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An IT Assessment of Campus Sustainability

Here are preliminary findings of a major study on the status of green IT at higher education campuses, conducted recently by the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR).

By Karla Hignite

The EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) recently conducted a major study on the status of green IT at higher education campuses. While the full report of the June 2009 survey won't be published until the first quarter of 2010, ECAR Fellow and survey analyst Mark Sheehan provides a glimpse of some preliminary findings.

Of the survey's 261 respondents, 77.8 percent were campus chief information officers, followed by other IT managers and directors of administrative or academic computing. In addition to questions specific to the IT data center, the survey inquired about high-level institutional initiatives. Among them:

1. Adopting alternative (clean/renewable) sources of electrical power.

2. Minimizing growth in total electrical energy consumption.

3. Recycling decommissioned IT equipment (e-waste).

4. Complying with the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards for new construction.

5. Purchasing Energy Star-certified products.

6. Purchasing computers and/or monitors with EPEAT ratings of silver or better.

7. Converting from paper document storage to digitally imaged document storage.

8. Reducing staff travel through videoconferencing.

9. Adopting virtual classrooms as an energy-saving alternative to on-campus classroom instruction.

10. Adopting telecommuting as an energy-saving way for employees to work.

With regard to each of these initiatives, survey questions drilled down further to determine:

  • Whether the institution was actively engaged in the initiative.
  • The status of the institution's goals for the initiative.
  • Whether the institution provided financial incentives to departments that participated in the initiative.
  • In what ways the central IT organization supported the institution's goal (by participating in the broader institutional initiative, by educating personnel in other departments about the initiative, and/or by providing technologies/solutions to other departments).
  • The status of central IT's goals for its own such initiative.

The IT leader's particular role. Several questions in the survey centered on IT's specific role in campus initiatives. In response to the question of which best characterizes the senior-most IT leader's role in environmental sustainability efforts, on the continuum of no role–observer–participant–adviser–leader, only 15.5 percent indicated the CIO as leader. Another 24 percent noted adviser, while the largest share, 43 percent, cited participant. Viewed more optimistically, 82.5 percent of respondents noted an active role for the senior IT leader in environmental sustainability efforts, with 17.5 percent having no role or a more passive observer role.

“Whether IT is in a leadership role was a key question for this study,” says Sheehan. “But beyond that, we're interested in to what extent and in which areas central IT is involved in the institution's sustainability efforts and to what extent it has its own sustainability initiatives under way.”

Institution versus central IT engagement. In two parallel questions about whether the institution is actively engaged in environmental sustainability initiatives and whether the central IT organization is actively engaged, nearly 90 percent (88.8) agreed or strongly agreed that the institution is engaged. In comparison, only 72.4 percent agreed or strongly agreed the same was true for the central IT organization (see figure). According to Sheehan, the difference might be explained in several ways. For instance, perhaps more passion and energy exist around sustainability issues at the institution level versus for particular IT-related initiatives. Or, perhaps the CIO sees central IT initiatives, limited as they are by resources and by competing priorities, as less dynamic than institutionwide initiatives.

Institution versus central IT priorities. A series of questions about the status of initiatives for the institution as a whole and for the central IT organization reveals some nuanced differences about priorities, notes Sheehan. Of the 10 initiatives listed above, the one that both the institution and the central IT organization most frequently named as being under way is recycling decommissioned IT equipment (e-waste). For central IT, minimizing growth in electrical energy consumption and purchasing Energy Star–certified products were also frequently named as being under way. These same initiatives, plus the adoption of LEED standards for new construction, were most frequently named as overall priorities for the institution.

Yet, the responses require greater analysis than merely cataloguing relative frequencies of responses, notes Sheehan. For instance, there is a substantial gap between the 85.6 percent of respondents who say the institution as a whole is actively engaged in Energy Star procurement and the 73.9 percent who indicate that central IT is doing so. On the surface, the gap between these numbers might suggest that the average institution is more concerned about energy efficiency than the average central IT organization. Digging deeper, though, ECAR analysts may find that the gap simply reflects the greater availability of Energy Star alternatives for the consumer electronics that the institution buys in quantity than for the highly specialized IT gear that central IT is likely to shop for, says Sheehan.

In fact, responses to the series of questions regarding the 10 initiatives will no doubt reveal much richer detail once the full study report is available, since each initiative is further mined in terms of efforts under way with or without documented goals and with or without progress being measured. Such analysis should shed additional light on the extent to which green IT is embedded in the culture of institutions and central IT organizations.

Specific IT initiatives. The full analysis of the survey will likewise offer an important benchmark for the status of a wide range of key activities taking place on higher education campuses. For instance, despite the steady sprawl of servers at many institutions during the past decade, it's important to note that progress is being made on the consolidation front, notes Sheehan. Among respondents, 12.3 percent say their central IT data centers completed server consolidation work more than 12 months ago (as of the survey date), and 13.9 percent completed it within the past year, while 61.1 percent have projects ongoing. Similar numbers resulted regarding the central IT data center's server virtualization (12.6 percent, 16.2 percent, and 62.3 percent, respectively). Even better results were reflected in responses regarding replacement of server-based storage with central storage such as storage area networks (27.9 percent, 18.4 percent, and 45.5 percent, respectively).

In another example, institutions overall are making significant progress in transitioning to more energy-efficient hardware, though more work lies ahead, says Sheehan. Many institutions are switching from power-hungry CRT monitors to more efficient LCDs. Here, 53 percent of respondents say they have “all or nearly all” LCD monitors in place, and 41 percent say they have “mostly” LCDs. However, regarding the transition from less-efficient desktop computers to more efficient laptops, no respondent institution reports having “all or nearly all” laptops, and only 6.8 percent say they have “mostly” laptops. “So the job is almost finished for monitors,” Sheehan notes, “but it is barely under way for the computers themselves.”

For full survey results and study analysis, visit the EDUCAUSE Web site in early spring 2010. See also "Low-Carbon Computing" in the October 2009 issue of Business Officer.

KARLA HIGNITE, Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.