I started working in University Marketing and Communications (UMC) as a student web content specialist in 2003. At that time, every department, college, group, etc across campus managed their own website. Server space was provided by Central IT. If you knew how to code, you could have a website and you could make it look however you wanted.
It didn’t take long for UMC to realize that this would cause problems. How can you have any semblance of brand standards, a cohesive user experience, search engine optimization, or web accessibility under such a wild and unwieldy setup? A history of failed attempts to centralize web maintenance followed and left us with a realization that “influence without authority” was our best path forward to make Michigan Tech’s websites the best they can be.
2004-2007: Web Oversight Committee
UMC lead a web oversight committee to pull together the various webmasters and other coders from across campus. The group talked about web standards (think W3C, accessibility, etc), brand standards, and a way to make the different, disconnected Michigan Tech websites look great and work together.
UMC rolled out standardized Dreamweaver website templates for departments to use. The templates brought some standardization and an upgraded design. Administration bought in and these templates became a University requirement. At this time, website management remained decentralized with UMC serving the role of managing and distributing Dreamweaver templates.
2008: A CMS is Born
Extending the Dreamweaver template concept to something more scalable and maintainable, a campus committee selected a Content Management System (CMS) for Michigan Tech to use. This CMS was given to UMC to implement. This new web software platform pushed UMC to start investing in its own web staff and a front-end developer and backend programmer were hired to get the CMS off the ground.
With two technical staff members, one content manager, and a student employee, UMC slowly rolled out a newly designed, CMS-driven website template to campus using a volunteer-based model for onboarding. As administrative departments moved into the CMS, the same decentralized model for maintenance was used. UMC would build a shiny new website, upgrade the content and site architecture based on industry standards and best practices, train the department in web standards and CMS use, and then transition to the next website migration project.
Our first CMS was honestly difficult to use. CMS trainings were organized as multi-day in-person events held in a campus classroom. UMC’s content manager doubled as the CMS documentation writer and CMS trainer and also fielded the growing number of follow-up CMS-related questions. As this training and re-educating burden grew, the speed to move new sites into the CMS slowed.
2010-2012: Academic Units Join the Party
Despite the difficulties of using the backend CMS, there was no denying that the new CMS websites looked great and were much easier for our target audiences to use on the frontend. Leadership took notice and pushed for all academic units to be moved into the CMS. Little did they know that this would turn into a multi-year project.
Administration helped prioritize our schedule as we moved college by college to get all our academic friends into the CMS. While there were some benefits of templatization along the way (all academic websites have common elements after all), because campus was used to having full control over their website, there were a lot of custom requests that slowed the process.
One by one, websites moved off of webservers managed by Central IT over to UMC’s CMS—shifting the burden of web maintenance. At the same time, Central IT began a large centralization effort that streamlined Michigan Tech’s IT structure and moved all departmental webmasters and technical funding into Central IT. As UMC moved new websites into the CMS, we discovered hand-coded, custom web application systems that no longer had an owner and couldn’t run within our CMS. We worked through this new issue by coming up with alternatives, theming these applications and leaving them on the old servers, or convincing the departments that the system was no longer maintainable.
2012-2014: Problems Mounting
With more than 100 total websites now in our CMS, it was becoming clear that our CMS product was a major cause for concern. While the web team was proficient at using the CMS product that we had, campus continued to struggle with the interface.
Administration did not think that centralization was the right answer to our web maintenance issues given how campus reacted to IT’s centralization and it was outside of Central IT’s scope of work to assist, so we began to overhaul our customer support process and systems.
We shifted our staffing resources to prioritize hiring a web maintenance specialist who could fully focus on creating documentation, training CMS users, and answering support phone calls and emails. We invested more time into our CMS training manual and webmaster’s blog. We onboarded an email ticketing system to quantify and organize the dozens of support tickets we received every day. While this staffing adjustment decreased our ability to migrate websites and make new ones, we knew it was a necessary change to keep Michigan Tech’s decentralized model above water.
2014-2018: Web Accessibility and Taking Control
On top of our staffing adjustments, other project requests continued to come in. This left the University split into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ when it came to website design, functionality, and consistency. Adding to this issue, our web design had become outdated and was in need of a major upgrade. We put our heads down, rolled out a full web redesign, and focused on finishing the migration process.
In 2016, the web industry was beginning to be disrupted by web accessibility standards. With 150 websites now in UMC’s CMS, the attention and burden of bringing Michigan Tech into compliance focused heavily on our web team. However, it is very difficult to bring an entire campus into compliance under a decentralized model, so we made one last pitch to centralize our web efforts.
It became clear that Michigan Tech was going to remain decentralized when a web accessibility coordinator was prioritized to help facilitate decentralized compliance, so we knew we needed to start to take more control over how decentralized web maintenance was going to work. Our current CMS product was no longer viable and we needed to find a product that was faster and easier to use and gave us full control over the code output. At the same time, we knew our web design needed a small upgrade with some accessibility improvements built-in.
We onboarded our current CMS vendor starting in 2018 by migrating more than 12,000 webpages ourselves. Along the way, we improved campus web accessibility and upgraded our mobile and desktop web design. Campus feedback has confirmed that our current CMS is much more user-friendly which has greatly improved our chances of making decentralized web maintenance work at Michigan Tech into the future. We have been able to spend less time on documentation, phone calls, and support tickets and have an eye towards reinvesting in web project management and digital marketing to reach Michigan Tech’s recruitment goals.
The website and web marketing industries continue to change and evolve—as do campus expectations for UMC and the web team. A new standard for web accessibility is coming. Our web design now needs to take into consideration small smartphones with touch screens, medium and large desktop monitors, and even ultra-high-definition TV screens. We remain committed to creating the best product that we can for Michigan Tech’s websites while making sure that campus can understand how to make their own content updates in a fast and accessible manner. The journey has been a long one, but I’m very proud of how robust our CMS offerings are and how we’ve been able to maintain a strong set of partnerships across campus to make decentralization work at Michigan Tech.
If you have any questions or concerns about web maintenance, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re happy to hear from you. We wouldn’t have made it to this point without all the advice, feedback, and ideas that we’ve collected from campus over the past 15 years.
Joel C. Vertin
Executive Director of Digital Marketing