FAIR  Faculty Academic Information Reporting
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The Genesis of the FAIR system- A More Detailed Overview

The Genesis of the FAIR system- A More Detailed Overview

The Faculty Academic Information Reporting (FAIR) system is comprised of interrelated applications intended to be used by institutional faculty (and staff) for most internally and externally imposed reporting requirements. The system workflow is presented in a pictorial format her, which details the flow of information through the system. The ‘center’ of this diagram can be thought of as the entry of a piece of knowledge information- a publication, presentation or product. Once entered it becomes a candidate for vita display along with internally or externally based knowledge searches, then this entered information is reused when it is pulled into term based or and/or annually oriented reporting, culminating in its potential inclusion in a tenure or promotion application for faculty, an event usually a minimum of five to six years downstream from the initial entry. Concurrently, in the case of an academic environment, the ongoing (semester based) information such as courses taught and their itinerant evaluations are also compiled into the formats required for annual reporting and review, which also culminate many years later in the tenure and promotion process. The notion of a comprehensive system did not develop all at once, and once conceived it had many obstacles to overcome, which are detailed below.

Basis and Initiatives

The concept of the FAIR system grew out of three initiatives to collect institutional information in a systematic way
  1. One unit was hunting for a resource that would allow them to search for faculty expertise with regard to externally funded community based contracts and grants. Faculty research interests and publications seemed a viable proxy to this expertise. Furthermore the Center was guided by a dean which had as one of its mission directives the coordination of the collection of quantitative information about research and scholarship outcomes.
  2. The College of Arts and Sciences, which represents one-quarter of the university faculty and approximately half of the student instruction, had an operational need to systematically collect publication information on it’s faculty.
  3. The Office of the Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs had as one of its goals the inclusion of publication information as supporting documentation of research efforts. The University of South Florida is part of the Division of Colleges and Universities in the state of Florida higher education system, and the Florida system is atypical in the high level of specificity required for external reporting which is mandated by statute or rule. The need for supporting documentation of this effort is driven by the insatiable appetites of state auditors.

The College of Arts and Sciences started the process by convening a committee to look at the collecting and standardizing the metrics of productivity, as it was desired to introduce greater transparency could be introduced into the budget process for each department. The committee was initially formed by one of the associate deans and a Graduate Research Professor and a Department Chair named Dr. Stephen Turner who was chosen as the committee chair. There were other chairs, other associate deans, rank and file faculty with union ties, key staff, computing and budget personnel, and a representative from the Office of the Provost. The College of Arts and Sciences committee chaired by Dr. Turner was, from the start, willing and planning to build a college specific system, which provided impetus and a bit of forced reality to the process. Though stated that the College of Arts and Sciences committee started the process, they really only started the active integration of the three initiatives, because well before the formation of the aforementioned “Turner Committee” the Center which was attempting to pair expertise with grant funding had been meeting with all the units that collected faculty information in a systematized fashion in order to assess what information was currently available, while at the same time looking at computing and organizational platforms for the information they needed to fulfill their mission.

Organizational and Political Components - Overview

Almost all those involved in this project seem to agree that something special and unusual happened in the consideration and development of the FAIR project, something that most had not seen before, and it was that everyone worked together to achieve the goal, whether it was taking on additional tasks and new duties, or giving up organizational oversight and authority. Though it would not be true to say that all this occurred without any organizational authority issues being raised, the success of the project is in some way largely due to the initial decisions surrounding the technical side of the project.

Organizational and Political Components - Institutional

The College of Arts and Sciences committee however, did not really have concern for the technical problems, nor should they. The committee members, as faculty or faculty administrators were very sensitive to and concerned with the workload they were imposing on their colleagues. The faculty members in support of this system and the staff implementation and support wanted it to be at the forefront of all discussions that this product was faculty designed, tested and approved. The goal for the project, once it was determined that it would be a university-wide application, was to strive for a net decrease in work required, while at the same time collecting systematized and accurately categorized information. Guiding principles were:
  • A single logon and interface for the entry of all related information
  • ‘Recycle’ information and eliminate duplication.
  • Don’t ask for information which is already in electronic form in other systems

    In terms of getting faculty buy-in it was logically determined that while faculty do not care about filling out forms, they do care about their vita, they care even more about their annual review, and they care most about their tenure and promotion documentation. It was determined by all involved that it was better to develop something tangible, and then concern ourselves with how to get other resources than it was to ask for any resources initially. Asking for resources of any kind requires valuable human capital to be devoted to political appeasement and developing a trust relationship with others regarding your dream. If on the other hand you are able to deliver a viable beta product in a short period of time with already allocated budget, then it becomes much easier to get a commitment of resources to complete the product, or to develop confidence with your user base.

