COUNCIL 1999-2000 Year-End Committee Reports


August 9, 2000

Discussed at Council on April 19, 2000


The Committee met six times by itself during the academic year, held one joint meeting with the Library Committee, and was, as has become customary and should continue, invited to attend the Network Planning Task Force's (NPTF) annual "State of the Union" meeting. The major topics that have been addressed and our conclusions and/or recommendations concerning them are summarized in separate sections below. The first seven sections cover the specific charges given to the Committee by the Council Steering Committee this year, the next five reports on additional issues that came to our attention.

Electronic Privacy

The subcommittee originally appointed in 1994-95 to draft an electronic privacy policy brought the then current version of the policy that had been agreed with the General Counsel's Office to the Committee in the fall, and, based largely on the prognosis that it would be difficult to win further improvements, it was approved unanimously. University Council at its meetings in January, February (an Open Forum then discussed the policy on the subject), March and April. Numerous suggestions, many already unsuccessfully sought by the drafting subcommittee, were made. Council's interest markedly accelerated the formerly glacial progress of negotiations on this issue and in the intervals between these meetings substantial improvements were made and circulated to the Committee for comment. The Vice President and General Counsel and the Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing (ISC) are to be commended for their efforts in this process. The version of the policy presented in April was approved unanimously by Council, is now published For Comment, and should be promulgated, with any such further modifications that may be called for, in September.

Pennsylvania Current

The Committee received a presentation on the genesis, goals and development of Pennsylvania Current. We agreed that it fulfills its intended function of presenting the official viewpoint on current issues, together with news items and personal sketches that show the University as an institution in a positive light, in an appropriate manner. Although originally aimed primarily at students, it does not appear to be widely read by them, and is probably more successful in reaching staff, its intended secondary audience. It was agreed that, unless a much more elaborate and expensive delivery mechanism is developed, this was to be expected, and that nonetheless Current plays a necessary role in the spectrum of internal University communications.

NPTF and the PennNet Modem Pool

The issue that dominated the "State of the Union" meeting of the NPTF and was discussed at several other meetings, including that with the Library Committee, was the proposed phased elimination of the PennNet modem pool. There was general agreement, albeit somewhat grudgingly by some, that this was a necessary and appropriate development. Compelling arguments included: it is a rapidly escalating economic burden for ISC to provide state of the art services; a significant but unquantified fraction of modem pool usage is unrelated to the mission of the University; many current users could obtain better services at less overall cost from a commercial provider (ISP). However some who experimented with ISP's found their services, at least initially, to be less than fully responsive. General concerns included the impact that this transition might have on such desirable developments as telecommuting and the increasing use of electronic communications in the educational process. Most reservations centered on those units, such as the Library, and individuals, such as graduate students and relatively junior staff who live within the city, who could be negatively impacted. The Library's concern derived from the need to authenticate those who access the proprietary databases that it makes available, and is contractually obligated to restrict, to members of the University community. A satisfactory solution has been devised and implemented by ISC. For those who live within the city access to the modem pool is a local telephone call. Thus use of an ISP would represent an additional cost to them, and for those for whom this is required, for example TAs who may need to be electronically available to students over extended hours, and are supported by stipends or salaries at the lower end of the scale, this may be an undue burden. ISC had wished, and the Committee encouraged them, to establish a University-wide solution for graduate students, but the deans decided to retain the authority for all decisions about reimbursement of PennNet access costs. Thus resolution of these cases will be the responsibility of the schools. Some accommodations by ISC, such as the continued maintenance of a free-access express modem pool with short session limits, should help to alleviate these and some other transitional problems. The Committee should continue to monitor the progress of and issues arising from the modem pool transition.

Penn Web Site

The pilot version of a new Web design was released on a trial basis early in the year, but not launched due to a decidedly mixed reaction. The Committee was informed that the evolution of the site is dependent on decisions that relate more to organizational management than to technological or aesthetic questions. We agreed that design development should await the implementation of a management structure that confers appropriate "ownership", and that the Committee should take up the design issue again with whomever becomes responsible when that is resolved.


