It’s about choice: IT policies are strangling research productivity

For the past three years, USFA has been working to communicate to the Employer the severe damage that is being done to members’ research productivity as a result of its short-sighted IT policies. We have made some progress but regrettably faculty continue to waste hours of their time simply attempting to get the equipment and permissions they need to do their work. Recently we had an email from a member, Ian Burgess in the Department of Chemistry, that tells us neither the Association or our members are being heard.

The University of Saskatchewan’s policies on computer security and privileges is a major detriment to the productivity of faculty. Please let me provide two examples.

  1. In recent years, USask has removed administrator rights on faculty and staff computers. This is done in the name of cyber security. The policy is rather innocuous for staff who use their computers only for tasks such as word processing and emailing. However, the policy completely fails to account for faculty and researchers who use computers for more advanced research-related activities (e.g. data acquisition, calculations, numerical simulations, or interfacing with specialty hardware). For example, in my lab there are more than a dozen computers that are tools for research. These machines constantly require software and hardware modifications which, in turn, require admin access. These computers are research infrastructure—not business machines—and removing the ability to control the infrastructure is comparable to buying a box of Lego but not being able to use the blocks. The staff that have to implement this faulty policy are genuinely helpful in trying to find solutions. For example, in my lab, I have the ability to get an admin password for any one of my ~12 computers. It lasts for 24 hours, but my research staff do not. This is cumbersome and unproductive, and I spend an inordinate amount of time doing computer management rather than having my students control their own tools.  Every researcher in a similar situation has to make a case-by-case arrangement with their local IT staff but there is no guarantee that the workaround that exists at any given moment will be honoured tomorrow.
  2. I do not distinguish between “personal” computing and “work-related” computing. Being a University faculty member is an all-encompassing lifestyle and it is very likely that on any given Saturday evening I will be watching a Netflix show on my laptop as the same computer processes a mathematical problem related to my research. The current USask computing policy says that “work” computers must be purchased through the university even though the computer options available through Campus Computing are limited and more expensive. A far better machine can always be found for a cheaper price than what the university offers. Campus Computing says they can find an equivalent machine to the specifications one wants but this process is unbelievably slow and inefficient. As I use a single computer for all my affairs (both personal and work-related) I am perfectly happy to buy a computer out of pocket. This has the added advantage of allowing me to save my personal development funds and research funding to support travel, student stipends, and general research activities. This system has served me well in the past. As little as four years ago, I took a new laptop, purchased with my own money, to my local IT unit and had it integrated with a USask profile. This gave me access to important research software for which the University has site licenses for faculty to use. I could transport my laptop back and forth to campus and use it at any place at any time to access the software I use for my research. This was a highly desirable arrangement that promoted research productivity. Last week I bought a new laptop (again using personal funds) but now I learn that IT will not connect it to the USask network. Their argument is that because the machine is not owned by USask I do not have the ability to access University software on it—even though I am a USask employee. They were surprised to hear my arguments as to why this was not acceptable. They seemed genuinely shocked that faculty would want to “work” from home. I think this is highly indicative of how-out-of-touch university policy is with fostering a research-intensive environment.

University policy is developed and approved through University Council or through invisible decision-making processes overseen by senior leadership. How much time does this administration want faculty to waste as they navigate these ill-conceived policies and procedures? These are detrimental to the academic mission and to research productivity. If this university aspires to rise above the bottom of the U15, then it needs to change. The University of Saskatchewan seems to be unique among the U15 in preventing faculty from administering their own computers. It’s about choice.