Fortune Favors the Innovators

Deep in the dungeon-basement of Haas lays a surprisingly sprawling, windowless (ok, technically windowed, but they are above everyone’s heads and look out onto ground level, so, for the sake of imagery: windowless) office that houses the Muhlenberg Registrar. Inside that office, the usual: computers, files, one of the most powerful advocators of technological change at the school, desks, and papers. The usual.

Deborah Tamte-Horan, the Muhlenberg registrar (and the one distinctly not-office-supply “usual”), spearheaded the school’s first foray into the world of record keeping and registration technology, implementing online registration for the college in the mid 2000s. The online integration of Capstone followed shortly after, and with it came resistance from the faculty and staff. Before her arrival, Capstone, then named thesis, existed, basically, as an electronic book keeping system available to the registrar’s office beginning in 1982 (!!). All things considered, Muhlenberg was, predominantly, a pencil and paper school, and, until she arrived, it showed no real inclination to change that.

Even though the consensus was that both features would ultimately behoove the school, faculty members weren’t exactly breaking down Tamte-Horan’s door to try them out. Using a new TV remote can send shockwaves through an unsuspecting ecosystem, so it isn’t crazy that some faculty were wary of avant-garde technology upsetting the status quo.

Finely tuned to the heartbeat of the school, Tamte-Horan recognized reluctance to jump aboard the soon to be sailing technology ship. So, she picked up the dragging heels. Like any responsible administrator would, she held class lists and course schedules hostage in exchange for Capstone training sessions, and, by standing her ground, propelled the school forward into a technologically competent unit.

… Kind of.

Upwards of 10 years since the online implementation of Capstone (eons in technology years (basically reverse dog years)), Muhlenberg finds itself precariously perched. Capstone is managed and maintained by one man, John Waldenski effectively rendering it a burning platform. Though it can be customized to our whims and our needs (we’re the only school that uses it so we’re kind of a priority), the framework of the program is upwards of 30 years old and the system is operated by one man.

The school, Tamte-Horan, and, Allan Chen, Chief information officer, recognize the dangers that come with that, specifically that any number of unforeseen complications could force the school into a rash, potentially uninformed decision.

To assuage those concerns, and, plainly, to catch up to changing technological times, Muhlenberg is preparing to implement Workday, a more widely used, up to date, information-administration system.

“Everything will be different,” said Chen, another powerful champion of advancement, succinctly, if not accidentally, articulating the big fear of the technology adverse and change resistors alike.

To be fair, change is hard, and it’s hard regardless of the context. Using a new computer can be tricky, and that only affects one person, and that person very literally signs up for it when they sign the receipt. New remote example from before? Still hard, even if it was mostly a joke. The upshot here is that change is daunting, scale be damned. So, is it hard to believe that there might be trepidation on the horizon in the face of Workday, the system overhaul that purports to change everything? No, not at all. In fact, if you were leaning yes, you’re either lying or you’re a couple centuries in front of the rest of us.

That said, there are definitely worse people to handle the switch than Tamte-Horan and Chen.

Allan Chen, from deep in his own dungeon-basement office (two seems like a trend…), has already done a good deal of Muhlenberg modernizing, most notably in the form of WEPA integration and the switch from GroupWise to Google platforms. Each case, not so shockingly, was met with resistance, but it wasn’t just those old, stereotypical curmudgeon teachers that resisted – students, usually assumed to be the easy going, open to technology bunch, weren’t thrilled with the update. Outrage might be melodramatic, but, by and large, most students felt like the old printers worked well enough that they need not be replaced. Most students, according to Chen, also didn’t realize that the printers were 15+ years old and out of warranty. Maybe most importantly, especially for 15 year old printers with a penchant for breaking, any time the printers did stop working, not an uncommon occurrence, OIT had to wait for students to pass on the information, or they would never be fixed or filled. With WEPA, conversely, OIT is wirelessly informed any time a printer is broken or low on ink or toner. WEPA worked out well, but the previous printer situation necessitated the switch, and quick, forced transitions rarely ever go smoothly, so it is credit to Chen and those that worked on it to persevere through the change and beget action, even though initial reactions were not ideal.

