The Wacky World of AV in Higher Education
Greetings from UCLA. This is my first blog entry here at All Voices (I’d also been blogging over at AV-1.org, a great reference for higher ed folks), so I thought I would talk a bit about AV in higher education and my corner of the world.
It’s certainly been an interesting time to be in higher-ed AV these last few years. And by “interesting” I don’t necessarily mean fun or easy. We have been dealing with some of the biggest budget cuts we have ever faced; meanwhile the core technologies in our systems are changing on a foundational level. My group designs, builds, and installs AV systems in the roughly 200 non-departmental classrooms on campus. Although I’ve been here for 15 years, I don’t consider myself an expert in any of this. As fast as our little AV world seems to spin these days, it feels like a full-time job just to hold on and stay vaguely current.
Like many parts of the AV industry, the higher ed side of the house has taken quite a beating economically the last few years. My group has weathered things pretty well. We entered the rough times with a budget increase, the result of begging, pleading, and generating the requisite mountain of rationalization paperwork for many years. Additionally, University of California institutions tend to have the contracts, grants, endowments, and other income streams our Cal State and Community College compatriots often don’t. Here at UCLA only about 7 percent of the overall budget comes from the state – about a quarter of the operating budget.
I have a friend at one of the local community colleges where the AV budget is so tight that when a projector lamp fails, there’s just no projection in that room any more. Typically, the school will rack up a collection of projection-less rooms for a few months before getting the money to cover another lamp order.
I am encouraged by what I hear from my residential AV friends — that it looks like people are starting to spend money again — although much of higher ed will need to wait for state budgets to recover. On top of that, some people are subject to state legislatures where the massive deficits are intellectual, not just financial.
Complicating the budgeting and planning here in higher ed are our own internal systems, which often defy logic when viewed from outside the ivy-covered walls. Particularly at “elite” universities, the competition for star faculty rivals that for star football or basketball players. Faculty often find themselves in a world where none of their decisions are questioned and they are considered the ultimate authority in all areas. It’s like college athletics, just without any NCAA regulations. Mix this with a system where departments are often their own separate fiefdoms, independent of outside control or influence, and it can create some interesting situations for higher education technology managers to deal with.
I recently explained to one department why reinstalling their U-matic deck into a system we’re building for them was a bad idea. I also just talked another department out of buying an opaque projector. Now, that equipment disappeared from the rooms we control years ago. And we just began a massive conversion from all-analog, button-panel-controlled rooms to touch panel-controlled, digital-capable systems, but it wasn’t easy to get everyone on-board with the decision. There are many institutions out there that have yet to come to terms with how digital signals will affect them.
On top of such challenges, schools and colleges are easily among the largest AV installs. With a pool of about 200 rooms, we’re pretty big, but UCLA’s is in no way the biggest AV department out there. Large universities with more than 200 AV-equipped rooms under the control of one group are not uncommon.
All these issues combine to create a world where higher-ed tech managers often play ringmaster to an amazing circus of legacy equipment. Many of us still have slide projectors and overhead projectors in service somewhere on our campuses. At UCLA, we upgraded one auditorium last summer and quickly heard from an upset regular user: No more composite input meant they no longer had a place to plug in their portable laserdisc player. (We gave them a small scaler and explained the issues they’d have when their deck finally fails.)
One event that I hope to write about as soon as it happens is the installation of our last VCR. Yep, we’re still installing VCRs. And while most of my higher-ed colleagues are loath to admit it, we’re not the only ones. In our case, it was purely an avoidance maneuver. A final order for the summer’s installs. A “punt” downfield so that ultimately we can blame technology changes on a lack of equipment availability rather than take the more expeditious – but often dangerous – position of saying, “We just decided that….”
You have to pick your battles in this world.
Good news, though: I did just get the official blessing to remove the last remaining 16mm projectors from our auditoriums.
If all that craziness wasn’t enough, many of us in higher-education AV design and build our own systems. It’s a far greater percentage than most people realize. In a future post I’ll talk about some of the numbers I’ve seen, and the method behind our self-integration madness.
So welcome to my odd little corner of the higher education AV world. It’s a unique part of the AV industry — one that I anticipate will be fertile ground for discussion.