By Jake Tiger
AMID the bevy of technological issues across campus, Rider’s Office of Information Technologies (OIT) hosted its first series of town halls in Rue Auditorium in Sweigart Hall on Feb. 1 and 2, allowing the university’s disgruntled staff and faculty to voice their questions, suggestions and frustrations with the department.
The town halls came after a 2022 fall semester that was tainted by unreliable classroom equipment and insufficient support from Rider’s OIT.
“To be fully transparent, it has been a nightmare. I said that in the town hall meeting yesterday, and I stand by what I said,” Jessi Oliano, a professor who specializes in graphic design, said to The Rider News on Feb. 3. “The fall semester was extremely rough. … When things in terms of technology aren’t going well in such a visual course like graphic design, it really hinders our ability to deliver the content effectively to our students.”
Senior Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer James Hartman, and Interim Transition Chief Information Officer Oliver Wendt conducted the discussions from the theater’s stage, beginning each town hall with a breakdown of the OIT’s top priorities going forward and how it plans to address them.
According to Wendt, one of the department’s most dire concerns was replacing outdated technology throughout the university by means that both are realistic for Rider’s budget and their dwindling team of technicians.
“We have quite a large fleet, but also a mostly aged fleet,” said Wendt during the second town hall. “How do we not only update the legacy stuff, but also create a plan that is sustainable going forward in terms of how we roll them out, deploy them and keep people working on the most cutting edge systems that they need to do their jobs.”
Because of the outsourcing of Rider’s OIT to Ellucian Services and the differing workforce strategy that comes with it, it has been difficult for Wendt and the reduced number of on-site OIT staff members to keep up with the constant flow of help desk tickets submitted everyday.
According to Associate Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Kristine Brown, Rider’s OIT had 24 on-site employees and nine vacant positions when Ellucian took over. The OIT now has 18 permanent on-site employees, with many of the other positions being outsourced to Ellucian, such as operation of the help desk.
“The Ellucian model is one that works well at many college and university campuses across the country,” said Brown in an email to The Rider News. “It is shortsighted to simply compare the number of staff employed by Rider before Ellucian arrived and now. The model of service delivery is very different, but we believe it will ultimately work very well for the Rider community.”
At the second town hall, Wendt at one point mentioned the help desk’s growing backlog of cases, stating that it had accumulated over 200 open tickets as of that morning.
“There’s 130 academic spaces that are being utilized this semester, and how do we tackle those when they all are aging at about the same rate?” said Wendt during the first town hall. “It’s like a giant game of Whac-A-Mole: you fix one, then there’s another one.”
Following the opening statements, Hartman and Wendt opened up the town hall to the faculty and staff in attendance. What started as a back-and-forth discussion gradually trickled into a downpour of grievances as unified dissatisfaction with the OIT became painstakingly clear.
One such grievance came from Oliano, who recalled an instance where an OIT technician “stormed” into her classroom and started “screaming” at her in front of students for submitting too many tickets.
“I was so shaken and upset,” said Oliano to The Rider News. “I can’t picture myself acting like that and still having a job, to be honest. And I’m surprised that Oliver [Wendt] looked shocked when he heard this, it looked like he was hearing this for the first time.”
Librarian Sharon Yang also spoke up, stating that, despite Rider’s promises, the quality of service had taken a noticeable dip since Ellucian took over.
“We had a dedicated person from OIT to serve our needs, so we were very happy,” said Yang during the second town hall. “Suddenly he was gone, but we were told we would have the same level of support as when he was here. … The new company came along, and suddenly, we find out the support level we used to have is not there anymore.”
Another complaint came from David Dewberry, professor of communication and president of Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), who claimed that his computer was outdated to the point of “no longer taking any updates whatsoever.”
According to Emre Yetgin, an associate professor on the AAUP’s negotiating team, Rider and the union agreed on a technology replacement system in September that would supply Rider’s faculty with new computers on a revolving four-year schedule. The system also ensured that full-time faculty always have a computer that is no more than 5 years old.
Hartman provided clarification as to why the technology at Rider has fallen behind as of late, citing the lingering, complex financial conundrum created by COVID-19.
“We’re coming up on three years when the pandemic started, and a lot of our resources shifted to make sure that we could work our way through the pandemic,” said Hartman during the second town hall. “Those machines that were 4 or 5 years old back in 2020 are now 7 and 8 years old because we had to shift our resources. Oliver and I are trying to put together a plan to address that backlog and get us back to a regular cycle of device release.”
While Hartman offered a valid explanation for the shortcomings and mentioned that there is a plan coming to fruition, the unfortunate reality for Rider’s faculty and staff is that this plan cannot be enacted until the necessary funds are available, whenever that may be.
“I’m hopeful that there’s something,” said Oliano. “[I’m] not sure what [it] is or when that something is going to happen, but we’ll see. I mean, I have tickets to put in this week. We’ll see what happens.”