Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In January, 2008, a new director will take the helm of Swarthmore’s Information Technology Services department. After 20 years of working at Swarthmore, Judy Downing will retire. “I always said I would retire as soon as I had grandchildren, and I just became a grandmother,” she explained. “They live in Chicago, and I want to be involved.”
The ITS Director is a managerial role. “There isn’t much hands on work,” Downing said. The role focuses on negotiating contracts and overseeing staff. And Downing firmly believes that ITS has “some of the most creative people. And that is what makes this job fun. Swarthmore is never boring.”
Of all Swarthmore’s departments, ITS is, perhaps, the one which has changed most over the past few years. Downing suggested the changes in ITS’s staff reflect changes in the department. “When I came to Swarthmore, we only had ten people. Now we have thirty!”
Clearly, technology itself has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. “Communication has changed the most,” said Downing, particularly referring to social networking. She believes the single biggest change has been e-mail, an advance that has led to people in neighboring cubicles emailing each other.
E-mail was introduced to Swarthmore in the mid-1990s. Despite the advent of other tools such as IM clients and Facebook, email continues to be the single dominant form of communication among the faculty and staff of Swarthmore. While email improves efficiency, Downing noted that “there are now fewer face-to-face contacts, and this is kind of sad.”
E-mail also facilitated what Downing described as ITS’ single greatest mistake. When e-mail was first introduced, “Swarthmore was ahead of the curve,” and decided to give all students permission to mass email all other students en masse. “It was an abysmal failure,” Downing recalled. “People complain about the Reserved Students Digest now, but imagine dozens of emails going out every day to every student. It was a mess.” Luckily, Swarthmore’s mistake was quickly rectified and it acted as a warning to schools which were a step or two behind Swarthmore.
Downing also oversaw Swarthmore’s 1993 decision to wire residence halls. “Almost overnight, nearly 100% of our students brought a computer with them. It was explosive.” Other changes she oversaw included a radical shift in business software in the mid 90s and the adoption of Blackboard, a program which has totally changed the way many professors do business.
With these changes there has been a new emphasis on security. Security concerns have gone from “worrying about one rouge employee to worrying about thousands of daily attempts to break into college services.” ITS now has a Data Security Officer.
While the changes in technology at Swarthmore have been dramatic, Downing does not believe our society has yet to actualize the promises of the computer revolution. “All during the 70s and 80s, the rage was about paperless organizations. Then software transformed businesses and education. And while people in Silicon Valley might have seen that transformation, I am not sure if all of these promises have delivered,” she explained.
Not surprisingly, ITS has a lot of plans for the future. The department is working on a new website, it plans to create a true portal page–a dashboard on steroids, and it plans to capitalize on video-over-network distribution.
Whatever the future brings however, it will fall on the shoulders of Downing’s successor. “I’ll be leaving for Chicago in January,” she offered, in conclusion.