News Staff Writer
Willamette Information Technology Services (WITS) is missing up to $15,000 of equipment checked out to students in spring 2020. That equipment, which is mostly cameras and laptops, was rented out long-term so students could use it for remote online learning following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an email sent out to Willamette staff, faculty and students on Aug. 9, WITS Director of User Services Jeff Allen asked that community members contact WITS about overdue borrowed technology before the start of Opening Days 2021. The email said, “Remember: your classmates and colleagues depend on WITS to provide checkout technology in support of our collective academic mission, a mission made more difficult when technology is unavailable. Returning borrowed equipment will help WITS help our community succeed!”
Because students haven’t returned rented technology, WITS is facing an equipment shortage. “We have, like, two Mac laptops,” Allen said in an interview. Since some classes require students to use software that can only be installed on university computers, if a student has to quarantine or leave campus, it is vital that those computers are available for rental through WITS. “And that's the problem: we need to be able to accommodate more people. And the best way to do that is to get back the equipment checked out,” Allen said.
Part of the issue with missing equipment is that in the rush to connect students with the computers and cameras they would need for remote learning, some technology had to be rented outside of WITS’s usual checkout system. According to Allen, historically, WITS had about 20 laptops on hand for short-term checkout, but avoided long-term rentals because the laptops were often too old to be suitable for four years of continuous use. When the pandemic hit, they had to find ways to get cameras and computers for the line of students that went “out the door” of Smullin 118. Equipment that was not meant to be checked out, including laptops that were part of laptop carts and miscellaneous technology that was around the tech shop but not in the system, had to be readied for use. Laptops were pulled from retirement. “Most of those weren’t even in our circulation system yet,” Allen said, “so they were just kept track of in the notes field or in spreadsheets.”
Those extra-system checkouts are hard to keep track of. According to Allen, WITS was unable to keep comprehensive records of whether students returned equipment over the summer of 2020 because staff weren’t allowed on campus most of the summer. If someone did return to campus to give back a rented camera or computer, it might have been taken in by campus security but not recorded. “Some of the people we’re contacting turned in their stuff a long time ago,” Allen said.
That is not WITS’s biggest concern, though: they are most interested in tracking down technology checked out by students who have failed to respond to email and phone contact from WITS. “Either they turned it in and don’t think they need to respond, or they didn’t turn it in and are still using it and don’t want to respond,” Allen said. He said one WITS staffer found (and confiscated) a missing laptop at a house party of a student who planned to keep it as a “graduation present” to themself.
Allen said that he and the other staff at WITS did assume some technology would be lost as a “cost of doing business” of getting technology into student hands. Now, they are concerned that if another crisis happens, WITS will be unable to meet student needs. Demand for computers is currently average-to-low, but there were several obstacles in building up a buffer of available tech in case of emergency. In summer 2020, all of WITS’s annual operating budget was spent retrofitting classrooms for remote learning, so they were unable to buy replacement laptops. Allen ordered 20 laptops in June 2021, and they took until September to arrive because of manufacturing and supply chain issues. Allen says he is trying to hold onto 10 Macs and 10 PCs for on-campus, short-term rentals, which leaves WITS with 2 Mac laptops and very few PCs. Out of a total of 80 or 90 laptops rented out, 20 to 25 are still unaccounted for. WITS is also missing 12 or 13 cameras. Allen said they are focusing on getting back “higher-ticket” items like DSLR cameras, rather than the laptops he redirected from retirement in 2020, which have depreciated in value because of their age.
Overall, factoring in depreciation, Allen estimated that WITS is missing about $15000 in equipment. The most expensive missing items are cameras WITS bought new in 2020, which are worth about $300 each.
For now, WITS is trying to get the technology back via phone and email contact. The hardest people to contact are alumni, so Allen said they may turn to the alumni office to help track people down. “We’re not mad- we knew this was going to happen,” Allen said, in reference to equipment losses. “At this point, we just want it back, because it’s inconveniencing students.” If students still attending Willamette need to continue using rented equipment, they can contact WITS to extend their reservation. Students who have graduated or who don’t need rented equipment anymore can contact WITS about returning it as soon as possible. WITS is willing to reimburse shipping costs if necessary.