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A Front-Row Seat To The Information Age

April 10, 2002

Nick Marinello
Phone: 865-5714

mr4@tulane.edu

The fact that he has equipped his office with a well-used blackboard tells you something. For more than 15 years, many of the ideas scratched out in chalk on that board have become innovations within Tulane's information infrastructure. But when Jed Diem departs the administration this summer to return to the math faculty, he will trade the small blackboard for a larger, classroom-sized one, and exchange the station of decision-maker for the old and familiar role of teacher and researcher.

Diem, who arrived at Tulane in 1965 as an assistant professor in mathematics, will step down as vice president for information systems at the end of June. He'll take a year's sabbatical leave, spending some time with his son in Budapest, before returning to Tulane.

"My goal for the next year is to get myself back to a level of statistical expertise," says Diem, who is already eyeing a project that will combine his interests in statistics and computer programming in order to develop mathematical models of financial markets.

If changing gears from high-level administrator to academic will take some adjustment, it won't be the first time he's made such a leap. Nor the second. After teaching five years in the math department, Diem took advantage of a National Science Foundation fellowship to study statistics at Stanford University.

Returning to Tulane a year later, he received a post-doctoral fellowship in social psychology at the medical school. Two years later, in 1973, he left the math department to join the biostatistics department in the public health school, working on analyzing data from epidemiological occupational lung-disease studies.

By 1982, Diem found himself again teaching math through a dual appointment in the math department and the pulmonary disease section of the medical school. That situation lasted for four years, by which time an administrative change in Tulane Computing Services in 1986 created the opportunity for him to temporarily oversee academic computing.

"I was supposed to run academic computing for a couple of years and was never classified as an administrator," says Diem. By 1987, however, Diem had become the full-time director of academic computing and was responsible for coordinating service for campus computer users. "Eventually I became responsible for the entire system on the academic side, then the computer store, then the network," he says.

If the fates conspired to push a scholar of algebra into such a far-flung occupation they did so at the right time. From his new position, Diem had a front-row seat to the dawning of the Information Age. It began as a sleepy sunrise. Tulane's first universitywide presence on the Web was operated out of a computer that sat on Diem's desk. The connection to the Internet was at the viscid rate of 56 kilobytes per second, the speed of a common, modem-based dial-up service.

"In 1991 we had 300 users on the computer system," said Diem. "In the early '90s I knew most everyone on campus who was doing computing. It was a small group who understood computing."

Contrast that intimate, knowledgeable group with the some 15,000 Tulane users today, the majority of whom just want the system to support them in their daily tasks without an intimate knowledge of how it works. In 1998, when Scott Cowen became president of Tulane, he promoted Diem to vice president for information systems in charge of administrative computing, the computer network, all centralized computing systems, user support and telephony.

"I felt our mission was to provide an infrastructure on which people could build," says Diem. "We needed to focus on creating a more robust infrastructure and leave content development to others."

So while the Office of Public Relations and various academic units uploaded content onto the Tulane Web site, the renamed Tulane Infrastructure Services began shoring up the universal power supply in the computing machine room, replacing the outmoded 10 megabit shared network with the much faster 100 megabit switched network that is now 70 percent completed.

While he is grateful to Tulane for allowing him flexibility in his career path, Diem says he's also delighted to have had the chance to witness the growth and change of the last decade. "I've enjoyed being in the thick of it, watching all the change and hopefully having some positive effect on this change at Tulane."

Come July 1, the headaches and happiness of running TIS will belong to someone else, namely the newly appointed John Lawson of Pepperdine University. As he leaves the position, Diem admits that academia is just beginning to understand the impact of computing on education.

"I've spent lots of time in this infrastructure," says Diem. "One of the reasons I want to go back to the faculty is that now I want to be a user. I want to teach and use all these tools. I feel I have one more mini-career left in me."

Nick Marinello may be reached at mr4@tulane.edu.

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