• September 3, 2015

College 2.0: The Incredible Shrinking CIO

College-tech leaders fear that exclusion from strategic planning will raise costs and hurt institutions

College 2.0: The Incredible Shrinking CIO 1

Jay Premack for The Chronicle

Bradley Wheeler, vice president for information technology at Indiana U., says that chief information officers who are kept apprised of executive decisions can help their institutions save money.

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close College 2.0: The Incredible Shrinking CIO 1

Jay Premack for The Chronicle

Bradley Wheeler, vice president for information technology at Indiana U., says that chief information officers who are kept apprised of executive decisions can help their institutions save money.

As the influence of technology rises, at some major universities the influence of the people in charge of it seems to be seeping away. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, the top technology official had long held the rank of vice president, until last year when the position's title was changed to "head of information systems and technology." That put the chief information officer on the outside of the president's cabinet, looking in. The University of Chicago downgraded the rank of its top technology official last year. Cornell University plans a similar move.

One longtime technology leader calls this phenomenon "the incredible shrinking CIO." The chief information officer seems to be diminishing in importance at some institutions even as more chores, like running emergency notification systems, are added to the job. This downgrade in rank is going to hurt universities, some officials tell me, because it will make strategic management of IT services harder and that kind of management is the only way to keep costs under control.

Technology leaders are, in a way, victims of their own success. Just about every aspect of college life now relies on computers and campus networks. But the men and women leading campus technology are no longer seen as mysterious wizards who must be consulted about anything with a circuit board. As a result, technology is now seen by some college presidents and administrators as "operational"—on par with providing electricity—rather than strategic.

"CIO's are not as likely to be at the senior-level table," said one top official quoted in a recent report by Educause, an educational-technology group. "If the CIO role is more about operational issues, then the position will decline."

One person who sees trouble in that decline is Bradley C. Wheeler, vice president for information technology and professor of business at Indiana University at Bloomington. Sure, the biology department and the physics department might be perfectly happy to buy their own high-speed computers for their research, he told me, but a CIO involved in top executive meetings would see that the institution would save money by building one much larger supercomputer to serve both departments—and other departments that might not have asked.

"There is a lot of concern about what's happening with the role of the CIO in higher education," he added.

The number of institutions making such changes is hard to determine—much of the concern is over whether the moves at MIT and other universities will be copied elsewhere.

The logic behind the changes seems to be that since technology now affects every part of the university, maybe more top executives—and even faculty members—should be making software and networking decisions, while day-to-day operations should be handled by lower-ranking folks.

Many colleges already form committees to handle decisions like which course-management system to buy—a choice that the CIO once largely controlled.

Maybe it is time, once again, to hit the reset button on how colleges organize their technology operations.

An Ever-Changing Job

Perhaps no other role at a university changes more often than that of the top technology leader. Every few years, some new technology service comes along that nearly every college adopts, while other functions become obsolete.

Coming in: Managing emergency notification systems based on text messaging. They were unheard of at campuses just a few years ago. Now 87 percent of institutions have them, according to the Campus Computing Project, which tracks technology at colleges.

Going out: Running e-mail services for students. This once-fundamental function of the IT department is increasingly outsourced to Google or Microsoft. That's part of a movement called cloud computing, in which institutions set up services that operate on faraway servers rather than on individual campus computers.

The general trend, though, is more, more, more, as new mission-critical services emerge while many older ones remain. And one slip-up in safeguarding student records can lead to embarrassment for the college and potential economic harm to students who become victims of identity theft as a result.

"The scope and complexity of the role has really grown," said H. David Lambert, chief information officer of Georgetown University, during a talk at the Educause annual meeting in November. "It's easy to feel some days like I'm not the CIO but the risk-management officer for the institution, because every element of risk management comes back to IT."

Some worry that CIO's are getting so loaded down with maintenance tasks that they no longer have any time to sit and dream up new services.

It's the equivalent of asking professors to spend all their time checking papers for plagiarism and rewriting grading policies, leaving no time to improve their teaching materials.

That's the fear, anyway, and I'm hearing it grumbled by more and more college CIO's as I visit campuses and attend conferences.

As one CIO noted in the Educause report: "What I used to love about being CIO was getting the chance to be directly involved in small, cool projects led by faculty; now I find myself spending most of my time talking with security auditors and those involved in regulatory compliance."

The Rise of Small Colleges

The CIO is not shrinking (or maybe, drowning) in all sectors of academe, though. At some smaller institutions, the role is actually getting bigger.

For instance, the first college to give iPhones to every student was Abilene Christian University, a private institution with about 4,800 students, and the institution's top technology leader, Kevin Roberts, was named as one of the nation's top 100 leaders last year by CIO magazine, one of only six college CIO's to make the list.

Innovation in education technology is no longer just for the elite. Now that universities often find themselves adopting off-the-shelf technology rather than building everything themselves, "it is more difficult for any one university to be a leader in everything," said MIT's former CIO, Jerrold M. Grochow, who retired last year and is now a technology consultant. He calls it a "democratization" of technology.

Since colleges can no longer excel in all areas, CIO's have to pick their battles—at MIT, that now means focusing on research computing so that professors can do things like get access to the atom-smashing Large Hadron Collider (something Abilene Christian spends less energy on).

