Look up the word "growth" in the dictionary, and you will be hard-pressed to find a much better definition than what's happened at Roger Williams University.
Since 2001, the school-which enrolls nearly 5,000 students in 36 majors and five professional schools-has seen a 100 percent increase in applications, a 50 percent increase in enrollment, a 50 percent improvement in the graduation rate, and $58 million in new endowment funds.
All without steroids.
RWU, which hugs a stretch of water along Rhode Island's squiggly coastline, was created as a junior college in 1956. While it started out using space in various public buildings in Providence, it moved to Bristol in the 1960s as Roger Williams College, a four-year institution, and then became a full-fledged university in 1992. The university developed several programs with respectable reputations, including those in architecture, business, law, construction management, and marine science.
Yet it grappled with a perception problem. People didn't know of the school, and if they did they didn't always think much of it. In the late 1990s, the university showed an applicant acceptance rate of more than 90 percent. The graduation rate was 34 percent. Some folks referred to RWU as "Rich White Underachiever."
"I have watched Roger Williams over the years evolve from a community college with a very tenuous foothold on the educational community to become a full-fledged college, and then a university," says Chas. Freeman Jr., former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who now sits on RWU's Board of Overseers.
Freeman is one of many people who believe that under Roy Nirschel, the president of RWU since 2001, the university has been like a teenager growing into adulthood. Its strong points and potential have come into clearer focus. Its mission has become more fine-tuned and purposeful.
"What's happened under Nirschel is that this frankly third-rate educational establishment has moved very rapidly up the ranks," says Freeman, who also served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. "He's got a gift for innovation, for finding the niches that others have overlooked."
Call it a gift, a drive, or learned behavior-whatever the mechanics of Roy Nirschel's inner workings, this president is making things happen and moving up in the world of higher education. Many leaders can learn from his moves.
Nirschel crouched atop Mount Kilimanjaro, face raw from the wind and cold, mouth covered by material protecting skin from frigid air. He had climbed workplace ladders and faced challenges before, but this was among his most hard-won triumphs.
He posed for a picture adjacent to a sign etched with yellow lettering marking the top of the African continent. As the camera snapped, Nirschel held "Little Roger," a small cutout of the mascot of Roger Williams University. The moment embodied what Nirschel wanted for RWU, its faculty, its staff, and its students: to reach new heights with a wide view of the world.
The Kilimanjaro crest was just 11 months ago and Nirschel has now been president of Roger Williams for nearly six years. (As for Little Roger, he's made trips to such high-profile destinations as the White House since his Kilimanjaro climb.)
In his time at RWU, Nirschel has managed to change the essence of the school, the way it is perceived by others, and its outlook on the world. He has overseen so many initiatives that the university seems just back from a much-needed vacation-focused, energized, invigorated.
A number of qualities make Nirschel an up-and-comer in higher education. Here are insights into just a few.
Nirschel has a way with people. Just follow him around campus and this quality surfaces quickly. Students sometimes look bewildered when they receive a smile and a "hello" from the president (it's like he knows them or something).
Nirschel credits this trait in part to having grown up in a working class family-Dad was a firefighter, Mom was a homemaker-in Stamford, Conn. He feels comfortable around all kinds of individuals and appreciates the value of their work.
Nirschel also has a strong internal compass. Unlike some leaders who boast the same trait but can't seem to deal with discord, he believes in collaboration. When he first joined RWU, he launched a strategic planning process and formed committees to examine seven key areas of concern on campus. The committees included more than 125 individuals and were purposefully cross-pollinated, so as to remove members from their comfort zones. Someone from Admissions, for example, was assigned to look at graduation rates.
"It took many people here a little bit by surprise," says Anthony Hollingsworth, chair of the department of Foreign Languages and an associate professor of classical and Germanic languages. "He came in here bringing with him almost a business plan or a corporate feel, and he really compelled faculty to start working more with staff and administration." Hollingsworth adds, "There had definitely been a desire to break down silos, and I think that was happening, but he put a lot of impetus into it and at the same time expected results."
While still a newbie on the job, Nirschel navigated his way through what could have been a horrendous process: negotiating a contract with the university's faculty union.
