Automation and the Well-Run University

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Automation has been in the news lately, especially as related to replacing1 and changing2 jobs. Often, the underlying tone is that of anxiety and alarm. There is even a website called "Will Robots Take My Job?" that aims to predict the likelihood of various jobs becoming obsolete through computerization. Will automation replace and change jobs? Yes. It already has and will continue to do so. Is this something to be feared? I don't think so. The changes are inevitable and mostly bring about positive results. Do we need to be aware of the implications and adapt accordingly? Yes, absolutely.

A Look Back

In my first job as a software developer in the mid 1980s, I learned a key lesson from a productive co-worker. He wrote a script3 for anything that he had to do more than one time, thereby automating his own actions and maximizing his personal efficiency. He was amazing in how fast he could get things done! This eye-opening introduction to the power of automation influenced me then and still guides my approach to designing solutions both at home and professionally. I try to optimize at every opportunity, setting up processes that run themselves and reducing manual effort over the long term, whether creating a weekly grocery list to building a system that detects students who are in academic jeopardy. I view automation and continual process improvement positively, not something to be feared, although change is certainly involved.

Over the last several decades, automation has brought about enormous changes in virtually all aspects of our lives. I remember when "pay at the pump" was first introduced. As an introvert, I was happy to not have to interact with a gas station attendant to pay for my gasoline. Clearly, this "innovation" reduced the amount of labor required to accept payments and saved time for customers. Consider how financial transactions have changed through the introduction of ATMs, debit cards, services such as Apple Pay and PayPal, automatic bill pay, and fully online banks.

Often, I use a GPS app not because I need directions but rather to help me determine which route is best given current traffic conditions. The GPS app augments my knowledge to help me choose the optimal route. Flight tracking apps are incredibly helpful when retrieving family members from the airport. TripIt, one of my favorite apps, organizes my itinerary from forwarded confirmation emails. I used to print these confirmations and carry them with me on trips. No more.

Even the mundane tasks of daily life are being transformed by automation. I regularly have experiences where I need an item from my favorite home improvement store and can check on availability and location (aisle and bay) through the store website or app. When I visit in person, I am armed with information and can go straight to what I seek, reducing the need for help from a sales associate. By giving me access to their inventory databases, these stores have empowered me to solve my own problems. I love the fact that my Nest thermostats can detect if I am home or not through the GPS on my phone and set the temperature accordingly. Likewise, my Nest cameras send me text updates when they detect movement, which, thankfully, is usually just my dog.

Automation and Universities

Automation is transforming universities, too. In the article, "From Automation to Transformation: Forty Years of Libraries and Information Technology in Higher Education,"4 Clifford Lynch describes the computerization of library operations, the transition from print to electronic content, and the vastly expanded access afforded by the network. His article, published in 2000, describes the changes that took place in the previous 40 years, resulting in a 50-plus year perspective on how automation has transformed university libraries.

I began working at a university about 30 years ago, just barely missing the era of punch cards. At that time, university operations were typically managed through mainframe computers. The various applications were silo'd, meaning that they did not have an awareness of other related applications. They were kept in sync with each other through batch data uploads. The applications had to be taken offline at night to update them with the transactions that had occurred during the day. Approvals, e.g., procurement and human resources, were paper-based with forms that required multiple handwritten signatures. These forms were sent around the university through campus mail, making it difficult to know the status of a form or who had signed off. Web-based self-service was limited, and students complained fiercely that they could not take care of business after-hours.

Contrast this with today's mainstream technology architectures where software applications access and update databases in real time. Through orchestration, applications send packets of information to each other as events happen and in response to triggers. They communicate seamlessly and continuously through tools such as web services, JSON feeds, and messaging/integration platforms. Business processes are designed to run themselves; they only send out alerts when problems or anomalies occur. Workflow, digital imaging, and analytics provide further enhancements.

Much has been written on automating traditional business processes such as payroll and employee recruiting and onboarding. In my opinion, the real opportunities are in the automation of academic processes. At my university, when an admissions specialist admits a student, the system automatically creates the "WebID" and alerts the student so she can begin self-service instantly. Likewise, the system automatically applies housing and advising holds. The housing and student systems, although independent from each other, are tightly integrated and effectively operate as one system. When a student applies for housing, the housing system "pings" the student system to get basic information about the student. When the student pays the housing application fee, the housing system tells the student system to lift the housing hold. This is 10-year old technology, and I shudder to think what these processes would look like in a paper-based world.

