Candidates for ITS Director Field Questions

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.

Finalists for ITS Director– Eric Behrens ’92, currently Associate Director of ITS and Humanities Coordinator, and Gayle Barton, currently Director of Instructional Technology at Williams fielded questions in the Scheuer Room during open campus forums last week.

Tom Stephenson, Chemistry Professor and chair of the search committee, wrote in an e-mail that the committee is now “checking the references of both finalists and soliciting feedback from anyone on campus who met with them. Our goal is to make a recommendation to Provost Connie Hungerford late this week or early next week.”

The recommendation will not be publically announced–instead, Hungerford will consult with the administration before making an offer to one of the candidates, and, Stephenson says, “it is possible that there will not be a public announcement for several weeks.”

The two were selected as finalists not only because of their extensive experience, says Stephenson, but because “they are committed to an open and inclusive management style… forward-looking… [and] excellent communicators.” Furthermore, “they have a track record of building effective teams… [and] they are sensitive to the complexities of working with diverse groups of staff, faculty and students.”

Eric Behrens ’92

Behrens’ open sessions were held on October 29th and October 30th. He began his talk by highlighting his experience–he graduated Swarthmore in 1992 as a theater major and has worked here almost ever since. “I went away and was anticipating a career in arts administration, but I got a call from Judy Downing [current ITS Director], who said they had a network technician position that they couldn’t fill. They promised to train me if I would come back and take a shot at it.”

In 1994, Behrens became Humanities Computing Coordinator, and he said, “as a theater major this was a great opportunity… I served primarily as a consultant to faculty.” Behrens helped to create the first college website, and said “I became very interested in the transformative power of the web and that has been the throughline of my career since then.”

Behrens mentioned his experience as “a spark plug in college’s addition to be an early adopter for a learning management system,” that is Blackboard. “The Tri-Colleges decided to do it as a single system and I was the overall project leader… we had to put three schools into one interface, and we negotiated a pretty significant contract for the Tri-College by coming together.”

More recently, Behrens was a member of the five-person committee that created the new college website, and took over leadership halfway through, managing both the college’s web team and four outside consulting groups who contributed to the project.

About these experiences and others, Behrens said, “I’ve learned that campus-wide and Tri-Co projects are difficult to pull off without exhibiting leadership and building long-term partnerships.” When people work with him, he says, “I hope they see traits like honesty, fairness, openness, and thoughtfulness.”

When asked about his weaknesses and the weaknesses of Swarthmore ITS, he said, “the flipside of being a future thinker… [is that] it can be hard for me to focus on maintenance management sometimes when it’s important for me to focus on both.” As far as ITS, “philosophically I would like to have ITS become more adept at working from the client experience in, we need to get better at working to serve the customer… I know there is an outward-looking information-collecting process that I would like to see enhanced.”

One way he hopes to improve communication is by having “a more open project acceptance procedure… we would have a group of people to help ITS out and evaluate proposals.” When ITS starts new projects, he would like to designate someone for community members to come to with concerns, since “people on campus should know that you’re working on the project… there has to be a notion that we’re in a shared enterprise as a community.”

Asked what he had learned about managing people, he responded that “my role is sometimes to make decisions when there are decisions that need to be made… Swarthmore can be teased on some levels for the slow pace at which decisions are made.” He continued, “there are times when you have to make decisions quickly,” and related a few stories about times when he had led teams through that process. “It’s different than working on long-term buy-in, but it forces decision making when it’s appropriate.”

When asked about vision, he responded “I would say that the Director needs to be able to describe our opportunities and show the institution how to take next steps… [but] I don’t point to the horizon and ask people to march toward it. I tend to be more of a culture guy, and I want to be in step with the flow of the institution.”

Throughout the forum, Behrens highlighted the challenges of mobility, communications, integration, and privacy and security. For example, he pointed to the iPhone as a sign of the future direction of consumer electronics, and said “we’re behind on the mobility trend… we don’t yet have a sustainable laptop solution for faculty and staff.” In terms of privacy, he said “a lot is at stake at this point… academic freedom is essential, but also privacy of records and data… I will do my level best to keep a safe yet open environment.”