    Organizational and Political Components - Technical

    It is easy to say in police blotter fashion what the FAIR application specifics are. The FAIR system is an internally developed application consisting of a web-based interface of ASP.NET pages connected to a SQL Sever relational database, each of which rest on Administrative Computing/Information Technology (IT) servers. This description however would not do justice to the political efforts needed to realize this goal, which are detailed below.

    A variety of academic and administrative software and hardware is needed to operate a Research I university, including the financial and student systems, the appointment and payroll system, the content management systems for courses and so on. At USF central computing resources are separated in the form of Academic Computing and Information Technology (Administrative Computing), and further separated into computing environments that are specific to broad areas like the health sciences, and then frequently separated further into college specific resources that support certain computer groups (PC, Mac, Sun), computer labs, and operating system and application software. As mentioned the College of Arts and Sciences was willing to develop a system to descriptively capture descriptive publication information in-house, but realizing that with more than thirty departments they would encompass most of the variety found at the institution, they were willing for it to become a university application, but they insisted the development to be timely, often a problem with university-wide applications. The member of the College of Arts and Science “Turner committee” from the Office of the Provost also saw the merit of a university–wide application, and it was at this point that all three initiatives came together as one, because the third party was the aforementioned university–wide Center on grant and scholarship expertise. The next hurdle would be choosing the platform and deciding who was going to pay for it. In retrospect this was the most critical single point in the project. The College of Arts and Sciences had expertise in a web front-end connecting to a Microsoft Access database, but readily acknowledged that it was not a university-wide production solution. The Center had one programmer to contribute to the effort, a fresh graduate with Oracle expertise, but the only Oracle development platforms USF had access to came bundled with two business applications for which we had licensure, and they were the Peoplesoft HR module and the SCT/Banner student information system, both of which (at the time) were housed under in the administrative computing area of Information Technology. Both applications had many committees to go through before they could even add it to the project plan, or before they could even consider allowing external programming support to utilize the application development tools, and there was no guarantee this would happen. In the time period of the months and the person-weeks it would take to have meetings with these groups and to develop project requirements and specifications, a fully functioning application could be developed with the same resources. It was also known that the Peoplesoft group would want the functionality we were considering and if we did approach them we may not have a chance to pursue another option, as the project would be dragged into the realm of general administrative computing. Academic Computing supported Tomcat and MySQL as a viable low cost development platform, but had no experience with supporting production level university-wide applications. Information Technology supported the Microsoft solution of ASP pages and the SQL server database on NT servers, but was difficult to navigate through, particularly for the academic users, in terms of the permissions and protocol for the proper setup and establishment needed to facilitate a university-wide application. At this critical point leadership was provided by the Office of the Provost in deciding that the publication system (later a module of the overarching system , named the Scholarly Activities and Vita Entry or SAVE) would best be piggybacked onto the same environment used for the state and federal effort reporting. This decision utilized site license products and existing salary resources, and further, it was decided to develop a home-grown pseudo portal based on birth date and name derivation for the combined system which allowed the SAVE system to draw upon valuable base tables which extracted information from the aforementioned business systems, avoiding a whole other set of problem and permissions in the process. The Oracle programming resource then conveyed a willingness to learn SQL Server and ASP, providing needed resources to the project at a critical time and keeping with the tactical goal of not asking for any new salary resources prior to the display of tangible results. The value of a template to follow regarding the development of a production application cannot be emphasized enough, from the personnel to interact with, all the way down to database connection strings. With this formidable technical consideration out of the way we were free to develop the application the faculty had designed.