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February 20, 2009

Re-Thinking Technology Leadership on Campus

Today's Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus carried an edited version of this blog entry on technology leadership at Universities.

I am what I think you think I am.

One of my mentors describes himself as a 21st century highway builder. I used to asked him whether that was his self-image or what he aspired to be. For many technology leaders on our campuses we are indeed seen by much of the campus as the folks on the campus who own responsibility and stewardship for the University’s non-trivial investments in core networking technologies. It turns out that the technology that makes reliable and robust access and that which enables research and learning is complicated and requires a regime of predictable investment and management. Like most of my counterparts across the university landscape one of my jobs is to educate my colleagues in the leadership of the University of the need to develop sustainable models for feeding the infrastructure associated with this (and other) mission critical resources. Add to this part of our portfolio the growing set of security, privacy, and regulatory challenges and the Chief Information Officers at our universities could be fully consumed with these critical services and operational challenges. Indeed, many of us see our professional contribution as effectively being circumscribed by these services because we think that is what much of the campus views as at the heart of our job description.

For many years, technology leaders argued that our contribution to the leadership of the university was limited by the fact that we were the new players in the President’s cabinet. Well, as a profession, we’ve been at it for about 30 years. We appear to be rather routinely only one technology implementation away from a leadership role on the campus. First came the build out of our campus networks followed by the need to investment in the Y2K debacle. Somewhere in between or right after Y2K we found ourselves back at the table with our hands extended looking for millions for ERP implementations to modernize the university’s business operations. More recently security needs are the calling card for investments in IT operations. Every one of these major operational activities over the past 20-25 years was important activities. Being at the table to make the case for investments in these areas has been critical to what the university community as a whole has accomplished. Indeed, the quickest way to redefine CIO from Chief Information Officer to Career Is Over is to ignore the core responsibility we have to the University regarding the network. These are, in many ways, analogous to the core services that the Provost’s office provides to make sure that the basic curriculum is properly structured, learning goals and outcomes are associated with syllabi, that faculty receive predictable experiences associated with their promotion and tenure considerations, or the research office in providing infrastructure to support the research enterprise on the campus. As such, at least in my view, the network and some of its attenuated services are a necessary but insufficient condition for contributing to the University’s leadership efforts.

It is time to ask some important questions and try to chart a path to a different level of discourse on the campus. Once our campus networks and services on them like email were things you could only experience on the campus. As members of the campus community have come to experience a relatively robust and reliable consumer experience outside the University, the self-image of the IT leader providing special enterprise network services is no longer consistent with the experience of much of the campus and in most cases not the basis for a call to a leadership role at the University.

Here are four brief examples of new leadership opportunities that I think contribute to the overall portfolio of the CIO. These examples take the plumbing elements of the portfolio as a foundational activity but attempts to define innovation activities that help to distinguish the services and contribution of the CIO to the campus leadership team.

The future of science and discovery is intimately connected to computational research activities. High performance computing, analytical services and visualization tools are at the heart of the enterprise. Most universities can no longer afford a highly distributed set of redundant investments across the campus. We can and should support models of centralized services to support the research enterprise on the campus.
Second, most every campus needs a blueprint for greening the university. This is both an operational opportunity to integrate systems with facilities and IT in order to simplify the management of the physical plant of the campus and of course to realize important energy efficiencies and financial savings. In addition, many students see our green initiatives as being every bit as important as our network and course management services.
Third, many universities over the past decade and most likely for the next 25 years will be attempting to architect a strategy for international initiatives whether those are off-site campuses or hybrid offerings that join the main campus with a wide range of satellite and distributed campus and learning environments. The technology community can and should play a key role in the architecting of the blueprint moving forward.
Fourth, after all the investments made in ERPs, most campuses understand that their business culture and the way we do business represents the most important set of ‘next challenges’ beyond the implementation and updates of the software. CIOs and their technology colleagues have a real opportunity to partner with the business officers of our campuses to develop strategies for engaging the front line staff as well as key personnel across the campus in working together to realize some of the as yet untapped parts of our ERP systems.

Finally, I think we need to also find ways to provocatively lead the University. In my next blog entry I want to tackle the opportunity we have to extend our contribution to both our campus, the communities we live in, and the general challenges facing the human condition through open educational resources. IT leadership on campus is perhaps for now uniquely positioned to contribute to the campus leadership dialogue on this important emergent topic.

If we are indeed what we think you think we are, then we are overdue for demonstrating our ability to move with the campus to its next set of challenges so that you think we are valuable to the future of the campus in addition to our role as highway builders.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University

Posted by lsg8 at February 20, 2009 01:54 PM and tagged

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