Gayle Barton

Gayle Barton’s talk took a different tone, as she has a more varied experience and certainly less experience with Swarthmore. She has been a programmer, a lecturer at Jefferson Community College, System Analyst and later Director of Academic Computing at St. Lawrence, Director of Administrative Computing Services at Clarkson, and has been in her current poisition at Williams as Director of Instructional Tech since 2000.

She began by talking about the importance of being “receptive to what students are doing… there are lots of digital divides that we look at, and in an environment like a premiere liberal arts college, that divide is at about age 35, of those who did and didn’t grow up with it.” She finds that students are “using technology in creative ways that often have not occurred to faculty and staff.”

With her experience at a wide range of institutions, she also stressed that technology decisions “have to be made in relation to the mission of the institution.” While MIT does exciting things with technology like the Open Courseware initiative and changing their webpage daily, “the mission of Swarthmore is not the mission of MIT.” Another mission would be that of a community college, which has a mission to serve students who may have a very practical need for career preparation or who may need help with remedial skills, both of which she has seen facilitated by technology.

If at Swarthmore, she says, “I would have to take Swarthmore’s mission into account… the idea of being a global citizen and wanting to attract students to this environment.” She has significant experience getting student buy-in at Williams, where she runs a summer program for students in instructional technology, and “they become our student resources in the fall… trying to listen to students is a really important part of my job.”

When asked about major projects at Williams, she talked about “one that has real long-term benefit… that has been creating digital collections for teaching,” for example digitizing a “shoebox of slides” owned by a Biology Professor. “We work very hard at digitizing things and making them available to students so that they have access to the same resources that faculty has, and that their colleagues have access… over time I think it has enormous value.”

In order to get faculty support, she finds that “the first step is to make sure that the faculty memebr understands the benefit… they don’t have to understand the technology but they do have to understand the benefit.”

In response to a question about why she is interested in the job at Swarthmore, she said, “I love my job at williams, I like the people I work with… [but] I am interested in having an opportunity where I would have more resposibility, more opportunity to work with senior staff and trustees.” She has previously spent time at Bryn Mawr and Haverford, and says that in all her observation, “I like the Quaker values… I like what Swarthmore is about. She continued, “it also comes through in this search, the way it has been handled has spoken well of the community and the way people are treated here.”

In response to a question about outsourcing, she said, “I think it needs to be done cautiously… I know a few institutions that outsourced the help desk because they didn’t have the staff for 24/7 support, and I think outsourcing installation makes a lot of sense, but I don’t support outsourcing management.”

Asked about Blackboard, she called it “a great tool for faculty… maybe Swarthmore students never lose their copy of the syllabus, but to start class knowing that will never be the case and that that you don’t have to make copies is great for a professor.” That said, “I haven’t seen many people taking it up a notch to truly be a teaching or a learning tool.” She thinks that at places like Swarthmore or Williams “where so much is done face-to-face there isn’t necessarily the incentive” to use Blackboard creatively.

When asked about improving ITS’s accessibility, she said “ITS seems sort of mysterious… you’re using ITS all the time but it’s in your dorm room, your office, and you don’t see the people. Sometimes what we do is like plumbing.” Another problem is that “typically ITS is in the basement… we’re in spaces that aren’t necessarily gracious or inviting.”

To change this at Williams, she is working on creating “a learning environment… a media project studio where we can meet students face to face,” and she would be interested in similar facility enhancements at Swarthmore.

When asked about Williams and RIAA notices, she said “we’ve done our best to let people know what the risk is… the decision was made to pass those letters on so that they have the option to know what they want to do.”

She also spoke at length about media literacy. “We want to get faculty to the point where they’re willing to accept a non-standard ten page paper… thinking about how we can use media effectively for self-expression.” She’s brought digital storytelling workshops for faculty to Williams, and “there’s no mastery, it’s a three-day workshop… but we’re just trying to get people to think about that.”

Asked about relationships between ITS and the library, she said “they have complementary but different roles… libraries will continue to focus on collection development and cataloging, and technologists will build the tools behind delivering the collections, the search engines and interfaces between content and people.” She continued, “I think they can collaborate on learning spaces, to think outside the library walls, they’ve got more and more digital content and they should be able to deliver services remotely… I think there’s great opportunities for collaborations, but the schools that have truly merged the two have lost something in that process.”

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