Speaking of not ideal and speaking to Tamte-Horan’s ability to engender change, the integration of Capstone brought unforeseen issues, and with them unforeseen resistors. When Tamte-Horan started at Muhlenberg, still in the dark days of the early 2000’s, her grand scheme of online registration, and for that matter general online engagement hit something of a snag. To log onto Capstone, students needed a username and password, along with their birthday. But, being the not-exactly-identity-theft-conscious early 2000’s, the username the school assigned to each student was just their social security number. Naturally, that social security number, you know, the one used by the government, and, well, everything else, to unequivocally identify you, also acted as a student ID. And, when Tamte-Horan arrived in 2004 it lived on ID cards. With full names. And birthdays. Equally concerned with the fact that anyone who happened upon an ID card could log in to find crucial information or, on that same level STEAL AN IDENTITY, Tamte-Horan removed social security numbers and birthdays from ID cards and created the Berg ID system to take their places. Despite the fact that she potentially eschewed Halloween candy bowl level identity theft, Tamte-Horan was met with resistors from a peculiar place: campus safety. Upset about the fact that ID cards would no longer house birthdays so that they could monitor underage drinking, campus safety protested the implementation of the Berg ID system. Probably for the good of the people, Tamte-Horan rebuffed (ignored) those concerns, and the Berg ID system persisted.

Despite her own experiments and enterprises, Tamte-Horan also recognizes the potential pitfalls that come with trying to be an innovator for upwards of 10 consequtive years, saying, “when you’re here for a long time you have to force yourself to keep thinking in new ways, but when new people come in they bring new ways with them.” Chen, who started at Muhlenberg upwards of a decade after Tamte-Horan, fits that bill, and his endeavors continue to paint him admirably as another agent of change.

On top of WEPA, Chen’s other large undertaking, the integration of Google web applications, was met with resistance from a more predictable source: faculty and staff that were used to Groupwise and uninterested in changing. Already faced with a logistical mountain to traverse, 600,000+ staff emails had to be moved from the old server to the new one, Chen was understandably not interested in heel dragging, so he made the choice for the staff – as soon as Google was in, Groupwise was out; there was no chance for anyone to lag behind because the system was moving on and taking objectors with it. There may have been some grumbling, but the resistors did have much in the way of recourse so even the uninterested were forced to participate. Still, Chen softened the blow. He, and the rest of OIT held G Day in January 2016, and Chen said that most of the staff, in some form or fashion, showed up, whether to learn Google ins and outs, or just to set up their emails on their cell phones. G-WIZ (undeniably excellent and hilarious) pins and stickers were made and awarded to those that participated and showed interest or those offered to report back to their departments. Just like that, Chen transformed resistors into proponents, and effectively showed that people can come around to change if they’re helped (or if you have a cool pin).

Unfortunately, it isn’t outrageous to assume that similar issues to those of the early days of Capstone are coming. Admissions and financial aid, notably, will hold out of the Workday system and stick with their current systems, Slate and PowerFAIDS respectively. And, on the heels of converting from Blackboard to Canvas, faculty members are going to have to budget time to learn the intricacies of an entirely new system.

Belying the way she advocates and her current acumen, Tamte-Horan actually shares technological roots with many of her change resistant colleagues. With her first legitimate introduction to computers coming as a graduate student in a computer lab, Tamte-Horan actually remained somewhat tech-adverse herself until she recognized the utility of a personal computer on a profoundly important level some twenty years later: word processing was way easier than typing and retyping her husband’s dictated dissertation on a typewriter. Unfortunately, disaster soon struck, and it was that disaster that forged Tamte-Horan into the tech vanguard she is today. The computer froze. Okay, admittedly it wasn’t a big deal, but what was near cataclysmic was the fact that Tamte-Horan’s daughter, no more than three or four at the time, strolled into the room and reset the computer, showing Tamte-Horan, in no uncertain terms, that the way of the future is technology, and lagging behind can result in being passed by three year olds.

Now, Tamte-Horan teaches herself software skills in her spare time, a task that is equal parts useful for streamlining work and for keeping busy when there isn’t pressing work to be done. That someone who was, objectively, technologically naïve turned herself around so effectively should encourage her peers; even though there might not be three year olds around to precipitate learning via embarrassment, seeing Tamte-Horan as example could behoove those inclined to stay on their own path and maybe influence them to accept the change.

It is not difficult to see that times have changed and we must adapt or risk being left behind; the consensus is, again, that an update will be, on balance, a net boon for the school. But, one doesn’t have to look very hard to see that problems and resistors are coming with the change. Fortunately, Allan Chen and Deborah Tamte-Horan are still around, and, given their track record, it is hard to be anything but optimistic about the upcoming change.

Really, if last time was any indication, she’ll make sure it works out, and she just might have something more potent in mind than class list ransom.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here