Q & A with Joy Hughes, CIO and Vice President for Information Technology

Posted: November 13, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette. To view previous articles, visit the Q&A archive page.

By Fran Rensbarger

Can you tell me the responsibilities of the chief information officer at the university?

I work with the heads of the library, the Division of Instructional and Technology Support Services (DoIT), Technology Systems, and the Information Technology (IT) Project Management Office to ensure we focus our resources on the achievement of the university’s strategic goals and priorities, and that we assess and coordinate services to provide the best possible support to faculty, staff, and students.

Joy Hughes
Joy Hughes

I also serve as a communications link between President Alan Merten, the budget group, and the Information Technology Unit (ITU) so that ITU understands the priorities and concerns of the president and the budget group, and so that the latter understand what it will take to achieve the priorities.

I work to advance the university’s reputation in the external world. For example, as the chair of the Virginia Public Higher Education CIOs, I coordinated the development of a strategic plan for collaborating across institutions to achieve cost savings and improve services. I’m the chair of the Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA) cyber security working group, and in that capacity, I am organizing a grant-funded conference at our law school in March that will bring together security researchers, security practitioners, and federal funders. I coordinate an annual executive retreat in Colorado for higher education CIOs, and I’m a member of the EDUCAUSE/Internet2 executive committee of the security task force that seeks to improve security in higher education.

What are the most important issues of your office, and how are you addressing those issues?

The most important issue right now is retaining qualified staff. Our salaries for librarians, library staff, and IT specialists have fallen well below salaries for similar positions in the public sector, particularly in Fairfax County and the federal government, and we are seeing good people leave for 20 to 30 percent salary increases for what is essentially the same work. All of us in ITU management positions know how important it is to address quality of work-life issues and to make sure people’s work is recognized and rewarded. We invest resources in training and in leadership development, and we seek creative ways to narrow the gap between our staff salaries and those provided by nearby jurisdictions.

In trying to think of some creative ways of recruiting and retaining staff, how creative can you get?

We recognize outstanding staff with our own employee of the month awards. We also utilize the university’s impact awards, and we add to those our own resources in order to recognize more staff. Whenever the university offers something like the outstanding achievement awards, $1,000 for each employee, we always make sure we submit many applications and we usually have the most winners because we put a lot of thought into the nominations. In addition to university awards, we have our own recognition. For the customer service award, for example, we have customers nominate people for an individual person and a team award.

Sometimes we do internal postings for jobs in order to provide career paths for our people. That is, for a higher-paying job, we do an internal posting, and hire someone internal. Then we post the other (lower level) job on the outside, so that we’re always bringing new people in, but at the same time, we provide a career path. An employee in the support center, for example, might work in the support center half time, and in field services or in network engineering half time, to give the employee some experience in that area to become qualified for a job when there’s a posting.

As for recruiting, in the IT arena, many applicants exist for the jobs. But in the libraries, there are more open librarian jobs in this country than there are librarians to fill them. We are working to make our entering salaries more competitive, and we also provide some sponsorships for library staff to go to library school. It’s a kind of “grow your own” situation.

Is security a major issue now?

Security is a big challenge. Effective security will require policy and culture changes. Unfortunately, it will also require spending lots of money. I’m excited about the local area network (LAN) infrastructure project Mason Enterprise Security Architecture (MESA), which was designed by the members of the Technology Council. It will provide more effective security through its authentication and authorization capabilities.

The university was hit hard by a virus attack earlier this year. How did it affect faculty and staff at Mason, and what are we doing to prevent future attacks?

This is a very complicated question, because almost everybody is protected from viruses here. We weren’t hit by the virus, we were hit by the many, many messages from the outside world generated by this virus. It got into people’s address books, and it sent messages to the people in those address books. These messages would come in, and they would be stopped by the virus shield. It has to look at each message, and decide who gets each one. It’s a broker. But there were just too many of them. So it’s more the traffic, as opposed to a virus attacking your computer. We had hardly any calls to the support center saying, “The virus has attacked my computer and now my computer won’t work.” What we had was, “I’m not getting e-mail,” because a gazillion messages were coming in. And the poor e-mail server is only expecting so many messages, it’s built for so many or a little extra, and now it’s getting all of these extra messages.

What to do about that? This is more an infrastructure question about reorganizing our servers, and adding servers, so that it can handle a burst in traffic. Rather than sizing the servers for an ordinary day plus 15 percent more traffic, as we have in the past, we have to recognize that we might have bursts that are three, four, or five times the traffic we normally handle, and invest in that, which is a shame because this might not happen again for another year. But it’s just something that we have to do. We have to make room for that in the budget. We can’t do without e-mail.