"Roy's presidency began right in the middle of some very contentious faculty contract negotiations. To make matters worse, the outgoing administration had suspended faculty pay," says Kathy Micken, associate professor of Marketing at RWU. "A new president could have made himself scarce, choosing to be ensconced in the office surrounded by other administrators. Instead, Roy made a point of walking around campus, including the campus center where he was sure to encounter both faculty and students-and was sure to hear what faculty were thinking. If he did not hear, he made it a point to ask."
Nirschel helped shepherd a new faculty contract to approval by a 4-to-1 margin. While it had some controversial aspects, the contract also cleared the way for faculty gains. "It is a contract that expects results," says Hollingsworth. "It rewards people for doing good work and for publishing, and it sends a very clear message that we want our faculty to be not only pedagogically active but also in scholarship. ... If people do good research and good teaching, they can receive merit. We see that there is more pay in it, and there is more pay when people get promoted."
The relationship between faculty members and Nirschel is still strengthening. "His 'management by walking around' style continues," says Micken. "He has judiciously joined in faculty e-mail discussions, issues presidential missives on hot topics, and seeks the advice and counsel of faculty both formally and informally. As one faculty colleague e-mailed to the rest of us recently, when a topic of importance needs a good hearing, 'coffee with President Nirschel is a very attractive alternative. And the coffee in the Administration Building is very good.' "
Roger Williams University boasts myriad indicators of transformation under Nirschel. Its endowment hovers around $95 million (compared to $37 million five years ago) and the school is running an approximately $10 million surplus. The business school recently received accreditation from the International Association for Management Education (AACSB), putting it in an elite group.
Yet the university's clarification of core values and mission may well be the school's greatest recent advance. This is a process that Nirschel believes in deeply. Namely, the university's institutional values are: a love of learning as an intrinsic value; preparation for a career and future study; development of undergraduate research opportunities; service to the community; adoption of a global perspective; and nurturing of a caring and respectful community.
Nirschel ensures that decisions made on campus, whether about budgets, programs, or faculty projects, relate directly to the above values. "You set the values, you define the mission," says Nirschel. "Those values may mean something different in the business school or the law school, but if you talk to the deans and say 'love of learning, research, service, global perspective, respectful and caring environment'-those are the core values-you buy into it and how it is operationalized in your school."
Funding ties into how those values are articulated, he adds. "I say to people all the time, a lack of resources is not the biggest problem. A lack of a mission-driven, well-defined plan is the problem. You give me a terrific plan that ties into our core values, that adds value to students' experience, we'll give you the money. If you give me an idea that doesn't really resonate with the mission of the university, the odds of getting funding are in the zero to zero category."
A fall 2002 survey of faculty and staff, which asked what people outside of RWU said to them about the institution, indicated that RWU wasn't even on many folks' radar screens. "If it was, high-profile programs such as architecture or marine biology were all people knew about, except for perhaps the beautiful waterfront campus," says Micken, who was involved with the survey.
"If we asked the same question today," she says, "my guess is that the responses would be much different."
That's largely because Nirschel believes in making one's strengths known. One of the president's most notable accomplishments has been engineering a shift in public perception of Roger Williams.
When Nirschel first joined RWU's administration, he involved campus and community constituencies in creating a branding campaign, complete with a slogan, "Learning to Bridge the World." The university purchased billboard space for ads, not necessarily in Rhode Island but beyond. In the campaign's second year, a freshman approached Nirschel on campus. The new student remarked on the university's visibility, noting that he had seen a billboard down in Florida. "The one near Orlando, near Sea World?" Nirschel asked. "Yeah, great billboard," the student said.
"If you give me an idea that doesn't really resonate with the mission of the university, the odds of getting funding are in the zero to zero category."
But there wasn't a billboard in Florida. "People were saying they saw us in places where we weren't," Nirschel says. "Some people say billboards are tacky, advertising's tacky. I don't agree. We don't do billboards now, but people saw us everywhere. People would see a billboard in Westchester County (N.Y.), and a week later they would open U.S. News & World Report and think we were everywhere."
An ad campaign and public relations push mean little, however, without good stories to tell. Since taking on his role, Nirschel has set about helping RWU build its brag book.
