of money came to us.” He was referring to the 15 percent share in UAF tech fees his office now distributes funding student research proposals, including related technology purchases. As with TAB grants, decisions are made by a committee heavily weighted with student members. Two faculty, two undergraduates, and two graduate students make up most of the board, Sutton said, with even distribution between arts disciplines and science disciplines. A staff member serves as the final voting member of the group, with URSA administrators serving in an advisory role.

Though this process mirrors the gradual changes that occurred at UAA and UAS, some departments that formerly benefitted from TAB grants remain concerned that they won’t have avenues for technology funding in the future.

“It’s really hard to find funding for technology that we can put directly in the hands of students,” said Kade Mendelowitz, a professor and technical director of UAF’s theatre department. Mendelowitz received a number of grants prior to TAB’s dissolution, most recently for a new theater lighting console, and described himself as “pretty upset” when he heard about the announcement.

“[Technology] just keeps changing,” said Mendelowitz. “Keeping up with that for small departments? Relatively impossible.”

The Letter of the Law

While the money collected by the technology fee is used in relatively similar ways at each of the UA campuses, UAF currently lacks proper implementation of the student representative requirement. There’s no evidence to suggest this is a deliberate omission, and Fairbanks remains the only campus with any form of technology grant program, but in any case that specific intent of the regents has been lost.  Faced with increased demand for services and rapidly diminishing budgets, what was once a driver of innovation at the University of Alaska is now just one more means to pay for maintenance and upkeep.

This article was written with research and interview assistance from Daniel Piscoya and Alexa Cherry of the UAS student newspaper, the Whalesong.

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