How a scholar of the ancient past
is reshaping Penn's
technological future

From University Business, May/June 1998

THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA HAS OFTEN BEEN AT THE CREST OF THE wired wave. In 1946 it was a Penn team headed by Professor John W. Mauchly that built the first large-scale general-purpose computer--ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer--to make calculations about ballistics for the military. It is home to Professor David J. Farber, "the Paul Revere of the Internet," as Wired magazine called him, whose resume includes key networking projects -- CSNet, NSFNet, BITNET I, and CREN -- that helped pave the way for the information superhighway. So when John Fry arrived at Penn in 1995 to take the position of executive vice president, he was distressed to see that the university's computing operations were, as he puts it, "out of whack."

Penn, like many of its peers, was entrenched in mainframe mindset. Training, maintenance, and technical support were all handled through a centralized office. Although this 150-person or so unit had been effective when computers were relatively scarce, it became swamped as every student, faculty member, department, and school went on-line. Individual schools and departments set up systems that circumvented the central office, and the rigid institutional structure couldn't respond effectively. As computers grew into essential components of academic life, different disciplines developed radically different needs. The Wharton School, for instance, used computers to teach business, markets, economics, and spreadsheets, while the music department used them to orchestrate and create new sounds. A central office couldn't keep up.

Fry and former provost Stanley Chodorow set up a university-wide Task Force to Restructure Computing. They hired consultants from the Philadelphia-based Center for Applied Research and started to look for someone to chair the task force. They decided early on that their candidate didn't have to be a specialist. "We wanted someone who was a customer and a real innovator, and who would deal well with people," says Fry. "We wanted someone who could take a 10,000-foot-high perspective."

"If we were going to make computing critical to the institution," Chodorow explains, "then we wanted someone managing it who understood it intellectually, from the bottom up."

BOTH OF THEM HAD ALREADY HEARD about just such a person: an innovative on-line teacher, a pioneer in electronic publishing, a promoter of the use of computers and computer networks in academia, and a respected theorist on information who had a powerful sense of how the electronic revolution fit into the history of reading, language, and thought from the age of papyrus on. Best of all, he was one of their own. Penn's James J. O'Donnell was a distinguished professor of classics, an award-winning teacher, and, in Fry's words, "a great citizen of the university."

The choice of a scholar of late Latin--or any faculty member--to lead a major research university into 21st-century computing was an unusual one. But Fry and Chodorow wanted to forge a new approach. "You don't get ahead unless you take a risk," notes Fry. So in 1995 they appointed O'Donnell head of the task force. In 1996 Chodorow named him interim vice-provost for Information Systems and Computing. A year or so later "interim" was removed, making O'Donnell one of the nation's first university chief information officers to come from a humanities background.

So far the choice has paid off. O'Donnell has played a major role in decentralizing computer support; he has implemented an innovative program that puts round-the-clock computer help and tutoring into dormitories; and he has continued to encourage new approaches to teaching. O'Donnell has also imbued the job with a unique management sensibility and a well-developed sense of how computing fits into university life as a whole. As a result, Fry and others say, he's not only made the system work better but he's made people happier with it and brought them closer to each other.

O'DONNELL WAS RAISED IN SOUTHERN New Mexico, where his father was an administrator at the White Sands Missile Range. "Growing up around engineers probably left me with less than the classicist's stereotypical anxiety or fear or hostility to these things," says O'Donnell. He did his undergraduate work at Princeton and received his doctorate from Yale in 1975, at the age of 25. He taught at Bryn Mawr, Cornell, and Catholic University before settling in at Penn in 1981 as an associate professor.