The Committee received a presentation on Penntrex (= Penn Centrex) which provides telephone services for all those on campus, including students in the residences, for whom simplified ordering, installation and customer service are supplied. Some services are also available to off-campus students. As well as simplifying the interface with the local supplier for this audience, Telecommunications is able to leverage purchase of long distance services at highly favorable rates. Several members of the Committee wished that they could avail themselves of such economies. The growth of cellular and Internet telephony and the fierce competition between long distance carriers may however lead to a diminution of this advantage. The one aspect of Penntrex that is least well received is its billing. We believe that this is largely due to the unavoidable delay in collating information from the third party vendors and that, while this cannot be wholly eliminated, some electronic billing options under consideration could reduce its impact.

Library Outreach to Students

The Committee met with the Library Committee to discuss the question of how to alert students to the Library services available in a timely fashion, to minimize the regular crush and consequent frustrations when the first term papers become imminently due. We agreed that in view of the torrent of information that overwhelms admitted students prior to matriculation (which is in itself is a matter for concern) it would be counterproductive to attempt to transmit this information before its need is apparent. We therefore recommended that use of the Library and direction towards the appropriate resources be incorporated into freshman writing courses and selected freshman seminars and coordinated with the residential Library Advisor program.

Dissemination of Benefits Information

Time ran out before a meeting with the Personnel Benefits Committee to discuss this issue could be arranged, so it should be continued as a charge to the Committee.

PennCard Services

We received an update from Campus Card Services on the development of PennCard services. The use of smart card technology had not achieved the gains that had been projected in the industry. Instead the off-line processing of the necessary information by as many as five different systems materially impeded the delivery of the help and problem resolution functions. Campus Card Services therefore plan to move towards the on-line processing of magnetic strip information by a single system, with an expectation of considerable simplification and enhancement of these customer service functions.


The Committee heard a brief report on the largely problem-free transition and the substantial effort that lay behind it.

Faculty/Staff Telephone Directory

Business Services briefed the Committee on the significant delay in distribution of the directory this year. Outsourcing its production to a contractor unfamiliar with this kind of product and thus unaware of the process and complexity of the information to be collected and collated caused this. This attempt was motivated by the personnel-intensive nature of the process during a short time period and consequent staffing difficulties. These will be addressed by reorganizing the timetable and process for information gathering, in particular utilizing user-supplied updates to the on-line directory for the white page section, the most labor-intensive element. The production of the directory will be brought back in house and its circulation is expected to be timely this fall. Meanwhile longer-term options for harnessing external resources for the production of the directory will be reviewed and considered.


The Committee met with the recently appointed Editor of Almanac, who presented information on the growth of electronic access to Almanac information and discussed her plans for developing this and assessing readership impact.

Computer Disconnect Appeal Board

As required by the Computer Disconnect Policy, enacted upon the recommendation of the Committee the previous year, a group was appointed to hear the cases of those who wished to appeal their disconnection. The Committee Chair received notice of intent to appeal from one individual during the year and, as envisaged by the policy, attempted to resolve the case by mediation. This proved successful.


The Committee thanks Ms. Tram Nguyen of the Office of the Secretary for her cheerful and efficient staffing, occasionally in the face of tribulations caused by the scarcity of space during the renovations to Houston Hall.

As has been our experience in the past we have enjoyed excellent support and responsiveness from University staff in ISC and elsewhere whom we have invited to discuss their areas of responsibility.

--Martin Pring, Chair

1999-2000 Council Committee on Communications

Chair: Martin Pring (physiol/med); Faculty: Gerald Faulhaber, pub pol & mgmt; Ellis Golub, biochem/dental; Steven Kimbrough, oper & info mgmt; P. David Mozley, radiol & psych; Russell Neuman, communication; David Smith anesthesia/med;Dana Tomlin, land arch; Graduate/professional students: Linda Rauscher GAS; Eric Zimmer, ASP; Undergraduate students: Nicole Baker, COL; PPSA: Gene N. Haldeman, ugrad admissions; David Millar, ISC; A-3: Donna Arthur, career plng & placement, law; Catherine Curtin, bioengineering; Ex officio: Paul Mosher, vice provost & dir, libraries; James O'Donnell, vice provost, info syst & comp; Ken Wildes, dir, communications; Marie Witt, assoc vp, bus svcs.

Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 5, September 26, 2000

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