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Say goodbye to the Hardware Repair Shop

It all started with “I can fix that.”

It was 1991 and the University of Oregon didn’t have a hardware repair shop. But soon after he started saying that, Rob Jaques would come in to the UO Computing Center and find computers all the way down the hall of McKenzie with notes saying whose they were and what was wrong.

That was how the Hardware Repair Shop at the UO was born. Jaques would load six to 12 machines onto a double-decker Tupperware cart, jog them down the hall to a makeshift shop, fix them and go back for more.

“It was a blast,” Jaques said. “It was actually fun to come in to work every day.”

It didn’t take long for Jaques to realize he was going to work in the Information Services until he retired. Every Friday, he would go to Rennie’s with the entire department. They’d have Nerf wars in the halls.

Now, 25 years later, Jaques will be retiring as it closes down — and he thinks it’s too soon.

The shop has been losing an average of $70,000 annually for the last five years. The warranty repair business isn’t as lucrative as it used to be. There are fewer computers and more smartphones and tablets, which can be thrown away. Warranty repair reimbursement (companies pay people to repair their products) has dropped considerably, and the UO admin calculates that every Apple warranty transaction actually costs the university $32.59. In addition, Jaques and the hardware repair shop crew are often doing repairs that hurt their profit margins, like soldering broken parts free of charge.

In March, the UO administration announced that the repair shop will shut down on May 29.

Hundreds of people have said they want to save it.

After the announcement was made, retired math professor Marie Vitulli, who has used the shop since she started at the UO, created a petition that got around 400 signatures on before she sent it to interim President Scott Coltrane. Student employee Megan McMillan has submitted a motion to the University Senate trying to save the repair shop before it closes. They ask that the university subsidize the repair shop indefinitely, or at least until a way to make it profitable can be found.

But they all agree that it’s probably too late.

The administration is happy there’s this much passion for the shop, says Patrick Chinn, director of strategic communications for Information Services at the UO. Chinn himself worked as a student under Jaques in the repair shop years ago.

But there are more reasons other than money behind the UO’s decision.

First is low utilization. The hardware shop is a subsection of the university’s Tech Desk, and it accounts for less than 10 percent of its transactions, only about 1,800 last year.

Without the shop, students who have hardware problems with their laptops will have to go to other shops around town. Jaques thinks of this as a key service to the students—something the university could provide to them, instead of asking them to go elsewhere.

The schools within UO could suffer from this change as well. Other than the law school—which offers onsite warranty repair for Dell and Apple laptops, but only for law students—no school has the level of repair capabilities that the hardware repair shop does.

Schools do have their own IT departments that can troubleshoot software problems and in some cases diagnose and order new parts, but there will be no centralized location. If they have issues with repairs, they would have to look outside the university for help.

“This would be very destructive to departments,” Vitulli said.

When McMillan learned her job at the hardware repair center would be ending, she started collecting numbers. McMillan owes her entire breadth of skill to the shop. As a sophomore music student, she changed her major to computer science even though she had no skills. She had never even used a screwdriver, according to Jaques.

After two years, she can troubleshoot nearly any hardware problem and take a computer from broken to fixed.

McMillan isn’t losing her job at the repair shop — she’s moving to an apprenticeship that’s better for her career — but she’s still trying to save the repair shop any way she can.

McMillan compiled data for the university on the nearest shops, but she also compiled a list of  “intangible values” on what the university is losing based on her experience there for the past two years: including calls, the apprenticeships and student shop workers.

McMillan came on as an apprentice, part of a program the shop has been doing since 2008.

“The primary thing is educational value,” McMillan said. “I hope I can change their mind with this.”

McMillan isn’t the only student concerned. Comments on the petition show that some students and alumni are concerned as well.

Student Adam Lindsey would be personally affected by the shutdown, like he said on the petition.

“It would be wrong to take this away,” Lindsey said. “As a CIS student, I need my computer to do my work.”

But Chinn said that the petition, while heartwarming, did not gather many signatures. Part of that could be because, as Jaques points out, students weren’t notified of the shutdown through any main communications line. He still has customers coming in who have no idea the shop is shutting down soon.

The Duck Store is looking into the possibility of building a replacement repair center, but they would need to develop a model that makes sense budget-wise, according to Hanna Budan, an employee in the Duck Store’s technology department. And there’s no way they’d be able to build a repair center in a month, or even six months.

What they can do, and plan to launch in the fall, is a diagnostics service where students bring their damaged hardware in, the technicians look it over for a fee and they send it to a shop in town for repair. Costs for this vary widely, but students would pay a diagnostic fee to the Duck Store and a repair fee to the shop.

“The message for the students is that they’re going to be taken care of,” Budan said.

But Jaques thinks the university doesn’t need to open a new shop that charges students: he wants the university to provide this service for free to students. Jaques said that for that opportunity, he would even hold off retirement.

“I wish I could just say, ‘I don’t give a shit, I’m retiring,’” Jaques said. “But I do.”

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Scott Greenstone

Scott Greenstone

Rehabilitated ex-homeschooler, former Emerald Senior News Editor, editor-in-chief of The Broadside at Central Oregon Community College, and freelance blogger for Barnes and Noble.

Now I write campus politics. Easy conversation starters include Adventure Time, Terry Pratchett novels and Arcade Fire.