O'Donnell began his scholarly career at a time when computers were becoming increasingly important to classicists (see below). He himself got the bug in 1980, while watching a TV interview with novelist William Gass. "He started talking about this newfangled thing he had called a word processor," O'Donnell recalls. "And somewhere about nine seconds into his description, I knew I wanted one." He bought his first computer--a Kaypro II--and began to explore. When his friend Richard Hamilton, a professor of Greek at Bryn Mawr, proposed starting a new book-review journal, O'Donnell suggested taking it on-line. "It was the moment from the old Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie when somebody says 'Let's put on a show, and,'Hey, we can do it in the barn!"'O'Donnell recalls. "my contribution was the 'Hey, we can do it in the barn. We can do it on the Internet.'" The Bryn Mawr Classical Review now has a circulation of 2,500 and has spawned a companion journal, the Bryn Mawr Medieval Review. Today it is one of 6,000 electronic journals, but in 1990, when O'Donnell and Hamilton sent out their first issue, there was only one other e-journal in the humanities, Post-Modern Culture.

"The instructive thing is that Rick Hamilton's good idea had nothing to do with technology," notes O'Donnell. "There was a need in the intellectual community for this kind of service, and that is what people are responding to. The technology is a vehicle that makes it possible to do it cheaper, easier, better."

Publishing the review introduced O'Donnell to university librarians, a community raising hard questions about information technology: How are intellectual property rights going to be managed? How are universities going to keep pace with the staggering, ever-escalating costs of paper subscriptions? O'Donnell began to track the appearance of electronic journals with Ann Shumelda Okerson, an associate research librarian at Yale who had begun following the publishing phenomenon for the Association of Research Librarians and in 1993 founded the index NewJour.

O'Donnell was also thinking about how to integrate computers into his teaching. "In the spring of 1994 I had the best idea I have ever had in my shower lifetime," he recalls. He decided to take his class on Augustine on-line. Penn students would meet once a week for discussion; one student would be assigned to summarize it via e-mail for more than 400 students around the world who signed up for the class. Those far-flung participants would then send their thoughts and comments back to Penn. The result was fantastic, says O'Donnell: "I found that the classroom seminar was far more animated and interesting because all those other people were pitching into the discussion between seminars." The experience fueled O'Donnell's promotion of technology at Penn as well as at classicists' and other meetings.

"I am not sure how I feel about living in a more electronic future than we now have," he explains. "At the same time I am absolutely sure that we will Live in a more electronic future. So the most prudent and in some ways conservative course to take is to be aggressive in getting hands on using those tools to think about how to use them in support of the things that I care about."

THE 20TH CENTURY LIKES TO THINK of itself as the first era in human history with a crisis in information technology. But, as O'Donnell points out, that's hardly true.

He's thinking not just of computers and machinery, but of the whole history of how information is recorded and communicated. If one takes the long view, human history is a succession of information technology crises, starting with the invention of writing. The ancient Greeks resisted writing at first, much as people resist computers today. Socrates is just one example, O'Donnell says: "No serious student of serious things," the philosopher says in Plato's "Seventh Letter," "will make truth the helpless object of men's ill will by committing it to writing." This resistance may lie in the shift of values that seems driven by those in technology, O'Donnell argues. Whereas oral communication predisposes one toward collaboration and cooperation, writing is one-sided and puts new power in the hands of the writer.

O'Donnell is fascinated by these issues of values, power, and collaboration--and discusses them in his most recent book, Avatars of the Word. He's drawn to the ways in which the technology of communication affects how people think and live. Look, he says, at the way St. Jerome responded to a scarcity of books by memorizing enormous quantities of text, partly because he had to, but perhaps partly because he could--since he didn't have to spend his time sifting through more and more new material. Look at the similarities between a medieval text glossed with notes from many sources and a contemporary hypertext. Look at the ancient dream of the universal library and compare it with our dreams for the Internet--which our age hopes against hope will provide universal access to all the world's knowledge.

At the same time the classicist remains utterly unsentimental about the past. "Surely," he writes, "it is not self-evident that the words of other times and places, frozen forever in unchanging form, should live on indefinitely.... [It is] even less self-evident that human beings preoccupied with the real problems of their present should spend any appreciable amount of time decoding and interpreting the frozen words written by people long dead."