Now, we can make some no-cost changes. For example, if you’re under attack, don’t send people a message saying, “Your message had a virus on it.” That just adds to the traffic. That model of politeness really comes from another time when viruses were spread by disks, individual to individual, not by grabbing hold of address books. So we have to move away from that politeness, and that doesn’t cost any money.

What would you say were the most important events of the past year for ITU?

The opening of Innovation Hall has been such a positive experience. So many faculty members have come forward to say how much they enjoy teaching in the building. Their praise energizes the staff. We’ve become even more committed to involving faculty in the design specifications for new buildings.

I’m seeing much greater use of mixed media to increase student learning: video clips in a WebCT literature course; the use of digitized images to illustrate mathematical symmetry; students moving back and forth from the images in a telescope simulator to the cells in an Excel spreadsheet; students using graphics tools to lay out the book they are writing so they gain experience with the roles of writer, publisher, and illustrator; history students using database tools to conduct rigorous analyses of runaway slave advertisements from a digital archive of period newspapers, and more. I’m astounded by how well faculty members move back and forth between such a variety of media and tools.

How can faculty members benefit more from Innovation Hall and other technology resources than they do now?

We have a wonderful faculty support person, Susan Campbell. When a faculty member gets scheduled into a room that has a lot of technology in it, and wants ideas on how to use it to enhance student learning, they should talk to Susan. The faculty members who work with her say she’s wonderful.

How does the university benefit from the Banner system?

The new Banner system has the potential for transformation. The human resources (HR) and finance staffs, working with the ITU staff, made a tremendous effort to bring up these modules despite far too many key vacancies and a severe time constraint caused by the poor condition of the legacy finance system. It’s catch-up time now as they work to make the system easier for the end user and better able to meet end user needs. The Banner student project is on track under the exceptional leadership of Linda Schwartzstein.

The Banner system is much more flexible, accurate, and forward-thinking than our old system. Previously, if the Faculty Senate changed the repeat grade rule, it might take us a year to actually implement the proposal. The Banner system is built on an Oracle database and makes great use of tables of allowable values and rules; so you just change the rule, or you change the allowable value, instead of having to reprogram many, many programs. Right now, if we add a student major, a number of programs have to be recoded to include this new major. And then, since the data is currently stored in many flat files that have to be merged, programming the files is a very time-consuming and inaccurate process. But with the Banner system, data are in a relational database, so you don’t have this problem of inaccuracies and redundancies.

What we’re struggling now with is the user interface. With the old finance and the HR systems, the user had been protected from the inadequacies of the old system because our computer center wrote user-friendly web interfaces that shielded you from that. We know how inadequate the old system was, but it just couldn’t be modified, and it was so patched the audit report said it was in danger of failure. So now we have Banner, and our challenge is to make sure the experience for the user is a pleasant one.

What are some of your plans for the future for ITU?

My number one goal is to secure funding for a much-needed library addition. More space is needed for the growing collections and for the growing number of students using the library. We also need better facilities to showcase our special collections, which are growing in quality and quantity and attracting an increasing number of scholars from throughout the world.

As Mason’s research presence expands, it also creates the need for the infrastructure supporting research to increase. This includes library space, library materials, network bandwidth, server support, grid computing, and a host of other services. Also, the budget group recognizes that the library collection has to increase because of the new and different Ph.D. programs, for example, and we’ve allocated some funding for that.

Similarly, as the resident student population grows, ITU is challenged to support these students in their work.

After the Banner student system is implemented, we’ll work on exploiting the native power of the system, particularly the underlying Oracle database, which has such potential in a variety of areas. And we’ll be develop a university portal, which will provide each user with their own personalized entrĂ©e to Banner and other information resources, organized to suit each one’s interests and needs.

How can Mason increase the supporting infrastructure?

The supporting infrastructure is especially important for research. As part of the 2010 plan, we are figuring out what kind of infrastructure we need here. It’s not just ITU. As the number of grants increases in an academic department, they have a need for a grants administrator, for example.

Also, we are part of a National Lambda Rail (NLR), a future-oriented, coast-to-coast fiber optic grid for researchers so they can collaborate across geographic boundaries. In Virginia, the sponsor is the Virginia Tech Foundation, which put up the initial money. The research institutions, including George Mason, are paying that back over time. NLR’s two purposes are to provide faculty members who do network research a platform in which they can do their research and to provide very high bandwidth on demand for very specific research projects. We think the initial experiments will be performed on it in about a year.

What are some other things that you are doing?

It’s amazing that we can collaborate across the region to provide the Ask a Librarian service through the Washington Research Library Coalition. Librarians take turns, but the customers don’t know it. They dial the number, and they don’t know whether it’s a George Mason librarian or a Georgetown librarian handling the question. That way we don’t have to cover as many hours, but we get more hours of coverage, and there’s always a backup.

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