This past spring alone, the university gathered a thick stack of news clips. RWU broke ground on a new marine science center, the Luther Blount Shellfish Hatchery and Oyster Restoration Center. First Lady Laura Bush spoke at graduation. And three young women who had witnessed horrors growing up in Afghanistan graduated from Roger Williams, thanks to the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a scholarship program founded by Paula Nirschel, the president's wife. (The initiative provides Afghan women with four-year scholarships to RWU and other U.S. colleges and universities, bringing the students together at events and supporting them as they return to their home country to create lasting change.)
"We've got great projects going on," says President Nirschel, "and we're telling people the story."
International relations and a global perspective lie high on Nirschel's list of priorities. His work is "projecting us far beyond the campus and region, so that we'll improve qualitatively by being connected both locally and globally, which matches the 'Learning to Bridge the World' identity that he's created," says Stephen White, dean of RWU's School of Architecture, Art, and Historic Preservation.
Exhibit A of that global mindset: The Center for Macro Projects and Diplomacy, created in 2003. Working with Nirschel, White and RWU Overseer and MIT Professor Frank Davidson (who helped develop the English Channel Tunnel) created the center to produce broad proposals to meet challenges around the world.
Rather than just ponder issues like a think tank, the center acts as a "do tank," as Nirschel likes to say. It teams researchers, policy experts, and academics from various disciplines to create real proposals. For example, the center has overseen development of a strategy for the infrastructure of an independent Palestinian state. High-ranking United Nations officials, engineers, architects, and international relations experts, among others, have joined in planning Palestinian ports, an offshore island, and linkages between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The center has secured $250,000 for feasibility studies.
"The president has been centrally involved in that," says White. "We work out the agenda for the work together. He really sees it as one of the key elements of the globalization of the university."
Study abroad and admissions of international students have also blossomed under Nirschel's guidance. In 2005, 39 percent of juniors at RWU participated in study-abroad programs. Five years ago, students had five sites to choose from. Now there are 39, including RWU campuses in Florence and Ho Chi Minh City. The newest destinations include Jordan, India, Costa Rica, South Africa, Germany, and Argentina.
In April, sophomores with 3.0 GPAs or higher got invited to hear Wolfgang Vorwerk, the consul general of Germany in Boston, speak; had their passport pictures taken free of charge; and completed passport forms. Eighteen-year-old Hilary Wehner had never had her own passport until that day. "I feel like he's trying to get us to be more international," she says of Nirschel. Indeed, the event was his idea.
In 2004, the Roger Williams University College Republicans attempted to make a point about race-based preferences by advertising a "Whites Only" scholarship. The move, while intended somewhat as a joke, brought tensions to the surface. Nirschel issued a statement on the university's commitment to diversity and to free, but civil, speech. "He did more than admonish the students," says Micken. "He used the incident to initiate a program of 'civil discourse.' "
Through the initiative, a variety of speakers have been brought to RWU's campus, from Salman Rushdie to Professor David Wilkins of Harvard Law School to the civil rights attorney Morris Dees. A new journal, Reason & Respect: A Journal of Civil Discourse, has been established as well. "This initiative really compels people to think and to speak with some reason and some respect, so that their arguments are made in a kind of manner that does not make people uncomfortable, and that we create an environment on campus that allows people to think and speak in a variety of ways," says Robert Engvall, an associate professor of Justice Studies who co-edits Reason & Respect.
"It is a vindication of the name of the school," notes Freeman, adding that Roger Williams stood for tolerance of differences and civil discourse.
Freeman actually first met Nirschel when he was asked to speak on campus about the invasion of Iraq. Freeman believed the U.S. government was taking the country into an ambush in Iraq, yet he spoke to a largely Republican RWU student body. "[Nirschel] always seems to recognize the need to cause people to reflect about their own beliefs," Freeman says. "I think that is the mark of a great educator."
When it comes to sustainability efforts on a campus, having a vision is certainly a must. But it's the campus community that makes it all happen.
If we build it, will they come? That was the $16 million question Temple University (Pa.) executives, administrators, and trustees pondered before they gave the go-ahead to construct the largest student computer center in the country.
"It wasn't a slam dunk," recalls Timothy O'Rourke, vice president of Computer and Information Services at Temple, a public research university. "Nobody was going in this direction. The trend has been to equip students with laptops and wireless connections. I would get questions from faculty and the trustees on the order of 'Why would you do this?'"
However, after rounds of discussions and presentations to the Board of Trustees, the consensus moved to, "Why not do it?"
