Last week, the e-mail system at Eastern Michigan University went off line. I had just sent a number of messages to students regarding a fall semester class when I noticed the first signs of the outage. That was on a Friday. By Sunday, campus technicians assured us e-mail would be up by Monday. They then pushed that day back to Tuesday. Mail finally came back online by Thursday morning after almost six full days.
By then, agitation and anger had boiled over onto blogs, newspaper editorials, and letters to the editor. Some of us, realizing students would visit our online course pages or blogs, set up temporary e-mail channels through Google or Hotmail. Many others, however, did not have such an option readily available and felt the need to point a finger of blame.
Most of the comments to one professor's blog were supportive of our technicians and expressed thanks for the regular updates posted on university web pages. Readers soon called university leadership into question. Where were the leaders during the "crisis" and what steps were they taking to ensure such an outage would not happen again? One wag went to far as to directly blame the recently fired president for the e-mail collapse.
This accusation raises the question of how much a leader should know about the workings of the institution. Considering just how complex they can be, the answer is also complicated. Can we forgive a university president for not realizing the telecommunications infrastructure was in jeopardy? Should a high school principal be required to know the parking lot is in disrepair or parents are upset about a newly imposed policy?
The answer, for both university presidents and high school principals, I believe, is yes, they should know but they should have in place a system to help them with their environmental scan. The person in control of the budget should seek assurances from colleagues that the institution is working properly. That team of colleagues should be capable of assessing their areas of control and be encouraged to promote advanced planning. The leader, in turn, should be capable of hearing where the weaknesses in the system lie then act as needed. That seems straightforward enough.
When I was responsible for the computer infrastructure in my college, I sought advice from everyone, especially those who knew our legacy machines and their quirks. When my team advised it might be wise to replace older servers with more reliable new ones, the advice made sense. We scheduled their replacement and figured out a plan for refreshing the technology so we could build the costs into the budget and plan for downtime when it would least affect the professors and students. There was nothing magic to servers running smoothly; it was planning.
Universities, like school districts, can plan for change - and they do. So is the president of the university directly responsible for this particular e-mail outage? It depends on the advice this one sought and whether or not he knew the system was sketchy. It depends on whether his team offered him a plan and whether he acted upon it. This is information an oversight panel might be able to determine.
Now that we know a system essential to our work could possibly crash, is it not up to us, as users and employees, to raise questions to the leadership? Should we not be waking up a dormant technology committee or creating an oversight committee to provide suggestions to campus leadership. There is no such committee on my campus - at present.
A technical crisis can become the fork in the road: we can blame the folks in charge or we can present a plan to prevent the problem from recurring. I am choosing to set aside blame and look forward to positive change. I am also looking forward to regular e-mail service.