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Digitally Transforming Montclair State University to Support Cutting-Edge Research

By March 23, 2020 No Comments

Montclair State University is a leader in groundbreaking research and was recently designated as a Research Doctoral University (R2) by the national Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. “Montclair State’s journey to be recognized as a Carnegie R2 research university has been steady and deliberate,” shares Dr. M. Scott Herness, Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Research at Montclair State University. “The institution’s focus has been on increasing the number of research-active faculty members and increasing the number of doctoral programs. To date, traditional cyber infrastructure has supported these endeavors. The University is now acquiring the critical mass of researchers, where the research requirements will dictate our technology needs.”

Montclair State continues to expand the school’s research activities in a variety of fields and further grow as an esteemed and dynamic research hub. “Now that our portfolio has grown, we are introducing more research-specific software for grant management to support the lifecycle of a grant,” says Herness. In the past, researchers were required to design and configure the software needed to support their projects, host their own servers, and operate their own systems. The University’s IT department is working to change this practice by partnering with researchers to inform them of the many resources available. “With the help of Edge, our IT department is working with researchers to increase their exposure to the infrastructure that is available in our eco network, as well as offering better hosting, procurement, and support options from central IT so they can focus on their own research,” explains Candace Fleming, Chief Information Officer and Vice President, Information Technology at Montclair State University. “Partnering with similar IT-oriented experts also reveals new opportunities and allows researchers to think about the different ways where systems can assist them in their mission.”

Inspiring Change While Meeting Unique Needs

The unique demands of many research projects often require operating outside of the traditional IT environment standards; requiring privileges not commonly afforded to faculty and staff. “IT had to figure out how to insulate the research computing environment,” says Fleming. “We needed to be more flexible, while still being vigilant in determining what access we provide researchers. Even inventorying the hardware and software that researchers use, while ensuring their environments remain reasonably updated and secure, presented new challenges.”

“Research computing needs can introduce a wide spectrum of unique technology requirements, especially when the research involves unique populations, such as human subjects research or sensitive data,” adds Herness. “Providing the computational power needed for some research operations is another example of a unique challenge. Sometimes the issue is simply introducing a research computing or infrastructure need that benefits some but not all of the institution.”

Introducing reasonable standards that did not interfere with researchers’ progress proved to be difficult, but the openness of researchers in accepting a new approach to their IT needs was extremely helpful. “We are assisted greatly by the cultural change that researchers are not wed to doing their own thing anymore,” shares Fleming. “Researchers welcome IT support and also understand the security issues and productivity challenges of doing everything themselves.”

Digitally Transforming a University

Digitally transforming an organization takes collaboration and teamwork among the IT department, faculty, and institution leaders. Each individual brings unique ideas to the table and through this partnership the group is able to think through how systems might support research efforts and what roles are needed. Digital transformation is not just introducing technology to accomplish the same goals faster, but helping the people using the technology to evolve their own approach and practices. “Digital transformation means leveraging technology to do things that were not possible before,” says Fleming. “Implementing change allows us to be quicker and more efficient, but also changes the way humans interact with the technology to achieve insights and accomplish outcomes.” As the shift begins to happen, new opportunities arise. “The technology enables operations that could not be formerly managed and permits access and manipulation of data that was previously not possible.”

To accomplish the institution’s goal of implementing new technology, a two-way conversation between IT and the research community was instrumental in finding success. “We assigned people to the necessary roles, while also determining how to provide the freedom researchers need in a way that is supportable, affordable and secure,” reflects Fleming. “The researchers may have some ideas that IT does not and vice versa, and this engagement between individuals makes digital transformation possible.”

Propelling Research and Education Forward

Utilizing discovery-based courses and numerous research opportunities, Montclair State is at an unprecedented point in the institution’s history for the growth of extramurally funded research and doctoral programs. “The growth of doctoral education over the last decade has probably had the single most significant change on the University,” says Herness. “Without that, our R2 status would never have been possible. But building doctoral education takes time, including getting a new program approved through the state-wide system, enrolling the program’s first students, and then the years for them to move through the curriculum, conduct their research, produce their dissertation, and then graduate. Along this path, these students are contributing to the research productivity of the institution.  Graduate education and research go hand in hand and as the saying goes, ‘great research universities have great graduate programs’.”

Montclair State previously received the R3 designation in January 2016 and was also named a public research university by the State of New Jersey in July of 2017, making the University one of four such institutions in the state. The University’s growing research endeavors cross disciplines and continue to evolve in response to regional, national, and global needs. “Our biggest challenge is to continue to grow our research portfolio,” shares Herness. “Montclair State had a long and rich history of contributions in education and teaching. While that central pillar will remain, we need to be looking to build our portfolios in life and physical sciences. We have a nucleus of researchers in the life sciences, in areas such as pharma, medicinal chemistry, and in the area of sustainability sciences. We also have a newly created department of Physics and Astronomy. Nurturing these areas and fostering interdisciplinarity are an important focus.”

Future Proofing Infrastructure

The nature of cyberinfrastructure is rapidly changing, especially as cloud and hybrid cloud architectures continue to mature. Cloud adoption is becoming more of the norm; especially as many institutions move toward a more innovative learning model. Integrating this next phase of technology, while potentially challenging at first, can be more cost-effective and beneficial in the long run than trying to customize and update on-premise applications to stay in stride with the most current technology.

Joining the cloud revolution can offer an institution a boost in flexibility and efficiency, as well as several cost benefits. “The functionality, performance, and economics of cloud architectures are likely to improve far more quickly than on-premise,” says Fleming. “The challenge for all of us is thinking about the accelerated use of the cloud and making the migration, as well as hiring cloud-versed staff with the skills that will be necessary in the future.”

Edge recently achieved status as an Internet2 Network Connector, an impressive achievement for the state of New Jersey. This member-driven advanced technology community is a research and educational organization connecting directly to the Internet2 Network and plays a key role in the future of the national advanced research and education network infrastructure. As a relatively young research university, Montclair State is in a position to directly address the technology needs of their researchers and is currently working with Edge to educate their IT department on the opportunities Internet2 can provide and the research infrastructure Edge offers to support their endeavors.

Research’s Road Ahead

An important part of Edge’s mission is increasing the dialogue across the state to connect institutions as they work to educate and enrich the community. Membership continues to grow, offering even more valuable institutional and industry partnerships to Edge members and ideas for new solutions to help the community flourish. “Edge is continually expanding the solutions they offer as a lead procurement agency in New Jersey, so I encourage institutions to be frequent visitors of the website to remain familiar with this expanding portfolio of solutions,” shares Fleming. “In addition, I would recommend that institutions proactively reach out to Edge to share the types of solutions they may need in the future to allow Edge to proactively find ways to address their needs.”

On the research front, Edge is dedicated to helping advance research in New Jersey and attract grants from preeminent research funding entities. “Edge is expanding their support for research and we are continuing to engage in conversations that will benefit many other institutions, including Montclair State,” says Fleming. “Montclair State is a dynamic university that continues to grow and mature,” adds Herness. “We seek to be research partners with our community and we would like our industry and state government associates to be aware of our willingness to collaborate.”

Collaboration is the key to innovation and discovery is born when new ideas are allowed to take flight. As the realms of technology and institutional research continue to intertwine, the thought leaders of today and visionaries of tomorrow will be empowered to find solutions to our societal puzzles and transform lives across the globe.