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Stanford Report, September 6, 2000

University jobs run a wide gamut


It's tough competing for employees in Silicon Valley's booming economy, but the range of jobs Stanford offers is hard to beat. The university has an executive chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America and a librarian at Hopkins Marine Station whose office overlooks Monterey Bay. It has a campus archeologist and a church wedding planner. And it has people who are finding new ways to use technology to improve teaching and research.

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To help publicize universities as places of employment, Jack's office has just created a website for the informal Consortium of Higher Education Employers in Northern California at Six colleges and universities are listed but Jack expects more will join soon.

"When you think about Stanford, you don't have an image of a workforce," says Linda Jack, manager of staff employment. "It just never occurs to people that it takes an army to run this place. There really is a home for everyone in a university."


Similar to other wired institutions, Stanford has jobs for programmers, web designers and technicians. But, unlike industry, it has created positions more likely to be found in an environment where education and technology converge. That's because Stanford's bottom line is not profit, says Rich Holeton, head of Residential Computing. Instead, he says, "it's helping students learn and faculty teach."

Holeton has brought his experience as an English and creative writing teacher and resident fellow to Residential Computing, which oversees computing resources in student dorms and living areas. He believes that users, not designers, should decide how technology is implemented. Last winter, Holeton collaborated on a project in a freshman seminar called "Designing the Human Experience." The task was for students to redesign a space in which it met -- a former dining room in Roble Hall. "I wrote the design brief," he says. "That's a really good example of what I've been able to do with this job." Involving students in the theoretical project was unprecedented, he says, and it led to a common idea that the space should be multi-purpose and reconfigurable. (For details, go to

Holeton has turned the class project into a web-based presentation and shown it to groups around the university. "That has helped me be a part of discussions about what we're going to do in these kinds of spaces around campus, not just Roble," he says. "We want the program to lead the technology. Otherwise, the only people making decisions are the ones designing the stuff. That's my task: to articulate, envision and look to the future."

Peter Chen, the Academic Technology Specialist in Biology and Human Biology, sits in a classroom in Gilbert.
photo credit L.A. Cicero

While Holeton gets to think about how technology is used in working and living spaces, a group of tech-savvy specialists on campus helps faculty improve the way courses are taught. Since 1996, the Academic Technology Specialists (ATS) Program, sponsored and managed by Academic Computing under Director Lois Brooks, has helped faculty do everything from creating course websites and digitizing exams to setting up live videoconferences.

"In academia, there are more of these in-between jobs," says Holeton. "The [academic technology specialists] are often translators. This area of academic technology is growing around the country, but people tend to be on the technology side or the 'I don't quite understand, could you guys make this work' side. I think there are fewer people who can bridge the gap."

Michael Gonzalez is the former ATS in history who recently moved in the same position to the Institute on 21st Century Librarianship, a Stanford-California State Library initiative to prepare librarians for the future. Gonzalez says it would be impossible to train for his job. "You have to draw not only from technical expertise but from teaching expertise," he says. "I ask a teacher what he wants to deliver, and we figure out how to do it."

Gonzalez's background in anthropology, history, teaching and his industry experience at an online database company allows him to help people like history Professor Timothy Lenoir, who is leading the charge in incorporating technology into teaching.

This summer, Gonzalez helped Lenoir run a live videoconference for distance-learning specialists at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. Sitting in a room at Stanford with a small ball-shaped camera propped on a briefcase pointing at him, Lenoir was beamed over telephone lines and appeared on a screen in Buffalo. Simultaneously, his colleague there, visiting scholar Bernadette Wegenstein, appeared on a monitor at Stanford. Lenoir explained on camera that last winter he, two Stanford colleagues, and teachers from Buffalo and the University of Chicago taught "Bodyworks: Medicine, Technology and the Body in the Late 20th Century." Stanford human biology students and SUNY comparative literature students participated in the class that included real-time sessions and online discussions.

Lenoir was enthusiastic about the course's results. "We feel that this technology was extremely successful in forming a link between the two groups," he says. "After a slight adjustment to the technology, what we focused on was content." Lenoir praised Gonzalez for making the class happen. "He encourages us to be bold in our use of this technology," he says.

Gonzalez says such innovative thinking is harder to find in business. "Here, you come across an idea and you sell it," he says about Stanford. "You can't do that in industry where there's a bottom line -- even to do a pilot project. I know, I've been there."

Peter Chen has been an ATS in biology since 1996. Two years ago, he began working in the Human Biology Program and soon will assist in the Language Center. Chen graduated from Oberlin College in 1995 with a double bachelor's degree in music education and biochemistry. He wanted to be a violinist but studied science as a fallback. Five years ago, Chen says his courses as a student were pretty traditional. "When I was a biochem major I would use the web, but information for undergraduates was sparse," he says.

Chen's job has been to help faculty find ways to get material online. It's also to figure out how to keep science instruction current. "Industry outside is on the cusp of the genomic revolution," he says. "It's been a big challenge [concerning] how to teach it. The university is going to lag behind industry in this area. To deal with this we've integrated stuff online into the curriculum." Chen also tries to find ways to teach students technical skills for lab work and research writing needed in the real world. "If we don't make them available to students, they can't get jobs in industry," he says.

Other projects Chen has worked on include developing a collaborative method for course assistants to write exam questions online and working with faculty to create tutorials about DNA structure. The tutorials, which can be manipulated online, allow students outside class to look at a three-dimensional model of DNA. "They like the fact that they can play with it from their dorm rooms," Chen says. "When I was studying this stuff, it was in 2-D. Now it's in 3-D."

Chen says that such technological advances will fundamentally change the university. "There is a fear that students won't spend time in the classroom," he says. "There are lots of growing pains right now. But the idea is to make the most of face-to-face time." Eventually, Chen wants to work in developing bioinformatics education but, for now, he likes being an ATS. "This is pretty exciting work," he says. "You have greater room to experiment with what you're interested in."

Brooks knows that her employees could easily find work in industry, so she tries to keep them stimulated on the job. Recently, staff members, including three academic technology specialists, went to Apple Computer Inc. to learn how to make high-end, web-based videos. This fall, for the first time, they will teach students how to shoot 2-minute video clips for class work.

Furthermore, Brooks tries to make the jobs attractive by offering flexible work shifts. "A quarter of my staff telecommute at least one day a week," she says. And, she adds, this year's salary raises are finally making the positions competitive with industry. "We're not hitting rock bottom anymore," she says.

As for Brooks herself, she plans to stay put. Her husband gets to experience the roller-coaster ride of working for a dot-com. "I really enjoy the academic atmosphere and I like the people," she says. "This is a really supportive environment for someone with a family -- I've never had to choose between a sick child and work. I've had an awful lot of freedom here." SR