Construction started in March 2005. "We didn't go into this blind," O'Rourke says. "We did student surveys and found that only about 5 percent of students carried laptops to school, so we did believe there was a need for such a facility."
Students-both campus residents and commuters-did not want to bring their laptops to class.
Still, O'Rourke remembers his angst up until the day the TECH (Teaching, Education, Collaboration, Help) Center opened its doors on January 6. "I feared no one would come," he recalls.
But they did come-in droves. During the 2006 spring semester, the center recorded more than 432,000 visits from 20,000 individuals. The busiest day occurred on April 26 when 8,000 people entered the center. This fall semester, the daily attendance is expected to average 6,000 visits per day.
"The numbers have blown us away," O'Rourke remarks. "The traffic has far exceeded anything we could have imagined. It has been a tremendous success."
The 75,000-square-foot TECH Center sits in the heart of Temple's main campus in North Philadelphia, which serves 25,000 students. The building, which once served as a mainframe center for Bell Atlantic, met the needs for conversion because of its footprint and location.
The two-story facility also houses Temple's new 4,200-square-foot Welcome Center on the first floor, which tacked on another $1 million to the project (see "The Wow Factor," p. 46). The first floor also consists of various breakout rooms where students can collaborate on projects. Equipment includes flat-panel wall displays and desks with computers set up for group interaction. In addition, the campus Help Desk is located here, offering 24-hour support for the entire campus community. A Teaching and Learning Center offers training and technology support for faculty and teaching assistants, coupled with a faculty breakout room and lounge. Finally, the first floor houses the WHIP internet radio station (staffed by students) and, of course, a Starbucks cafe that's open 24 hours a day Monday through Thursday, with limited hours on weekends.
The second floor consists of an information desk staffed by a librarian to assist students, an internet lounge, and a service desk where students can go for support, reserve breakout rooms, and rent loaner laptops. There is a section solely for print operations consisting of high-speed laser printers, color printers, and plotters.
General computer areas are subdivided by different color schemes, each housing PCs and Macs, print stations, and popular software programs. In addition, the center offers free music and cable TV feeds. Various specialty labs house computers, special applications, and ancillary equipment. A video editing lab, a music lab with keyboards, a graphics/CAD lab, and a language lab round out the second floor's technology offerings. Moreover, there are two quiet rooms, as well as various breakout rooms reserved for collaborative work. Each room contains a flat-panel wall display and desks set up for group/computer interaction. Some labs are equipped for multimedia presentations, with surround sound and large screens.
Finally, various couches, coffee tables, and cozy chairs are scattered throughout the floor, so students can read, use a laptop (the building is wireless), or even nap between classes.
Even the sole vending machine is unique. Rather than containing the basic student food staples-snacks, candy, and gum-this machine dispenses memory sticks, ear buds, pens, paper clips, batteries, and, of course, Excedrin and NoDoz for those late-night term paper deadlines.
A side note: Food and beverages are allowed in the Internet Zone area, and beverages (with lids) are allowed in the computer areas. "We haven't had any problems with spillage on keyboards, and no stains on the carpet," says David Matthews, a lab manager. He attributes the success of the beverage policy to the large work stations and adequate spacing between stations that give students more room for the business at hand and less opportunity to knock over drinks.
According to Clarence Armbrister, senior vice president of the university, the idea of a large computer facility was born from various discussions throughout the university examining what the university needed to do to equip students for the 21st century.
"The TECH Center is the outgrowth of forward thinking from Tim O'Rourke,"Armbrister says. "When we initially went to the trustees with the idea, we were questioned if the university really needed the facility-considering the investment and the changing pace of technology. We went back and I got together with the academic side of the house and Tim examined the technology side, and we finally came back with a plan that encompassed what we thought would be a facility for 21st-century teaching, collaboration, and technology. And that's how the TECH-Teaching, Education, Collaboration, and Help-acronym came about."
Armbrister notes that other factors contributed to the idea of the center, including the knowledge that students-both campus residents and commuters-did not want to bring their laptops to class. Also, because students can't afford specialty software, the university wanted to give them access to high-end applications. And since previous computer labs were dispersed throughout the campus, consolidating the labs into one facility opened up those labs for additional classroom space.
Armbrister adds, "We also realized that students change majors all the time, and technology and applications cross over various disciplines, so now all students have access to all applications."