The scope of his thinking on these matters appears to make O'Donnell an unusually open-minded manager--one devoted to collaboration. "I think universities get into trouble when they think of leadership as something exercised by men on white horses," says O'Donnell. "Administrators need to look for a collegial approach--for horizontal collaboration." And that's exactly the way the restructuring task force was handled. Even today, no one involved in the process will step forth as the originator of any specific idea.

O'Donnell's own role appears to have been largely that of diplomat. His knowledge of campus computing has always been profound: He knows what students and faculty want and need; and as a "consumer" himself, he knows whether the system is truly working in the service of education. But instead of acting directly from this personal experience and expertise, Fry explains, O'Donnell went out and asked people what they wanted. "Jim said we need to listen to the customer's needs. He has been able to create a situation where people listen," Fry says. "It sounds very simple, but at a complicated university it is not so simple."

What quickly emerged was a radically altered, decentralized model of computing. Today the central computing office deals with budgetary issues, networking, and intractable problems that cannot be solved alone by a school or dorm. But the bulk of support has moved outside. Each school has its own staff familiar with, say, the computing problems of art historians as opposed to those of engineers. Eleven residential halls also have a staff of students--called resident technology assistants, or RTAs--paid to help their peers solve computing problems, at the time that they need help: between midnight and four in the morning. "It was the only solution," says O'Donnell, "short of sending the professional staff to Bangkok so they could be on-line when the students need them."

This Resident Computing Support program is now considered one of the crown jewels of the restructuring. Although other universities have similar services--Northwestern, Stanford, and William Patterson University among them--Penn's appears to be the most extensive. It currently reaches 3,200 students, and by next year will reach all 6,000 students living on campus. The program was launched Last year as an experiment. A small staff of professionals trained 160 or so students and set up listserves and other communications tools. "We discovered that you can animate and manage a community of people who live together with the technology," says O'Donnell, who is also faculty master of Hill House. The computer lab on the first floor has now become one of the most popular places to hang out, O'Donnell adds: "Go there, look helpless, and someone will help you."

Ninety percent of the problems students have with their computers--rebooting, getting the modem to work, finding outlets, retrieving the computer from under the bed--are handled by their peers. Only 10 percent of the problems need to be referred to the more costly computing support staff. "It is great for freshmen," says O'Donnell. "They get to college and they have no life, and they get a job in their dorm going around helping people get their Lives together. This makes you popular very quickly."

"DON'T PICK THE USUAL SUSPECTS," recommends Fry, as he reviews the university's choice of O'Donnell. "Try to think broadly about being eclectic in your tastes." Eclecticism, however, can be risky, and Fry and Chodorow crafted a backup plan. If O'Donnell had proved unable to handle either the technical part of his job or the day-to-day management, the administration was prepared to hire someone to take care of those aspects of the position, freeing O'Donnell to focus on the big picture.

Plan B wasn't necessary. A year into O'Donnell's appointment, "I have heard almost none of the kind of rumblings that were present with his predecessors," notes Robert graft, Berg Professor of Religious Studies and one of the founders of the Center for the Computer Analysis of Text. The humanist has proven better at the hard-core nuts-and-bolts than anyone expected. "I can brief him on a technical issue, and he just stores it away in a way that I can't," says Michael A. Palladino, executive director of networking. "He will know more about it than I do the next time I see him." O'Donnell has developed a reputation for being tireless, responsive, and Open--and for answering e-mail almost immediately. "He is extremely good with people's time," says Fry, who meets with O'Donnell weekly. "He comes in and he has a list. They are the most efficient meetings I have ever had."

Fry notes that O'Donnell still needs to master the financial side of running the information system--which, with a budget of $25 million a year, represents about 40 percent of what Penn spends on computing annually. But Fry is confident that will come in time. 'you can teach management," he says, "but you cannot teach leadership." Information technology experts say that many businesses and universities will probably come to the same conclusion. "The trend is more generalist," says Thomas West, assistant vice chancellor for information resources and technology for the California State University system. "A person has to have a more global view. They have to understand how the technology fits into the overall higher education."

