Tribulations of GIS Center Management

The unfortunate position of blogging in situ circumstances is having to constantly prognosticate the down-stream consequences of words and assertions. If my words appear to deliberately obfuscate some details, you are observant. As the saying goes, names have been changed to protect the willfully ignorant. That is the saying, right?

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Upon my return to my university yet another example reared its mule-headed head, further evidence of how universities can snub geospatial learning, perhaps unintentionally, and demonstrate how completely obtuse universities are at providing students a valuable learning environment. Universities are fantastically adept at being blind to what left- and right-hands are doing. In fact, universities are marvelous at believing they have always been one-handed, one-armed, one-legged, and in most cases, have only a single brain lobe, though if you were ask which lobe existed, or at least dominated, both lobes would have equal chances of being named to the complete exclusion of the other. Universities truly have dual-personalities, academic vs. administrative, and these two entities respect each other almost as much as Israelis and Palestinians respect each other. The bizarre aspect of the academic environment involves the transformation of great academicians into mediocre and lackluster administrators. A fantastic educator who gets promoted into an admin position becomes like an empty juice box a child has sucked all the juice from and most of the air, leaving an empty, puckered, dry husk.

Look, universities have really a single simple mission:

“Provide a well-rounded education to the population of people who want a well-rounded education.

How do universities achieve the goal of this mission?

By exposing students, i.e. people, to a breadth and depth of experiences unattainable in most other environments.

This sounds simple, and I could be accused of over-simplification of the mission and goals. But, seriously, strip away all the flowery language contrived to inspire grandiose feelings of overwhelming warmth, pride, and ego within a Chancellor or Regent, and every single university and college has precisely the same mission and goals. Universities and colleges must then distinguish themselves from their peers, either by political mandate by the state or by mandate of some governing body.

Our current era of devastatingly poor investment in higher education is fundamentally cracking our educational foundations, and by association, our social foundations. And not simply poor investments but to some politicians Higher Education is mentioned in the same context as cancer, Ebola, and Boko Haram, a weak piglet suckling at the societal teat, to be culled.

Given regional universities serve more students than flagship state universities and other research (R1) universities and are essentially being gutted as a result of emphasis on Homeland Security, Iraq, Afghanistan, ISIS, and al-Qaeda, our distractions are doing more to damage U.S. society and socioeconomic status than any single person or collection of people could ever do.

Our Office of Communications went off-campus, to a 3rd-party vendor, located in Maine, to purchase an online walking tour map of campus (CampusTours.com). To be clear, these companies are not the enemy. They offer a valuable product, even to schools, businesses, botanical gardens. But, they do take advantage of ignorance, sometimes a willful ignorance among university administrators, drawing money away from a college, from a state, disabling campus innovation by sweeping away opportunities for students to develop skills, gain real-world experience in application development, build useful apps for the university, and demonstrate to potential students the opportunities to excel.

As a GIS Manager, we find ourselves fighting incessantly against the campus marginalization of one of the most transformative technologies of the 21st century. Many of us are truly an Army of One; we teach courses, we mentor students, we train faculty. We give seminars to university staff and conduct workshops for K-12 teachers. We advocate for geography in the classroom, the use of technology, using GPS units, and ArcGIS, or some other software product. We are technologists; we install software, diagnose computer problems, discover network bottlenecks.

To provide a little context, some background, I’m going to provide a brief history of efforts to inoculate against losing grants, contracts, and projects (not in chronological order.)

  1. I personally have visited the college WebMaster on several occasions and demonstrated ArcGIS and ArcGIS Online. I maintain the website for our GIS center, plus social media accounts and I interact with the webmaster frequently. The webmaster has an ArcGIS Online account, unused to this day.
  2. A well-respected faculty member has written two ESRI Press books and is well-respected on campus.
  3. I personally have visited the Associate Provost to demonstrate ArcGIS Online.
  4. In 2012, Joseph Kerski visited my campus and demonstrated ArcGIS and ArcGIS Online to a host of participants, my college dean, dean of Business, numerous faculty and administrators.
  5. I work closely with our Office of Institutional Research. I talked them out of using Microsoft Mappoint and using ArcGIS.
  6. The Dean of Libraries was an excited user of ArcGIS. He resigned after several issues with our Provost came to a head.
  7. I personally have worked for years to keep our Public Safety office trained and aware of how my office can be of support.

With these examples I again bring my point home, regardless of stakeholders and well-rounded support of GIS on campus, the actions of a single person can really throw a wrench in building strong, resilient academic efforts pertaining to GIS on any campus, even after Joseph puts on a commanding performance. I mean, if someone isn’t grabbed by Joseph’s wisdom, insight, and enthusiasm, that says more about that person than Joseph.

A GIS Manager at a large Texas university told me an interesting secret about an hour before our S.O.S. Evidently, Texas Large University had eliminated the very library in which her GIS center was housed. She gave a very powerful presentation on Saturday, and by Tuesday the very existence of her center appears to be in-the-air.

I know for a fact at least one office on my campus snubs our GIS efforts intentionally. The director told me in no uncertain terms. The office is Alumni Affairs, and the director is former state senator. Alumni Affairs went off-campus, bought a social mapping service to connect alumni. I voiced my displeasure to him, to which he replied, “I don’t want to wait for students to develop something. I want something now.” Awesome. What a tremendous public servant.

Mr. Senator represents a difficult mindset to overcome, is part of problem, and yet more evidence of hypocrisy in Higher Education. We are specifically directed to, “find ways to save money, figure out how to better manage and leverage your resources;” and from the other side of the mouth, we hear, “your responsibility is to develop a 21st century workforce by finding ways to engage students, help them develop critical-thinking skills, encourage them to problem-solve, and give them opportunities to develop and augment valuable toolsets.” And then the university, at least my university, has spent over $100,000 in the last 3 years to farm-out jobs students on our campus are quite capable of doing. Further aggravation arises each evaluation period when my office must report “service” to both the university and the service region, and we are asked why we aren’t doing more to serve campus. “Because Public Safety and Communications award contracts worth $10,000s of thousand of dollars for mapping efforts which should have been done through our GIS center. Can I count the money and projects departments and offices have given away to the detriment of students and this university?”

To the proximate problem of the campus walking tour map my director has responded by contacting our college dean, associate provost (we have two, one is awesome; one should be on Walking Dead as a zombie), and the special assistant to the president.

The omnipresent concern is the Sisyphean chore of maintaining a geospatial-literate campus, knowledgeable and aware of GIS while also building cognition among admins of how valuable providing students opportunities to develop…stuff…can be. How cool would it be to say, “Check out our walking tour app. Our own students at Large Texas College made this. You can learn how to, just attend Large Texas College.”

Instead, we have to tell people we get our salsa from New York City, because some new person loves the taste of tomatoes grown in the contaminated urban soil, and, oh yes, by the way, our tomatoes provide a soothing light and if you line your drive-way with them you can pretend you are landing a plane.

Advocating geospatial education is a 36?/24/7 (almost, holidays and a day-off are helpful for maintaining mental health) endeavor.

PAX.

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