Higher Ed Governance for the Real World

A study of how web teams from all types of colleges and universities are getting things done. Part 1 of 2 focuses on organizational structure and CMS tools.

There are a lot of opinions out there about how to run a website. Some are preachy. (“You NEED governance!” As if it were an achievement badge you could unlock.) And many recommend a corporate-style org chart, with clear lines of hierarchy and evenly distributed resources.

But one of the biggest problems for college and university sites is the collaborative, committee-loving culture of academia itself. Add to that a slow-moving org structure that’s still struggling to establish the web as a legitimate job function, and you’re looking at a digital publishing nightmare.

Forcing a new world order into a higher ed setting just isn’t realistic, at least not for grassroots-level practitioners. So we conducted original research to ask people what their web teams actually look like, what’s working, what’s not, and what advice they’d give fellow higher ed web professionals.

The Survey

We had 65 web workers from all kinds of higher ed institutions respond to a survey about team roles, skill sets, publishing process, workflow, what CMSes they use, and what tasks they do in-house vs. outsourcing. We also conducted 8 1-on-1 interviews to dig deeper into sticky areas like editorial jurisdiction, relationships with stakeholders, challenges, and lessons learned.

Using job titles as an indicator, respondents were almost evenly split between high-level leadership positions, managers, and practitioners. Only 50% had web-related words in their job titles, even though all worked on websites in some capacity, and many reported being the only web person on staff, responsible for everything. That falls in line with one of the chief complaints from the survey: an overall pattern of understaffing (or even completely ignoring) website work as a profession in higher ed.

The Web Teams

We asked people about their web teams, and got a lot of squishy answers. Most teams aren’t well-defined, are split up across departments, or are forced to do a lot of begging and cajoling of their non-web colleagues to get work done. Plus there are different views about who counts as a “web person” — is it the IT department who maintains the servers? The communications specialist who writes the press releases published online? The social media intern?

The lack of clear structures says a lot in itself, but there were a few patterns we saw in the data. Website sizes ranged from less than 200 pages (for individual departments) to more than 10,000 pages (for entire universities), and yet 75% of respondents reported between 2 and 5 people on the web team (whatever that meant for them), with the average at 3.9. There were no real observable differences in team size between schools that self-identified as public or private, 4-year or 2-year, small sites or large ones. We took that to mean that the common problems and structural patterns persist despite differences in institution types, and that the ambiguity surrounding web work in higher ed could be a symptom of its other problems.

Higher Ed’s Favorite CMS

We were also curious what publishing tools those teams were using. “Favorite CMS” is a bit of a misnomer, because the answer ended up being “all of them,” at least according to our respondents. About one-third reported using open-source systems Drupal or Wordpress (with Drupal having a slight edge), and the bulk were split between proprietary systems like Expression Engine, OmniUpdate, Sitecore, Terminalfour, and Adobe Experience Manager. CMSes in the “other” category included Sitefinity, Hannon Hill’s Cascade, Joomla, Jadu, and Ektron.

We also asked whether their institutions used multiple systems (usually split up by department), or whether they had one CMS to rule them all. 56% reported that everybody in the main .edu property was working in the same system, 27% said it was split up by unit, and 17% said “not sure” or “other” — a telling stat in itself, as several said they didn’t have CMS access, even though they’re responsible for web content. Only one respondent reported that their website was hardcoded.

An Ideal Structure?

So, after all this work, did we discover a web governance structure to recommend to everybody? Nope. Nobody had a perfect governance setup, but there were some common characteristics that seemed to make people happy:

  • A single executive-level leadership person with authority and responsibility for the website, who is accountable to other executive leadership AND understands enough about web work to champion good usability and design principles. Vision and diplomacy are musts.
  • A single editor in chief who reviews work, manages authors, and helps publish new pages. Despite “editor” in the title, this person is not necessarily talented with words; their job is more about optimizing people, skills, resources, and processes. Requires bravery, patience, and a strong constitution.
  • A small team of practitioners armed with clear publishing standards and lines of jurisdiction. Roles vary, but often include writers, designers, programmers, social media specialists, and a webmaster, with user experience architects and analysts high on the wish list.
  • Distributed content managers embedded in key departments. These must be trained to use web standards (some teams require them to pass a quiz to gain CMS access), and serve as a liaison between faculty members and the editor in chief. If they’re asked to do something that deviates from the standards, they call on the EIC for help and guidance.

What’s Next?

But what if you don’t have the authority to rearrange your university’s org chart and rewrite everyone’s job descriptions? Good governance is something you continuously work toward, and our respondents shared a lot of coping mechanisms and guerilla tactics they’re using to establish standards, improve workflows, and build allies across their institutions.

In fact, they gave us so much advice that it wouldn’t all fit here, so we’re publishing that part in a second post. It’ll cover higher ed’s special governance challenges, respondents’ personal stories of tragedy and triumph, and practical advice about baby steps practitioners can realistically take to move their organizations in the right direction (even if you’re forced to resort to trickery like offering donuts as bribes at web meetings).

In the meantime, you can download slides that summarize findings from the entire study, from a presentation at ConFab Higher Ed 2016 in Philadelphia.