For O'Donnell that translates into some pressing concerns: How can Penn increase the compatibility of its various computer systems? What role should it play in the development of Internet 2? How can the institution's computer expertise translate into market share in the increasingly competitive world of global continuing education? But for a scholar who takes the long view of information technology, the real challenge is more profound and more exciting. "The technologies now in hand break down barriers, blur boundaries, and facilitate connections," he writes. "Our task now is not to create a new Greater Disney World or define a future. It is rather to explore openings, multiply possibilities, and venture down enticing pathways. It is too early for grand plans and instead a time for exuberance."

MARGUERITE HOLLOWAY is a freelance writer and contributing editor at Scientific American. She can be reached at MYHolloway@compuserve.com


HOW DID PENN ESCAPE THE mainframe mindset? It took a gamble, and named a noted classicist, James J. O'Donnell, its new vice provost for information systems and computing.

* The payoff: Since taking over in 1996, O'Donnell has decentralized support services and set up an innovative program that puts round-the-clock computer aides into student dorms.

* Qualifications: The new CIO brings to the job a surprisingly practical array of insights on information technology from papyrus to silicon.

* Bonus: A generalist sensibility, with a collaborative management style and a keen sense of how computing fits into teaching and learning. Could this be the next trend in CIOs? Some experts think so.


The Professor as Software Icon: A Classicist in the Information Age

From James J. O'Donnell's forthcoming Avatars of the Word:

Librarians: They are caught between rising demand [from faculty and students] for Information ... and rising supply of that information and prices for it from their suppliers, and so have already been making pragmatic decisions about the importance of ownership versus access, print versus electronic, and so on. Can we imagine a time in our universities when Librarians are the well-paid principals and teachers their mere acolytes? I do not think we can or should rule out that possibility.

Self-examination: We should look clearly and frankly at what universities are, what we do, and what we can do. We must have no fear of cheapening ourselves by stooping from the heights we have sought to dwell on. We are, frankly, cheap enough already. Those of us entrenched are too comfortable, and have too many glib rationalizations for the inefficiencies of our teaching and the inequities of our professional hierarchies to hoed ourselves up as paragons.

Western civilization: For all the passion and affection I bring to books, I have very little business caring for the future of the book. Books are only secondary bearers of culture. Western civilization (or whatever other allegorical creature we cook up to embody our self-esteem) is not something to be cherished. Western civilization is us and making it, as well as remaking it, is our job. The thought that we come here in a generation surrounded by opportunities to botch the job might be frightening -- or it might better be exhilarating.

Our business: If the railroads of the 1950s had known they were in the transportation business instead of the railroad business, the joke goes, more of them would still be in business. Similarly, if we think we are in the youth camp business or the fifty-minute lecture business, we may still be in those businesses (some of us) forty years from now, but there won't be as many of us, the paint will be peeling from the walls, and the dormitories and lecture halls will be far quieter and more tranquil places.... Wealth and power alone are no guarantees of survival. Acres of closed steel mills, whose furnaces once powered the national economy, tell us that. We are immensely fortunate that academics have been in the front Line of computing and networks. This gives us now an advantage--technical, intellectual, and even just financial--that we would be fools to squander.

Access to information: Copyright will survive...as long as providers of information want it to survive. Indeed at this moment, the real risk is that providers of information will take advantage of their leverage with government to place greater restrictions on the flow of their information in cyberspace than has been the case regarding print information. Legally binding license agreements that readers sign to get access to a database already require them to behave in ways far more restricted than copyright law would ever have demanded. Further, there is a major assault on the legally defined concept of "fair use."...These are worrying developments, no question. But they do leave room for optimism. Excessive restriction breeds demand for unrestricted access, and those publishers who hold on most tightly to their product may find it rendered obsolete by more freely accessible competition. In addition, the emerging culture of the Internet...may well find new ways to envision the economics of information.