About five years ago, my university began using automated attendance tracking to aid in student success efforts. Classroom attendance scanners serve as environmental sensors giving us information about student behavior. When combined with other data points, e.g., LMS activity, WIFI/portal logins, and midterm grades, we gain insight into student engagement and academic performance and can provide intervention. Likewise, we can perform analyses across data sources such as attendance and student ratings of instruction to answer questions like "Are students more likely to attend class if they view the instructor positively?"

One of my favorite automated academic processes is grade changes. The original process involved an instructor getting a paper card from the dean's office, filling it out, carrying it across campus for various signatures, and delivering it to the Registrar's Office, where an employee entered the grade change into the system manually. In the automated process, an instructor initiates the grade change through the university portal, and the change is routed electronically to the related offices. When the dean signs off, the grade is automatically changed in the system, and the various parties are notified electronically. This saves time for instructors, removes the opportunity for data entry errors, and provides an audit trail showing who initiated and approved the grade change.

The success of these projects requires a collaborative culture characterized by trust and an openness to change. Working at a university where resources are constrained provides an incentive to be smart in how you operate. We knew that enrollment was growing and that our operational budgets would remain mostly flat. We and the functional offices we served were motivated to automate as much as possible. From this perspective, automation is not something to be feared but rather a powerful tool. Automation helps the institution "run well" and minimizes administrative overhead, allowing resources to be directed toward the core mission.

The Future

The staggering technology-driven changes over the past 50 years will continue. We already operate with a large influx of network-enabled devices, i.e., Internet of Things, on our campuses such as projectors and HVAC equipment. The software tools that exploit connectivity to these devices are making it easier to manage large deployments with relatively small staffs. Simultaneously, this connectivity leads to unprecedented information security challenges. Universities own massive data sets that have yet to be fully mined for use in improving services. Students expect immediate access to information and services, requiring new technologies such as in-memory databases and state-of-the-art mobile apps. Just as we are seeing artificial intelligence infiltrate other industries such as Amazon's use of sophisticated algorithms to predict our interests,5 there will be applications in higher education.


The automation trend is inevitable given the inherent resourcefulness and creativity of humans. What are the implications?

I have focused on operational aspects of universities. Automation is not appropriate for every scenario. As with all technology, we must ensure that automation is used in appropriate, ethical ways that result in positive change.

Automation will continue to replace and change jobs. I have given examples where FTEs were reduced through automation and service was improved. This will continue. We should not fight it but rather figure out what our new organizational structures need to be and help people transition to new roles.

The CIO will continue to play a critical role. There is both hype and truth in vendor messaging around automation. The CIO must discern among options and chart a path that benefits the institution. In the current environment, the CIO must "grow" an organization that has expertise in orchestrating applications and services so that they work together seamlessly. The CIO must articulate a vision for the transformative power of technology and then carry out that vision, delivering tangible results.

A properly run IT organization has and will continue to bring great value to the institution. I occasionally hear about institutions that seek to minimize the IT function. This, in my opinion, is shortsighted. If you believe the research behind the "Will Robots Take My Job?" website, then CIOs, software developers, database administrators, network/systems administrators, and numerous related jobs are "totally safe." These roles are vital given the technology revolution that is occurring all around us. It is an exciting time to work in IT at a university.


  1. Patrick Gillespie, "Rise of the machines: Fear robots, not China or Mexico," CNN Money, January 30, 2017.
  2. Barb Darrow, "The Bright Side of Job-Killing Automation," Fortune, April 5, 2017.
  3. Scripting language, Wikipedia.
  4. Clifford Lynch, "From automation to transformation: forty years of libraries and information technology in higher education," EDUCAUSE Review, Vol. 35, No. 1 (January/February 2000): 60–68.
  5. R.L. Adams, "10 Powerful Examples of Artificial Intelligence In Use Today," Forbes, January 10, 2017.

Kathy Gates is CIO Emerita, University of Mississippi.

© 2017 Kathryn F. Gates. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.