Once Upon a Time ...

“Computerized Scholarship?”

That was the title of a lecture given by Professor Rudolf Wildenmann in 1988 at a colloquium to mark the 20th anniversary of the University of Mannheim’s Data Center, or Rechenzentrum in German. Since renamed UNIT, the center was founded in 1968 and quickly became indispensable as a provider of research, teaching, and administrative services.

“Nowadays, a data center is a standard facility at every university.” When Professor Hans Werner Meuer, the Data Center’s first full-time director, uttered those words, the center was not yet 15 years old. It was described as having a “key position in teaching and research” all the way back in 1973. Ten years before that, the Senate had discussed setting up a punch-card center with IBM machines to attract sought-after researchers to Mannheim, especially ones working in the field of empirical sociology, as part of the university’s expansion efforts. The annual equipment costs would have come to 100.000 deutsche mark.

The first computer that the center actually purchased was a Siemens 4004/45. Originally, the Data Center was based in the east wing of the Schloss. It moved to its current location in L15 in 1975. The main duties of the 20 or so employees in the 1970s and 80s were to support the university’s administration, academic research, and postgraduate training. The center offered courses on the basics of IT and on the programming languages COBOL, FORTRAN, and PASCAL. Paying external users, such as the “Voting Research Group” of TV station ZDF helped to keep the books balanced.

Over the decades, the Data Center’s focus shifted from being a research institute to being a service provider for all university members. Its services for staff and students include the learning platforms ILIAS and ecUM (which have been rolled out over the past two decades and combine numerous different services), a wide range of training courses, digital solutions for teaching, exams, and student administration, and internal communication services. The center was renamed UNIT (short for “university IT”) to more explicitly emphasize the university’s mission of “becoming one of the most modern and customer-centric IT service providers in the German university landscape,” which was announced in a press release in January 2020.

Text: Dr. Sandra Eichfelder/December 2023