Tom Halligan is the former editor in chief of University Business and an alumnus of Temple University.
What does it mean to be recognized as a "college with a conscience"?
The phrase denotes an institution with "an administration committed to social responsibility and a student body actively engaged in serving society," says Robert Franek of The Princeton Review. "Education at these schools isn't only about private gain; it's about the public good."
At Pitzer College (Calif.), one of The Claremont Colleges, the label is a validation of the ideals and principles followed by President Laura Skandera Trombley, her staff, and her students. "Our students really try and practice what it means to be socially responsible on a daily basis," she says. "But the faculty, in their curriculum and in our various centers, really use that as an important academic component in what they do."
Pitzer prides itself on linking intellectual inquiry with interdisciplinary studies, cultural immersion, social responsibility, and community connectivity, a trait that even carries over to the school's alumni.
"Are we there yet? No, there are always things that you want to strive for that will make the institution stronger."
Skandera Trombley says the school received a generous monetary gift from alumni and parents last year, with a condition that most presidents could only hope for. "The funds came with the expectation that the college would know how to use this money in the appropriate way," she recalls.
A week after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast region, a first-year student told Skandera Trombley he wanted to assemble a group of Pitzer students to spend their fall break helping people in the affected areas, but he needed financial support. Because of the gift, the school was able to provide financial support to send the students to help with rebuilding efforts.
"This is why our community is so strong," Skandera Trombley says. "I have funding that's come from people who have a great deal of trust in our institutional integrity."
Skandera Trombley is known for her close connection to students and faculty at Pitzer, sharing regular meals with them in the cafeteria. "I consider myself at heart always a faculty member. I just have enormous respect for faculty, and I find our students to be incredibly inspiring, and really interesting, intelligent young people."
It's no secret that college presidents lead demanding lives, and it's certainly not uncommon for a president to get home at 10 or 11 p.m., after a day of meetings and events that began at 5:30 a.m. Skandera Trombley tries to make the most of her day, whether it is at Pitzer or on the road on a fundraising trip or speaking engagement.
"I absolutely pack in as much as I can, so what for most people might be a three- or four-day trip, I do in two," she says. "I don't want one minute where I'm not meeting somebody or engaged in business. I try and maximize my efficiency away from home, so I can maximize the time that I'm at home."
For her it's not a question of balance but of priorities-first of which is her family. She and her husband, artist Nelson Trombley, have a 10-year-old son, named for his father but known to all as Sparkey.
"Fortunately, Pitzer is an institution that appreciates working mothers, so I don't have to try and fit into an environment that would not be as accepting. My family is very much integrated into the life of the college, so in some ways there's a kind of seamlessness that exists at present."
With more college and university presidents assuming the role at a younger age, Skandera Trombley says the work-family issue is one that they need to be very vocal about. "You need to remain a human being and a family person," she says. "I've worked for two presidents and I've seen the toll that the position can take on them. I've seen how families can sometimes be pushed to the margin, but that's not something that I want in my life."
Between official duties and family life, most people would have a full day, but Skandera Trombley says she has a lot of energy, and "between the hours of 5 and 6 in the morning, and 10 and 11 at night" she can usually be found working on her other passion: the life of Mark Twain. She's nearly completed her third book on the author, and says the information she has uncovered is so compelling that it keeps her trudging back to the desk at 5 a.m. "I wouldn't recommend writing a biography this way, but it's the only way I can squeeze it in," she says.
Over the years, Skandera Trombley has become a leading Twain scholar, even appearing as a commentator in Ken Burns' 2002 documentary on the author. "I had all the sad parts," she jokes. "Whenever somebody died, I was on screen talking about it."
Her fascination with Twain began while she was at the University of Southern California, working toward her Ph.D. "I had fully intended to do my dissertation on the neo-platonic progression of William Wordsworth's The Prelude," she says, but a chance discovery set her on a very different path.
A professor asked her to check out a report that someone had a hundred letters supposedly written by Samuel Clemens. She traveled to Sacramento to meet with a philatelist who purchased the letters from a dealer for $50, hoping the stamps would be of value.
"The stamps were worthless and he was going to throw the letters away," Skandera Trombley says. "But his wife started to read them and said, 'I don't know who this guy is but he's funny. He tells a good story.'"
