Reflections on the U of I President's retreat, 12/22/99

Systems implications for the university as an agent and an environment of transformation

Albert Schorsch, III
UIC College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs
412 S. Peoria, Rm. 115, M/C 348
Chicago, IL 60607-7064
312-996-2177, fax 312-413-8023

Copyright, 1999, Albert Schorsch, III

This is not a summary of the U of I President's retreat, but a personal reflection on some of its themes. I draw out a few positions from these reflections, and then suggest some approaches for our information systems and other forms of organization.

The 1999 University of Illinois President's retreat, 12/15-16/99, brought to the fore a number of challenging questions facing the university and the State of Illinois relating to the frontiers of information- and bio- technology, and their implications for economic development. The university is considering recognizing economic development as its fourth mission along with teaching, research, and service. This new formal mission challenges us to integrate our now four missions into a complementary whole. At the same time, U of I is embarking on new information management technology initiatives through the Enterprise-wide Resource Planning (ERP) software, combining and integrating systems for student services, business affairs, human resources, and other management across the U of I campuses.  These two major initiatives--a new mission and new information systems--present a number of opportunities to address systemic issues of quality.

The first plenary session prompted a series of ideas which personally carried me through the retreat. David Chicoine, Dean, UIUC College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, proposed a new paradigm of overlapping institutional involvements which are not limited to what he called the "stove-pipe" method of university-industry technology transfer, in which we at the university would previously make tools of various kinds, whether software, informational, or physical, and then release them into the "outside world" of industry and business after testing. Dean Chicoine suggested that we involve business, industry, and government as earlier allies in technology transfer, avoiding the limitations of the traditional "stove-pipe" approach, recognizing that progress is achieved through organizational systems which are open to many forms of collaboration.

While we tried to get beyond the "stove-pipe" approach, the bulk of our conversations which followed for the next day and one half, however, kept to the model of what I will call the "tool-building" approach to education and economic development. Whether alone or with other collaborating institutions, we continue to concentrate on "tool building," whether informational or physical, as a dominant model of university action for economic and other development.

Reflecting about our overlapping missions of teaching, research, service, and now economic development, I was struck with a different way to describe our activities, which may assist us in further integrating them across our disciplines and campuses.

We at the university are engaged in transformations of the world which underlie--and, as it were, call forth--our stated missions of teaching, research, service, and economic development. These "transformations" begin to reflect what active agents do once they interact with a university--and indicate not so much what a university "does to" them, but "does with" them.

Among the modes of transformation in which we as a university engage are those which are personal, informational, physical, and of wealth:

Personal transformation. A person entering the university as a student, and often as staff or faculty, has their skills, knowledge-base, social networks, personal meanings--and thus life-chances--transformed in the course of four to eight years. In one of our most dramatic transformations, a student arrives at the university from a second or third world environment, and in the course of four to six years leaps into a first world job and environment. This kind of transformation, while more dramatic and visible with our international students, begs to be accomplished with our more disadvantaged urban and rural youth. Countless personal transformations of myriad varieties occur at a university, including those of a spiritual nature. Distance-learning technologies can extend the reach of this personal transformation. Our teaching mission corresponds most closely to this mode of transformation.

Informational transformation. A university takes billions of bits of information and data--whether digital or sensory--and processes these into human knowledge and narrative (and sometimes wisdom) which we embed within human relationships, and summarize in documents and computer files. This knowledge, and its underlying information, must be continually acquired, developed, catalogued, maintained, and preserved--in order that it can be shared with citizens, who can further develop knowledge and continue processes of transformation. Our research mission corresponds most closely to this mode of transformation.

Physical transformation. Our university work has real-world consequences. From healed persons, to improved crops, to more effective industry, to better schools, to changed neighborhoods, to regions in which citizens have more of a say--what we do at the university has the potential to change the world around us physically, and measurably. Our tools transform persons and our world physically. Our service mission corresponds most closely to this mode of transformation.

Wealth transformation. The transformations engaged by a university are cumulative in a society, and are held and continue to build as monetary, physical, and social resources within families, businesses, and other organizations. Our economic development mission corresponds most closely to this mode of transformation.

The above modes of transformation engaged by a university are not mutually exclusive, and do not have a simple one-to-one correspondence with our stated missions.

University information systems, when considered in the context of the transformational activity of a university, must be structured to strengthen and enhance beneficial modes of personal, informational, physical, and wealth transformation.

When informational and physical tool-building and development become dominant in university program and action, and informational and organizational systems are built according to this dominance, other forms of positive transformation in a university can suffer.

University information systems must continually be shaped to improve the quality of life of students, faculty, staff, and citizens.

University systems of information and organization must therefore, at every opportunity, be shaped to enhance positive opportunities for personal, informational, physical, and wealth transformation as these are formalized throughout teaching, research, service, and economic development. While certain strategic prioritizing decisions must of necessity be made in constructing university information management systems, these systems should "come out even" in the end in supporting the quality of life of our institution and its public, while supporting our missions and the transformations in which we engage.

The customer service response job control system of Facilities Management and the proposal tracking software of the Vice Chancellors for Research are just as important in enhancing and maintaining the quality of life and effectiveness of the university as are the Student Affairs, Business Affairs, Human Resources and health information management systems. These "quality of life" systems can not only keep us personally engaged in the university as a positive force, but will help attract and retain good students, faculty, and staff.

As the years progress, the university will serve increasingly important roles in the stewardship of public information, and its transformation through analysis and visualization to public knowledge. Analytic and visualization tools, along with the related systems development and management capacities, must be continually developed in parallel complementarity. We should invest as much in our information transformation systems as we do in our quality of life systems. The result can be a university that is transparent not only in terms of its quality, but its accessibility and utility for citizens.

The items above present personal challenges to each of us to continue to grow in our skills and in our understanding of the systems and transformations facing us and our fellow citizens.

Some of the above are truisms. But we cannot let any one part of the above fall behind, if we wish to build a better and greater university, measured by its positive benefits to the public.


Many thanks to President Stukel and the planners of the retreat for the thought-provoking event.

Copyright, 1999, Albert Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved