Season of Change for CIOs in Higher Education

By Loretta Early, CIO and VP, University of Oklahoma

Loretta Early, CIO and VP, University of Oklahoma

“How are you doing?” seems a simple question, but increasingly this question is followed by, “Loretta, is it difficult to be a CIO in Higher Education these days?” And it’s easy to understand why someone would ask this question. Pick up any industry periodical and you can find numerous articles that would lead you to believe that it is a very tough time to be a CIO, perhaps particularly in Higher Ed, with oversight from a concerned public, regulation, and the pressure to “do more with less”. While these pressures are real, there is a brighter, hopefulside to the story that is less publicized, which is the sense of fulfillment that comes from serving at an institution of Higher Learning.

Many think that higher education is very different from other industries. And in many important ways, it is. But there are many similarities. Successful Higher Education CIOs share with other successful industry CIOs a passion, a dedication to the people they lead and serve, and the opportunity to work with an inspirational leader with clarity of purpose. Our President, recently recognized for 50 years of public service, embodies and continuously communicates our clarity of purpose—to provide the best educational experience for our students. I feel very blessed that I get to focus every day on what I care very passionately about—encouraging and enabling students to learn, helping them on their life’s journey, caring for their safety and well-being, and preparing them to serve as future global citizens. This passion is what drives many to serve in Higher Education— and that is exactly as it should be. When we recruit new OU IT team members, in addition to checking for the requisite technical and business skills for the job, we ask candidates to describe a current issue facing higher education and how IT can help respond to that issue. Our ideal candidate wants to grow as an IT professional, but also wants to serve higher education as a role model for our students. This approach has impacted how we recruit new team members, improve our staff retention, and increase productivity.

"Despite a season of change, there is plenty to be hopeful for and if you ever doubt that, I encourage you to take a walk around a college campus"

2017 is a particularly unique time to work in Education. We are as a nation and as an economy entering yet another period of transformation with rapid growth in connectivity, data and applications. Workers worry about job losses from globalization and immigration, but let’s face it; workers are also being displaced by technology including such emerging technologies as robots, driverless cars, block chain, and artificial intelligence (AI). I think the key to success is to be on the right side of this displacement, taking advantage of the opportunity in disruption. We must seek ways that technology can move us forward as a nation without leaving anyone behind. Any introspection on how to accomplish this quickly, leads us back to education. How have prior generations emerged from similar periods of dislocation caused by agricultural and industrial revolutions? Every time it has been through the power of education—meaning all forms of secondary education from the vo-techs and career centers to the leading research institutions; all will play pivotal roles in preparing the next generation workforce. To properly and responsibly serve this next generation of students, we in Higher Education cannot be passive or static; instead we must monitor industry and economic trends, network within our industry and across other industries, and proactively anticipate and manage change to stay relevant. Otherwise, the same forces that are disrupting our economy will disrupt us. At the University of Oklahoma, our campus leadership and faculty boldly are embracing digital initiatives and adapting our curriculum to emerging needs and offer more opportunities for interdisciplinary, experiential learning, and applied research. We leverage new technologies and pursue innovative partnerships with private industry to work on the pressing problems that face Higher Education: access, affordability and retention. We also have a corporate engagement program focused on collaboration and initiatives with our strategic partners to build the talent pipeline needed to fill the hundreds of thousands STEM related jobs in the US.

So in many ways, this era that is upon us will be shaped by one’s viewpoint—is the glass half empty, or is it half full? And the answer to that question will greatly shape not only our individual worldview, but our collective worldview. I will give you one critical insight for surviving this new age, “be a person of action”. On the organizational front we need to put in place programs and incentives that proactively seek out innovative ideas from all constituencies, including our staff at all levels of the organization. Next we need mechanisms for sorting through these ideas and a disciplined methodology for delivering on the best of them. For our OU IT organization, we purposefully adopted a bimodal approach to our strategic planning, recognizing that sustaining operational excellence was foundational to our credibility as trusted advisors, as well as instrumental to increasing our capacity for innovation. To nurture a culture of innovation we ask our team members to “walk in our students’ footsteps.” We provide “stretch opportunities” for our staff to pursue ideas for simplifying our student processes and making them “friction-free.” We encourage them to take classes, serve as coaches for student project teams, and volunteer for our favorite time of the year, when we offer golf cart rides in our Tech Taxis to incoming students and their families on Move-In Days for Back-to- School, and help them find their way literally and personally around campus. We want the students and their families to know that someone cares about them at OU.

I think it is easy to discern that I am a glass half full type of person, optimistic that periods of disruption in the end tend to benefit society as a whole. I think back to the agricultural revolution, how the US population has doubled in the last 70 years while the number of farms has shrunk by a third-and yet we have not experienced the food shortages that many futurists predicted at the turn of the century. Those prognosticators saw things as they were and projected them into the future, not grasping the power of science and technology to serve as a great multiplier, vastly increasing agricultural production. I think we will see similar advances in many industries in the coming years. Some brick and mortar industries may shutter, but others will emerge to take their place. Online, connected businesses will continue to thrive. Those students that choose the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields in particular will prosper, and so can graduates of the arts and humanities, particularly those that can use their softer skills to convey complex messages, tell stories with data, help others navigate a changing world. So despite a season of change, there is plenty to be hopeful for and if you ever doubt that, I encourage you to take a walk around a college campus. Nothing gets you more energized than seeing the bright, up and comers creating in our innovation spaces collaborating in our active learning spaces living and learning in our Residential Colleges and imagining the possibilities as they prepare to take the world by storm. Their optimism is contagious—and they are the ones that will change the world. This is an exciting time to be a CIO in Higher Education!

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