It wasn't long before they connected "S.L. Clemens" the letter writer to Mark Twain. What Skandera Trombley saw was a perspective on Clemens's life largely ignored by other biographers.
"These letters were written primarily to his daughters," she says. "I didn't even know he had daughters. I had this kind of classic American, solitary man image-for no particular reason other than that is what popular culture had given me. And here is Twain writing to his daughters saying, 'This is my best anecdote and I'm sending it to you because I know you won't lose it.' He was really treating them as intellectual equals." To date, Skandera Trombley is the only person to have read the entire collection of letters.
Intrigued by the find, she read through existing Twain biographies, and found them lacking in what she believes was a key ingredient in what shaped him as a writer and person.
"The daughters weren't really mentioned, they were just seen as totally extraneous. And when his wife was mentioned, it was either as a nullity or as someone who actually had a detrimental effect on his career," she says. "That seemed kind of odd considering that at the time Twain was the most famous man in the world. I thought this popular view doesn't really reconcile with the primary documents."
Her research showed that his wife, Olivia, who came from a well-educated, independent, and iconoclastic family, shaped many of Twain's political beliefs. "My argument is you wouldn't have The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without his association with this very social reform-minded family."
Dropping Wordsworth, Skandera Trombley wrote her dissertation instead on Twain and the women in his life, culminating in the 1994 book Mark Twain in the Company of Women.
Her latest book focuses on Isabel Lyon, the controversial secretary that worked for Clemens in the last years of his life, and kept copious notes on everything he did. "A lot of questions about Twain's supposed melancholy and bitterness near the end of his life can be answered as a result of what this woman reveals."
That Skandera Trombley had recognized the influence of women in Twain's life isn't surprising, considering her own upbringing.
"In many ways, my principle guide was the example set by my parents," she says. "My mother was an elementary school principal in Los Angeles at a time when there was just one other woman in her district. My father elected to stay in the classroom; he spent 30 years as a second-grade teacher. So seeing a woman in a position of leadership was normal, and I thought the rest of the world worked that way. It wasn't until I grew up that I learned differently."
Today, she seeks counsel and guidance from fellow presidents and administrators she has known for many years. "I'm very fortunate to have people that I can trust to be honest with me and tell me when I'm doing something wrong," she says. "I also work with a top group of administrators here at Pitzer who have been in place since I arrived. We work together in a very cooperative fashion and we trust each other and seek each other's advice."
One piece of advice they shared with her was about handling the stresses of the job.
"The one thing you learn when you become a college president is how much you worry about everything: What's the stock market going to do? What are my students going to do Friday night?" she says. "You have to learn how to manage that stress and be more comfortable with it; otherwise you can have real difficulties working in this environment. My worries are not atypical, but when I walk in the door at the end of the day, I'm home and I try to leave work where it needs to be."
Skandera Trombley initiated Pitzer's first strategic planning process when she took office in 2002, and is pleased with the progress that has been made. Applications to the school have increased by 50 percent and annual giving has increased by 20 percent. The school also achieved a record 18 Fulbright Fellowships for the 2006-07 academic year.
Several building projects are under way, designed to enhance the community and reinforce Pitzer culture and identity. One of those projects, to be completed by the spring, is the Residential Life Project being constructed in the northeast part of the campus. The RLP will include student living space, visiting faculty apartments, art and music galleries, a writing center, and the school's admissions office. It will also be the first building of its kind to achieve Gold LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.
"We are going to demonstrate to the world of higher education that you can build socially responsible, LEED-certified residence halls for students, and they will be beautiful, they will be affordable, and they will be educational," Skandera Trombley says. "For our institution, which really tries to practice sustainability, it is a huge deal. And it has not proven to be of huge additional cost. There are ways that you can build green that are quite affordable."
She notes with pride that effecting positive change is not easy, and often takes much longer. "Are we there yet? No, there are always things that you want to strive for that will make the institution stronger and allow us to afford an even better educational environment institution for our students," Skandera Trombley says. "I think we've done a great amount of work in a very short period of time. But that success only comes when everyone is working together and wants to move ahead."
Paul Lipsky's students have an endless appetite for broadband-especially wireless broadband.
As an assistant professor at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), Lipsky teaches students how to master 3D animation and multimedia production tools. His students have designed rich full-motion graphics for CBS Sports, ESPN, and Nickelodeon.
