A CIO rejects, for now, university’s IT offshoring plan

Plans by University of California-San Francisco to offshore IT work prompts response from Berkeley CIO

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There are reservations within the University of California system about a plan to move IT work offshore and lay off employees.

After Computerworld wrote in September about the layoff plan at the university's San Francisco campus, Larry Conrad, the associate vice chancellor for IT and CIO at the Berkeley campus, wrote a memo to IT staff about it.

He noted that some on his IT staff had seen the story and he wanted to respond.

"The UCSF effort is indeed an ambitious undertaking," wrote Conrad in a memo obtained by Computerworld. "Candidly, I am not aware of any major university in the country which has successfully implemented such a substantive IT outsourcing initiative."

The San Francisco campus, which includes a medical center, has hired India-based HCL under a five-year contract valued at $50 million. As part the move, the university is laying off 49 permanent IT employees and cutting about 30 contractors. Some of the IT workers say they expect to be training H-1B-visa-holding foreign replacements.

A protest outside UCSF IT offices in San Francisco is set for Nov. 15, and is being organized by Sara Blackwell, a Florida attorney representing Disney workers who lost their jobs after Disney offshored some IT work.

The University of California is a public institution and its offshoring plan has drawn protest from a number of lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It is clear that the university is seeking to replace American workers with lower-cost foreign workers abroad and potentially also in the United States," wrote Grassley, in a letter to Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California system.

The contract that UCSF negotiated with HCL can be used by any of the campuses in the massive University of California system.

"We have no plans to follow UCSF's path," wrote Conrad, who said he's aware of UCSF contract and "will look at the results."

"The IT business is constantly changing. What made sense 20 years ago doesn't make sense today. What makes sense today likely won't make sense in another 20 years," wrote Conrad. "Business applications are a good example: 20 years ago we wrote most of our major systems. Today those are mostly purchased systems, with the integration of cloud-based solutions a growing trend.

"It's difficult to overstate the changes I've seen in technology and management over the span of my career," he said in the memo. "But the one thing that hasn't changed is the need to provide excellent, informed, and responsive service to our customers. The value-add local IT has always had is the ability to understand the business, understand our customers, and help them solve their problems and transform their business."

Still, Conrad didn't completely rule out outsourcing, and said it "does need to be considered as part of the overall portfolio of services we or any other university (or any other business) provides."

In a follow-up email in response to questions, Conrad said the school does do some outsourcing and "will continue to look at those options on a case-by-case basis. But we do not presently have plans to outsource big chunks of our IT operations."

Computerworld also asked Conrad whether the use of "use of offshore workers -- often on temporary visas -- is appropriate in an academic environment? Particularly one that is training people for occupations in IT?"

"In regards to offshore workers, UC Berkeley, like many other institutions, has been hit very hard by the systemic disinvestment in public higher education by state governments," Conrad replied. "Historically, public higher education was viewed as a public good ... and in places like the Bay area that 'bargain' has paid off over decades in dramatic ways that have literally transformed our world. However, today that bargain with state government -- that investing in the education of state students benefits the state economy and society -- seems to be fundamentally broken and replaced with a prevailing belief in state governments across the country that higher education is a private good, benefitting the individual, and should not be a priority for state investment. That certainly seems to have become the case here in California."

Conrad said that the "central IT budget here at Berkeley has been cut to the bone to a point where all we can do is keep the metaphorical lights on and nothing else. No resources for innovation or even extending existing services."

"Consequently, we will continue to look at options to reduce our expenses while not jeopardizing our ability to support the campus. In some cases, that does involve offshore workers and we will continue to assess the efficacy of that on a case-by-case basis," he wrote.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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