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UL's digital landscape is changing almost as rapidly as its physical landscape. There are so many projects currently being discussed and developed that its hard to keep track of them all. sat down with the University's Chief Information Officer, Gene Fields, to get the down low on high tech at UL.

I hear you read my article, 'UL's Two Campuses.'  Am I in trouble?

Ha ha... I enjoyed reading your article! I think you definitely hit the nail on the head on some aspects of your thesis. We are currently involved in projects that address many of the issues you discussed.

What exactly does a Chief Information Officer do?

I am the head of information technology on campus. IT on campus is broken down into three divisions, Media Networks, Office Information Systems, and University Computing Support. I provide bridges and coordinate activities over those three areas.

What are the roles of the three divisions?

Media networks are responsible for the network, printing services, printing production, phone lines, and fiber. Office Information Systems runs the information systems on campus. These include the ISIS system, payroll, portal, and ULink. OIS has around 20 full time employees that are mostly computer programmers. Finally, University Computing Support are the people that run the Help Desk, and all other online services that are not directly connected to ISIS.

What's next in IT at UL?

The biggest project is the implementation of a new Enterprise Resource Planning program. This ERP program will dramatically upgrade the way we handle registration, financial aid, payroll, human resources, and virtually everything else on campus. It is a huge undertaking and a multimillion dollar project. It will be a few years before we convert the campus over to the new ERP. We want to make sure that when the new ERP is implemented, everyone will be ready to go and the transition will be seamless.

How do you ensure a seamless transition?

I have been doing a readiness checklist to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. A lot of things must be upgraded before we can begin implementing the new ERP. One of the projects on the checklist is upgrading the school's entire network from a level 2 network to a level 3. This means systematically upgrading all the major switches on campus to smart switches. We started this project about six months ago, and the core switches have already been purchased. The level 3 network will be more reliable, more secure, and much much faster.

When will the upgrade happen?

We will begin upgrading the switches this Summer. We are waiting for the Summer because we need a time when there will be little traffic on the network. We don't want entire sections of the campus to be without Internet during the middle of the semester, we want to have all the kinks ironed out before the students start using it.

We don't know for sure when the jump from layer 2 to layer 3 will start, but I'm hopeful we will have it up and running before the start of the Fall semester.

After we finish upgrading the core switches, we will begin upgrading the edge technology. That means all of the individual routes and access points all over campus. This will be an ongoing process and will actually cost twice as much as upgrading the core switches.

Are we going to have a totally wireless campus?

When it comes to wireless technology, UL has some pretty unique challenges. We love our buildings on campus. They are beautiful with their red brick exteriors, but these buildings are built like bomb shelters. Getting wireless signals through some of these walls is like pulling teeth. Right now about 40% to 45% of the campus is already wireless. Our current problems are not so much with the coverage, but with the infrastructure. We have purchased about $100,000 worth of new wireless equipment.

We understand the huge demand for wireless service on campus. It's not just laptops, there are thousands of smart phones and smart tablets accessing the network, and this is just the first wave of these technologies.

Will the school be using LUS Fiber?

We did talk to LUS about wireless, but they are not at the point to implement the new 'N' technology that we want. We have had a great working relationship with LUS and the negotiations are still on going.

In fact, we have created a plan to use LUS Fiber at the peripheral campus sites that don't currently have access to the fiber we have already run on campus. These peripheral sites will then have access to the same high connection that the rest of the campus will be using.

In addition, we just signed a Memorandum Of Understanding about putting in an Internet shortcut that will facilitate fast access for LUS customers to campus resources. What that means is that connections are directly routed to UL.  We are very excited about that, and it will add tremendous value for LUS customers who need to access UL resources.

What about the website?

IT does not directly handle the website, it's a different entity. We are the plumbers. We run the pipes and allow the users to handle to content. Communication and Marketing is the department that controls the content.

That being said, there are plans to upgrade the website and we have been testing out a new protocol system called Drupal [Editor's note: runs on Drupal]. We have partnered with Communication and Marketing and have come up with a plan to hire a web-team director, a person with some expertise in developing websites who can organize, set up policy, set up rules, and set up a skin for the new website. You never can tell with these big projects, but I think within six months to a year we will have a new website up and running.

Any other exciting projects?

We are going to have an iPhone app in the next 6-7 months. It will feature a campus map, events, bulletins, multimedia, links, a directory, news on athletics, weather, radio, library information, polls, the fight song, all kinds of stuff. Its currently being developed and we are really excited about it. It will be really great for the students.

So student friendliness is a big consideration?

I love talking to students. I'm not just a high-paid flunky working on campus. I want to make things better. When we are working on projects, I always remind my team why we are here. It's for the students.

I know how frustrating it is for the students to have to undergo some of the processes they have to go through to get services. What we are putting our energies and resources in right now is the foundation. I understand that the foundation is not something that is particularly appreciated, but you can't have a house without a foundation.

You have to balance priorities with what needs to be done and what actually can be afforded. I think we are committed to providing a cost efficient education for students. Compared to other universities in the southern region, we are very cost efficient. I think affordable education was something very important to Dr. Authément, and I don't think those ideals died when he stepped down.

Providing a nationally competitive education while keeping the costs down is something we are very proud of.

Sam Stokes is a senior in Media Advertising at UL. He plays guitar with T-Ray & Sam, and attends almost every Cajuns sporting event he can.  To read more of his writings, click on his name at the top of this article.

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