Of course, sharing massive 3D files between servers, desktops, and notebooks on NYIT's Old Westbury, N.Y., campus requires very high-speed connections. The college's current network-which includes a mix of fiber optics, Ethernet, and WiFi-has plenty of horsepower for the near term.
But Silicon Valley engineers (across dozens of networking companies) want to provide institutions with an even better option. It's a major WiFi standard upgrade known as 802.11n. Compared to today's WiFi gear, 802.11n offers 10 times the speed and far better signal coverage (see "Know Your Options," pg. 40). In theory, students will be able to use 802.11n wireless connections to share 3D graphics, movies, and other big files as quickly as if they were on a wired network.
With 802.11n, students and professors will more easily graduate from wireless e-mail, text, and voice to full-blown videoconferencing. Already, many of today's students use popular free applications like Skype to trade instant messages and make zero-cost phone calls over the internet. In a year or two, it's highly likely that students and professors will increasingly use free videoconferencing features built into Skype and other applications. "You can't ignore the student trends," says Lipsky. "They're always looking for faster, richer communications systems. Especially wireless systems. Students are all about freedom and mobility."
Videoconferencing, of course, requires bandwidth-lots of it. And as more and more students embrace video chats and lectures, universities will be forced to regularly evaluate, adjust, and enhance their wireless network designs.
That could be challenging. Most universities currently use wireless gear based on the 802.11g, 802.11b, or 802.11a standards. Without going into the technical nitty gritty, those standards are fine for most wireless applications. But for truly intense multimedia applications, universities will need to stick with high-speed wired connections (like gigabit Ethernet) or eventually switch to 802.11n wireless, according Ed Golod, president of Revenue Accelerators, a technology consulting firm in New York.
Now, for the twist. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), an organization that oversees WiFi standards, had expected to complete and ratify the 802.11n specification sometime this year. But due to lingering technical hurdles, the final standard won't be completed until early 2008, the IEEE estimates.
In some ways, the delay has left vendors and institutions of higher ed in a lurch. Confident that the 802.11n standard was nearing completion, many vendors in mid-2006 jumped the gun and introduced wireless gear based on a draft of the standard. The pre-802.11n networking gear is widely available from Belkin, Buffalo Technology, D-link, Linksys, and Netgear. Similarly, Dell supports the draft standard in some of its latest wireless laptops.
But since the standard isn't fully baked, IHEs that mix and match today's pre-802.11n gear could wind up with a recipe for disaster. "Without certified testing using a completed standard, there's no guarantee all this hardware will interoperate," says Golod.
"With any prestandard products, there will be tons of interoperability issues," agrees Tom Chomicz, a network security engineer at CDW-G, a division of CDW that focuses on government, higher education, and K-12. "I think 95 percent of customers will continue doing 802.11g for the time being."
Still, nobody predicts a wireless meltdown. Most of the initial pre-802.11n gear targets homes and small offices, where customers typically use a single-vendor solution, avoiding interoperability issues.
"The popularity of the 802.11n draft-compatible hardware will remain restricted to consumers and the small office/home office space," affirms Amit Sinha, chief technology officer of Atlanta-based wireless security company AirDefense. "Large enterprises will wait for WiFi-certified and standards-compliant hardware. Enterprise adoption will definitely be delayed because of the standard delay."
To be sure, college and university IT leaders continue to monitor 802.11n's maturation closely. Most expect to use 802.11n within a few years but are deploying established WiFi hardware with vendor-specific enhancements in the meantime.
"We are watching the developing standard to see how it will affect our institution," says Keith Nelson, director of telecommunications and networking information technology services for The University of Texas at Austin. "User demands and what the industry supplies will drive adoption of the technology."
Nelson says it's too early to predict all of 802.11n's benefits, but he expects it to provide more bandwidth, better spectrum allocation and sharing, and a better overall user experience. But for 802.11n to truly succeed, he says, it needs to interoperate with existing standards such as 802.11g. "We have more than 1,700 wireless access ports already installed," says Nelson. "If 802.11n does not provide good backwards compatibility, its deployment will be delayed."
The situation is similar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is taking a wait-and-see approach to 802.11n. At least for the short term, UI officials doubt laptops will have enough power to maintain high-speed connections with 802.11n networks, says Mike Smeltzer, director of network communications for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services.
