Considerations on Choosing a University CMS

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Chris Coyier on (Updated on )

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The other day a friend of mine, who works at a university, told me he was on a committee to choose a CMS for the whole university. I definitely don’t envy that task, but I do find it quite interesting.

A lot of us have probably seen companies/institutions make what seems to be embarrassingly bad tech choices. For instance, paying unbelievable monthly fees for simple things like email and calendars when they could be using better and comparatively free Google services (we yell, while nobody listens).

That’s one of the places my mind immediately went when this comes up. Oh wow! What a great opportunity to save this large institution from wasting millions on some weird sleezy software contract and get them on something just as powerful and potentially free.

The other place my mind went is right to some tech that I would go with, if I was in charge. It would be so interesting to do this with WordPress Multisite! Just one set of software to keep updated. Yet, different departments could have their own sites with their own administrative control. Assets could be shared as needed, but each site could be as unique as needed as well. Fun!

I even asked on Twitter for other suggestions as well:

Answers I got included every single CMS you’ve ever heard of, as well as MARKETING BOTS out to convince me their way is the right way. Lisa summed up a common feeling:

Turns out: cart before horse.

It’s thinking like I was doing that gets companies into messy situations to begin with. Some TECH DUDE who’s got it all figured out before the considerations are even made very clear.

There is a lot more to consider than just tech.

Who’s going to implement and work on this CMS?

You know how many IT employees they had to work on this and maintain it? Zero.

Yep, zero. They don’t really have a true IT department (or whatever you want to call it) to manage the university’s website(s).

They also aren’t really looking to change that fact. They aren’t trying to build a new department for that. They aren’t trying to contract or hire freelancers to do it. They are trying to just buy a hosted CMS system. Probably from a company that specializes in that kind of thing. A company they can work with the set it up. A company they can call for help, or more likely, have an ongoing contract with to support.

Part of that reasoning is…

Capex vs Opex

That is, “Capital expenditure” vs Operating expenditure”. This looks to be a decent article on that. It’s a big difference for businesses like a university. One is deductible, one isn’t.

I’m sure there are other big important considerations here as well that are above my head.

But suddenly, spending a million bucks on a CMS contract doesn’t seem so out of the question. Imagine trying to hire a whole team of local developers to take this project on. It would be hard, slow, and cost just as much if not more. And there is no guarantee it’ll be better, in fact it feels more like a gamble.

As Karen says:

It’s not the CMS

Any CMS can do CMSy things.

Obviously it needs to have custom data structures, custom templates, custom URL design. You should be able to build the kind of site you want with it. Some CMSs are more opinionated than others in this regard, but any one worth its salt is a tool toward building the site you need.

It’s the CMS

And yet… it’s certainly still worth your time to consider what CMS’s offer and how they handle certain things.

  • Can the CMS manage multiple sites?
  • What is your mobile plan? Can the CMS deal with that?
  • What is the upgrade process like?
  • What is the documentation like?
  • Is community around the CMS important?
  • Is there paid support available?
  • Can it handle permission levels that match the university’s structure?
  • Should you want or need to hire out to help with it, is that possible? Easy?
  • What features can you imagine your CMS needing? Now vs in a few years time? (e.g. “Let’s add a forum! Let’s give students profiles! We need a chat room!”)
  • Have you thought about security? Backups?

Who’s going to be actually using this CMS?

This is perhaps the most important consideration.

Not who’s going to be using the website. That’s students and prospective students and yes that’s all important stuff but not what we’re dealing with right now.

Who is going to be adding content, managing content, basically the primary user of the CMS? Can you give them a CMS that is perfect for their needs? That is easy for them to use? That allows them to wrangle that content in the most useful and effective possible way?

Karen, again:

The right CMS is a customized one — right? Can you build input screens that are perfectly custom to what these people need? Can you make sure they don’t resort to copying and pasting from Word? From linking up PDFs?

Insanity, confusion

I am not at all envious of my friend because of this. I just can’t imagine a world in which a committee like this, conversations and meetings like the ones he’s having aren’t filled with insanity, confusion, and bullsh*t.

Probably some lightly bad stuff like people that are involved that probably shouldn’t be. People that just aren’t grasping what’s going on. Important people not contributing.

And then probably some awful stuff like people posturing for control. Red tape. Power struggles.

I don’t really have any advice for all that, except to say that it can’t be ignored. The human part of all this is just as big a part than the intellectual tech discovery stuff.

More Resources

  • Kerry-Anne Gilowey’s deck “Getting Your Specs in a Row: Your role in CMS selection”

Examples of What Some Universities Use

I’m probably not going to maintain this list over time, but if you feel like chiming in about what universities are using what (and even better, how that’s working for them) in the comments, please do!