Decentralizing Information Technology

Vision for the future? The first of a three-part series

No press releases or committee reports marked the revolutionary changes of the past year in what was once Harvard's information technology stronghold, the Office of Information Technology (OIT).

Known widely among students for its control of the phone system and its construction of the computer network, OIT was an organization with big shoes to fill.

Its primary responsibility was the creation and maintenance of the campus-wide backbone for the Internet. As the University's largest organ for handling information technology, OIT became the source for all inquiries involving computers and the Internet.

But for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) as well as Harvard's other schools, OIT was a philosophical battleground.

OIT was run by the central administration and its power ran contrary to the decentralized management style preferred by Harvard's schools--a policy known as "every tub on its own bottom."


The schools, particularly the larger ones, insist on keeping policy- making and innovation within their own control.

"[The argument] wouldn't go away," says former vice president for finance Allen J. Proctor '74, whose main goal in Mass. Hall was to increase coordination among Harvard's disparate schools. "No matter what I did it wouldn't go away.... [It became] a belief system."

As a result, the Deans joined together to push for a shift away from OIT's previous role, according to sources within the administration.

The administration slashed OIT's staff by more than one-third, altered its mission and even changed its name to University Information Systems (UIS).

But even with nearly two-thirds of the same employees, OIT is no more. In the words of Professor of Business Administration Richard L. Nolan, "OIT got blown up."

Although OIT is now defunct, how Harvard dealt with the organization paints a picture of where the University is moving on information technology.

A two-month Crimson investigation, including interviews with about 100 faculty and staff, found that the University is moving toward a hugely decentralized information technology system.

General Mission

OIT strived to be the pinnacle of information technology at Harvard.

"Steve Hall, [the former director of OIT], tried to be the beacon for information technology at Harvard, but that's not how Harvard works," says one faculty member who has had close dealings with OIT.

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