Smeltzer expects to give it a closer look in the future. "Where we think it might provide some serious gain is for point-to-point and outdoor mesh backhaul links," he says. "Either way, we'll most likely wait until the standard is finalized before buying into the technology. The big challenge will be getting power to the multiple transmitters in a way that works with points of entry and laptop batteries."
Meanwhile, a group of wireless vendors, working within an umbrella group known as the Wi-Fi Alliance, is striving to stamp out 802.11n interoperability concerns. The organization plans to evaluate and certify WiFi products with baseline 802.11n capabilities in the first half of 2007-about a year before the draft standard is finalized.
Technology managers should check in with their networking partners for a complete 802.11n product road map. At the same time, they should determine which departments or campus settings-if any-have demanding applications that require pre-802.11n's enhanced bandwidth and wireless signal range. In most cases, IHEs will discover that today's mainstream 802.11g equipment meets the vast majority of customer needs, according to John DiGiovanni, director of marketing at Xirrus, a WiFi startup in West Lake Village, Calif.
Industry giants such as Cisco Systems and Symbol Technologies (recently acquired by Motorola) dominate the WiFi sector. But WiFi startups also continue to deliver innovative technologies.
Xirrus, for one, has received a patent for its WiFi array systems, which deliver 2.5 times the range and 13 times the throughput of typical WiFi systems, according to The Tolly Group, a network testing firm in Boca Raton, Fla.
Xirrus, Meru Networks, and other fledgling companies are evangelizing about all-wireless campuses that require little, if any, network wiring. Meru's true believers include U of I, which began deploying Meru controllers and about 800 wireless access points across its 1,458-acre campus earlier this year, with the network's completion projected for early 2008. Additionally, Meru's "dual-speed" wireless technology vastly improves the performance of newer laptops, which come equipped with 802.11g technology, according to The Tolly Group.
Still, Urbana-Champaign can't go completely wireless. "We have users with actual needs for gigabit connectivity," says Smeltzer. "WiFi is a way off from being able to meet their needs. So we are continuing to deploy wired connections with a Meru wireless overlay for mobility, but not primary connectivity."
In the future, Urbana-Champaign officials expect wireless to be able to support more of the institution's primary connectivity needs and reduce the need for wired connections, "but we are not at that point yet," he says.
The university is two years into a five-year plan to provide all interior public spaces on campus with WiFi coverage. By the end of 2006, some 61 percent of all classrooms on campus will have WiFi. Complete WiFi coverage is expected by 2009, says Smeltzer.
Meanwhile, Cedarville University (Ohio) uses Meru's wireless technology for current applications and as a potential bridge to future 802.11n technologies. With Meru's WLAN System, administrators there expanded wireless coverage to include all residence halls, classrooms, open-seating areas of major academic buildings on campus, and conference centers.
Asserts David Rotman, associate vice president for technology and CIO at Cedarville: "Key objectives for our campus included improved mobility, ubiquitous access to the numerous applications offered on our network, and lower costs." The Meru Networks WLAN System addresses all of those requirements.
As of mid-September, 1,500 student-owned wireless devices were already registered on Cedarville's wireless LAN. The university plans to deploy Voice over WLAN in the near future.
As voice and video move onto wireless networks, IT leaders should familiarize themselves with 802.11e, another wireless standard that ensures quality of service (QoS) for delay-sensitive applications like wireless Voice over IP and streaming multimedia.
Still, vendors continue to blur the lines between standards and their own innovations. "Many of the services that 802.11e provides are already available from Meru," notes Smeltzer. "We expect them to implement the formal standards based versions available in 802.11e over time."
Colleges and universities will certainly take their time as they evaluate the evolution of 802.11n. But don't wait too long. Students don't stand still. Skype, Google, Microsoft Live, MySpace, and other multimedia applications will demand next-generation WiFi networks.
Will you be prepared?
Joseph C. Panettieri (email@example.com) is VP of editorial content at Microsoft Communications (www.microcast.biz). He has covered Silicon Valley since 1992. Read his daily blog, The VAR Guy, at www.techiqmag.com.
At Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, the importance of enhancing e-learning services was heightened after the devastating effects of Hurricane Rita, which hit the Houston and Beaumont areas in September 2005. To date, the university has spent more than $30 million in recovery efforts.