Small Town Girl Meets IT World

Ruth Addis headshot

Ruth Addia

Typewriter Days

When Ruth Addis, now 62, was a student at the U-M, she lived in Stockwell on what's known as "The Hill." In her room she had a little stereo system, a small black and white TV and a manual typewriter. "Even as a freshman, I was a very good typist," she says. "I made a little pocket money by typing papers for people on my hall." She also worked in Housing as a resident advisor (RA), helping other students in the dorm.

Little did she know back in 1973 that she would be instrumental in the shift from typewriters (and color televisions) to computers all over the U-M campus.

She came to Ann Arbor from Clarkston, Michigan, back when Clarkston was farmland. "I was not encouraged to come to U-M," says Ruth. "People thought I should be a teacher, because that is what women did, and U-M was not a school that you came to then to be a teacher." But she did not come to U-M to be a teacher.

Ruth graduated from U-M in '73 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Her first job out of school was working with institutionalized developmentally disabled children and then waitressing at Big Boy. Waitressing paid for her to go back to school and get her master's degree in higher education from Eastern Michigan University.

Yet even armed with a graduate degree and some experience in University Housing, the job available was as a secretary. "That is about as entry-level as you could get back in 1976," she says.

Still, she was a secretary in the management office for the residence halls on the hill; that is, for Markley, Mosher Jordan, Couzens, Alice Lloyd, Oxford Housing and Stockwell. That management office oversaw the food service, housekeeping, and daily residence hall care.

The following fall, Ruth's steadfastness and good nature paid off. "Just before school started, the Stockwell Hall director left the university." Her boss offered the job to her. "All the stars aligned for me," she says.

She jokes that they let her take that giant leap-from Secretary I to Residence Hall Director at age 26!-out of desperation. But she adds, "I knew these people. I'd been in and out of these places." She says, "Secretaries, assistants, administrative assistants-we all know how important they are." It didn't hurt, she says, that she was the first one people saw when they came in the door, and the one everyone talked to on the phone. The person who built the relationships. "That turned out to be a really valuable thing."

Ruth stayed on as Stockwell's director until January 1985, when she was promoted to assistant director in Housing. At the same time, she had "come out" as a lesbian, was living with a woman, and gave birth to her daughter, her only child.

"I remember going to [Human Resources] at that point, and saying, 'Can I get fired for this-for being gay and having a child? I am working with 17, 18, 19 year-old women. If their parents complained about this, will the university back me up?' The answer I got from HR was, 'Of course.'"'

Ruth moved out of Stockwell, into the position of Assistant Director of Residence Education, to the main office of Housing, working closely with Marvin Parnes, currently associate director at ISR (Institute for Social Research). "I [handled] more the bricks and mortar, the administrative pieces of student life-hiring resident advisors and being the liaison to housekeeping, food services, maintenance folks. Marvin educated kids about life."

From Housing To Information Technology

Ruth stayed with Housing as assistant director for two years before taking another huge leap. "Doug Van Houweling (currently associate dean for Research and Innovation, School of Information) had come to U-M with a vision. He understood everyone would soon be using computers even if, initially, not everyone would be able to afford to buy them. He wanted to make computing accessible to students and others throughout the university. Doug began building the campus computing sites, including sites in the residence halls, says Ruth and that's when their worlds linked.

Says Ruth, "My job was to convince students that they should give up their color TV lounge to have these things called computers put in." At first the students didn't want them. They wanted their color TVs! "Of course they immediately filled up as soon as they had them."

When Ruth joined Van Houweling's department, her job became "helping to move the university to more people using computers.

She says. "This is where I stepped across, from housing into the IT world."

"The Human Being"

Her manager used to joke that she hired Ruth to "be the human being." What she meant was, "I wasn't a technical person. I wasn't a programmer or a network person. I was just a user." They understood that more people who weren't technical experts were going to be using computers, and somebody needed to translate.

Ruth experienced the entire evolution-from memory typewriters to punch cards and computing center printouts to cumbersome desktops and printers down the hall. She remembers a few of her own awkward, early-computer moments, like the first time she used Excel. It was her job to create the spreadsheet of the staff appointments and salaries. "I sorted it wrong, had to do it all over, hundreds of names, re-enter it all, on a tiny Mac[intosh]-Plus!"

Since 1987, when Ruth started in IT, the IT world within the university has evolved from the initial computing centers, to ITD (Information Technology Division), to ITCS (IT Central Services) to ITS, (Information and Technology Services). Ruth's been part of it all.

Ruth and her IT colleagues have to stay at least three steps (and years) ahead just to keep up. Currently she talks about "IT rationalization," which she translates as "trying to reduce the duplication of effortto allow academic units to focus on things that are most critical for the mission of the university-the teaching, the learning, and the research.

"We had to know three years ago that students weren't going to use email as much anymore. It's just not the way that they communicate. They use something else. We have to use social media.

"We are trying to bring together and identify what is it that all the schools and colleges and administrative units are doing that can be shared. We're trying to figure out what the campus needs, and then provide it."

She says a big piece of the work is educating people. There is a generation issue, she says. "Twenty years ago, I was talking to a chair of a department in LS&A about email, and he said to me, 'You know, the only reason I'm using email is because I'm chair of the department and everybody thinks a department chair should use it. But as soon as I'm not chair anymore, I'm going to stop using it because I hate it.'" No department chair would say that today.

"We go through stages," she says. "I remember when CTools first came. The first time one of the deans said, 'Every faculty [member] in this college will have a CTools website, even if it's just to put up your syllabus for your class,' that was a huge deal. Now most faculty use it much more than just to put up their assignments.

"Students are bringing as many as five IT devices to campus including laptops, tablets, and smartphones so they can do their work anyplace, anytime. We have had to change how we communicate with students about updates or problems with our services," says Ruth. "So we're tweeting them. We're putting it on our Facebook page. We're not sending out a mass email."

When she is not working, Ruth spends her time outdoors. She owns a house on Lake Huron where she enjoys relaxing, walking on the beach and in the woods. Back home in Ann Arbor, she and her partner of 40 years, Marj, have a garden in their backyard, where they grow zucchini, squash and tomatoes.

Her daughter, now 28, is a social justice lawyer. "She's out saving the world. I'm really proud of her," Ruth says. Her son-in-law is an IT guy which means they have lots to talk about.

Ruth rose through the ranks at U-M with her kindness, steadfastness and commitment to serving others. There were times, however, when others did not return the respect. "I experienced hostility [for being gay]. There were people I came out to who rejected me." Her mom died when she was a freshman in college, so she never really talked about it with her. But when she officially came out, her dad said, "'I knew that.' He was just waiting for me to tell him." Even though Ruth has every kind of communication available to her, she still deeply values personal connection. That's another thing she could teach current students: The best kind of relationships still happen face to face.

- Jan Schlain