The future of publishing: The central fact of our future is diversity. The single-author, linear-structure monograph will survive for a while, but it will very rapidly become in fact what it already is in principle: a component of a larger whole. On-line publication of monographs will facilitate a multiplication of approaches and comparative interaction....Primary and secondary materials will interact more powerfully than before, as both are on-line side by side. Scholarly discussions will quote the original by pointing to it, and Leave the reader to explore the original context, not just the few words or sentences most apposite. Conversely, texts wilt acquire structured commentaries not by single hands but organized out of the work of many....The "variorum edition" is a print phenomenon that has never been widely popular. Its time may well be coming soon as it is possible to directly link texts to a wide variety of scholarly discussions.

The liberal arts: The liberal arts were not meant to fit you for life in the workaday world, nor to make you a good prospective citizen. Their aim was philosophical, even mystical. The world of appearances and material being was full of distractions and confusion, but the liberal arts...would disaffect the mind from the charms of this world and lead it to ascend by graduated steps through this world toward that which lay above. The multiple liberal arts all led to the same goal: in neo-Platonic terms, "The One"; in Christian terms, "God", in all cases, a fundamental metaphysical unity that animates the totality of things. This belief in a unified totality explains one of the oddest if most obvious things about our universities of today, namely their blithe disregard of the rule of economies of scale.

Learning from machines: Imagine an on-line resource where the course lectures are available not in 50 minute chunks, but in 2-5 minute video segments closely matched to a paragraph of the textbook and a video of an expensive-to-duplicate demonstration, with problem sets right at hand. How much better to review the lecture from the professor's mouth as often as need be, rather than attempt to decipher scrawled and perhaps incomplete or inaccurate notes. The same tactic can be used at an altogether different level. Infrequently taught ancient and medieval languages (such as ancient Syriac or medieval Occitan) are in danger of disappearing from study....If self-paced interactive instruction, with endless drills and exercises, were available on-line worldwide (there is no technical obstacle to doing such a thing today), then that local faculty member could monitor a student's it; progress at the outset and spend face-to-face time six months or a year Later taking the successful student to the next level-a luxury that few have today.

Electronic-age teaching: The real roles of the professor in an information-rich world will be not to provide information but to advise, guide, and encourage students wading through the deep waters of the information flood....Apart from that, the professor will be a point of contact to a world beyond the campus. The image I like is that of the university as a suite of software, a front end, or what you see on-screen and interact with, to the world as a whole, chosen for its power, speed, functionality, ease of use, even for its user-friendliness. The professor turns into a kind of software icon--click on the professor and let him take you to the world that he knows.

>From Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, by James J. O'Donnell, new from Harvard University Press. Reprinted by permission.

The Classical Connection

"A lot of people don't believe it," says John Marincola, executive director of the American Philological Association, "but classicists were about the first to embrace the whole technological revolution." Why? In part because there are so few of them and they are always searching for paths to self-preservation. In addition, classicists are intimate with syntax and the art of piecing together invisible worlds: skills that are important in thinking about software. "Analysis of a language is very similar to working with code," notes Maria C. Pantelia, associate professor of classics at the University of California at Irvine. "That training is helping us work with technology."

Perhaps the most important factor in drawing classicists to computers is Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, an electronic database of ancient Greek literature created in the early 1970s with the backing of David W. Packard, classics scholar and heir of a computer fortune. "Suddenly you could search all of classical literature," recalls O'Donnell. "Every living classicist, on seeing that technology, immediately recognized, 'This will let me do my day job better' It was the classic killer app."

The initiative was followed by the Perseus Project, a multimedia resource of more than 400 Greek and Latin texts, plus maps, photographs, translations, and essays. Begun at Harvard in 1985, Perseus currently resides at Tufts with its founder and editor in chief, Gregory Crane, an associate professor of classics. The multimedia approach appears to be gaining momentum. The National Endowment for the Humanities recently funded similar projects, including VRoma and the Vergil Project, a pair of Web sites that will offer on-line classes, discussions, and access to resources.