In January of this year, Georgia State University (GSU), located in downtown Atlanta, was consolidated with Georgia Perimeter College (GPC)—a two-year school—and its five campuses throughout the metropolitan area. Now GSU’s total enrollment is approximately 54,000, making it one of the top ten largest in the United States.
The consolidation presented Dennis Rose, GSU’s chief technology officer, with a number of challenges. In addition to integrating networks, communications, and financial and academic systems, Rose also had to support two institutions with complementary but formerly separate missions. While GSU is a four-year research institution that offered both undergraduate and graduate degrees prior to the merger, GPC offered associate and certificate programs that provided broad access to educational resources. But differences also extended to the relationships each institution had with its IT department. That meant Rose had to address difficulties that went beyond technology.
When Rose assumed his role as CTO, the consolidation had not yet been announced. As a large institution, however, many of GSU’s schools and colleges had their own internal tech support teams in addition to the central IT services staff that Rose was charged with leading.
“Reaching out to colleagues to build trust and move technology projects forward across areas of the university was my first priority,” Rose says. He began by creating an IT Community of Interest, a forum for reaching out to departments and encouraging them to voice their challenges and pain points. He also instituted a “people first” initiative that included meeting with all of his reports individually and face-to-face within his first thirty days.
“I wanted to ensure an environment where team members were encouraged to take initiative for improving campus technology, both within their own areas and by reaching out to peer teams,” Rose says.
He established a set of core values—honesty, integrity, service, people, innovation, performance, and excellence—to guide the department. Rose also created a business management process team to help better facilitate ongoing technology initiatives, like replacing the school’s seven-year-old communications system, which was no longer able to handle increasing call volume, and a cloud-first strategy to save on hardware upgrades to the data center and improve scalability of resources.
When the consolidation of GSU and GPC was announced, Rose viewed it as an opportunity to create a new, more flexible and responsive service model. To that end, he began coordinating with GPC’s CIO, Mark Hoeting, almost immediately. Their collaboration was critical since all technical adjustments had to be completed well in advance of the formal institution integration in January 2016, so that all departments could adapt their own activities and processes with technology in place to support them.
One of the first priorities was to create high-speed connectivity between the schools and their various locations. Ultimately, ten-gigabyte pipes between the universities enabled the IT departments to begin combining databases and integrating administrative applications nearly six months ahead of schedule. As a result, students and faculty enjoyed a nearly seamless transition when they began logging in to the new GSU systems.
As a separate project, the departments began merging all addresses and mailboxes for the schools’ Microsoft Office 365 networks. “This was a critical piece of the transition. Without properly functioning communications in place, key departmental management decisions that enable IT to move forward with appropriate implementations and integration would have been impossible,” Rose says.
The third quarter saw further refinements to the school’s communications systems as Rose looked for enhanced collaboration tools. Initial stop-gap measures included using Skype for Business, but he wanted a more unified approach for the entire network.
“Traffic in the Atlanta area can be brutal, so we needed to reduce the need to drive from one location to another,” Rose says. “We also needed capabilities to accommodate scenarios like weather that prevent people from leaving home or keep them from flying in from other parts of the country.” With an integrated conferencing solution in place, IT has been better able to function during several weather incidents during which the university information and help desks have remained operational and staff has been able to conduct business and provide services from their homes.
Work on blending the schools’ registration, student tracking, and financial systems also moved into high gear during this time. Challenges included items such as GSU using a half-point grading system (e.g., 4.0, 3.5, 3.0, 2.5, etc.) while GPC does not, and clearly defining the point at which an individual officially matriculates. To date, these issues are still being addressed by administrators and academic staff. Rose notes that they are essential issues because of the impact they have not only on student grades, but also on financial aid, funding, and accreditation.
Rose and deputy CIO Hoeting also worked with Gartner to assess the new institution’s overall cybersecurity environment. As the size and complexity of the university grows, the institution is making it a priority to provide security tools and training commensurate with the growth. As a result, Rose developed a strategic plan and an IT security charter that will facilitate the creation and implementation of more robust enterprise-wide security measures.
Because Rose and his department had plenty of lead time to consider the wide range of consolidation issues, the fourth quarter is providing an opportunity to monitor and review how the new systems are performing. Aside from matters that are still in process or awaiting critical decisions, Rose feels the technology is performing exceptionally well.
“We were fortunate to have consulted with CIOs from other schools that had gone through this process,” Rose says. “We didn’t do everything perfectly, but we had very strategic leaders with well-thought-out plans. As huge a job as it was, all we had to do was execute and adjust as needed.”
“We were fortunate to have consulted with CIOs from other schools that had gone through this process, so we capitalized on their insights and were very well prepared. We didn’t do everything perfectly, but we had very strategic leaders with well-thought-out plans.”
Instances of parallel systems in operation remain, but Rose notes that the duplication provides temporary fallback positions in the event of problems. To reduce costs, however, the team will work on archiving historical data and streamlining supported systems.
Rose aims to broaden GSU IT’s role in the school’s research, academic, and development activities. “We want to act and be viewed as a trusted and engaged colleague and advisor, not simply as support and a utility. We want to help the university look forward and innovate in all these areas,” he says.
He also looks forward to further empowering and engaging the IT staff. As an example, he points to second- and third-shift data center teams that for fifteen years had been handling tasks for a department that required overnight processing. When those teams were asked for improvement suggestions, they proposed making adjustments to handle those activities during the day.
Their idea has, in fact, eliminated the two shifts and made that manpower available for other assignments. “I was expecting a technology solution, but it turned out to be something as simple as asking a question and really listening to the answer,” Rose says. “We have leaders emerging at all levels in the new consolidated university.”