Mr. Grochow said that for him, personal relationships were always more useful than the title on his business card when it came to getting things done. He argues that the best way to keep a university's IT at peak performance is to persuade vice presidents and provosts—as well as professors and student-affairs officials—to think about technology even when the CIO is not in the room.

"IT leaders can't do that balancing act alone; academic leaders can't do that balancing act alone," he wrote in an article in the January/February issue of Educause Review. He noted a few ironies of technology spending on many campuses: IT departments spending millions on wireless networks, only to have many professors ban laptops from the classroom; or professors applying for research grants that require high-speed networks without the university making the necessary upgrades to meet the grant requirements.

Some CIO's even argue that there are plenty of ways for leaders to be influential even if they can't whisper directly in a president's ear. "Whether you report to the president is egoism," said one technology leader who asked to remain anonymous.

That means today's college CIO needs different skills—and different personality traits. "In the past it took strong, assertive, very traditional leadership," said Tracy Mitrano, director of information-technology policy at Cornell University, when I asked her the formula for success in today's technology departments. "I think a CIO of the future is going to have to be a strong team player and much more of a negotiator, not only within the university but with the vendor community."

Call it "cloud leadership" to go with all that cloud computing.

College 2.0 covers how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to jeff.young@chronicle.com or @jryoung on Twitter.


1. smwcio - May 10, 2010 at 04:25 pm

IT has been, and continues to be, core to enabing many advances in research and teaching and learning. The CIO who focuses exclusively operations will ultimately find themselves at a distance from the core focus of the insitituion. However, if you dont do operations well, you will also lose the opportunity to influence the institutional strategy. So how to find a balance? Make sure your organization has operational teams that are the best at what they do, but for the CIO, the lions share of the time should be spent with the campus leadership understanding the needs of the institution and be focusing on the strategic impacts and opportunities of integrating technology into the decision process.

Bottom line: My insitution is expanding the strategic role of the CIO not shrinking it.

2. drj50 - May 12, 2010 at 09:10 am

"a CIO involved in top executive meetings would see that the institution would save money by building one much larger supercomputer to serve both departments."

I believe CIOs are important, but if this is the best argument for a cabinet position, the argument fails. This is not the sort of thing that the president's cabinet discusses at most schools. A CIO does need to be involved in such decisions but that simply means organizational policies and structures that insure that involvement.

3. drmamalama - May 12, 2010 at 11:17 am

It really depends on the needs of the organization. I have been in both situations - on cabinet and off. In institutions where the CIO is on the cabinet, the IT expenditures tend to be very strategic and purpose driven. When the CIO is not on the cabinet, the IT purchases tend to be chaotic, often resulting in duplicative efforts and wasteful spending - unless there exists policy and process to control the purchasing in a strategic manner. Additionally, the CIO role is now much more about risk management and business process improvement. Regardless of how you feel about the purchasing issue, I would think that the CIO would be intimately involved in these concerns regardless of reporting structure. The point is to have the CIO where ever these discussions are taking place.

4. docrichards - May 12, 2010 at 11:33 am

Last year we laid off our CIO and Director of IT and moved the IT department under the library. Now we have no senior level or middle management with IT experience running the IT department. Very scary!

5. livefreeordie2 - May 12, 2010 at 11:55 am

I suppose one could say that if you are an effective leader, it doesn't matter where in the organization you report. And there's truth to that. . . but there are few issues discussed at the cabinet level that are not touched by technology. Recruitment? Retention? Marketing? Communications? Instruction? Student life? Development? Research? IT plays a significant role in all of those areas. And strategically, there's almost nothing that IT doesn't touch. In industry, the role of the CIO is broadening and influence is increasing.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out at the institutions who intend to lessen the influence of the CIO. I am reminded of the very first Superman movie with Christopher Reeves. He takes Lois Lane flying. At first, she's terrified, but eventually seems to be flying all by herself held up only by his fingertips. For whatever reason, she slips from his grasp and immediately begins to fall. CIOs are certainly not supermen or women, but as the author suggests, they may have made it look easy. They may have convinced others that making quality technology decisions is not all that hard to do. . . I think some college and university leaders are in for a rude awakening.

6. thwarger - May 12, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Very discouraging. The CIO, of course, does not manage tech systems; there are others who do that. The position is actually "chief integration officer"--guiding the institution in the unfinished work of re-shaping culture and practices in the life of the institution to adapt to the information age. If that seat gets banished from the cabinet table, who will carry on that work?

7. infogoon - May 12, 2010 at 01:15 pm

Technology simply appears too easy these days.

Think about something like eBay, for example. A bored housewife in Terra Haute can, with a single mouseclick, change the data on a cluster of hard drives halfway around the world, use weapons-grade encryption to protect her credit card information from prying eyes, and intitiate a logistics and shipping ticket with a carrier like UPS. The amount of "stuff" that's actually going on is staggering, but the metaphor on top of it is so simple and easy to understand that anyone can handle its demands.

Many institutions think that a CIO doesn't have much to do, because the technology looks so simple from the user's point of view. The massive amount of integration required to make it that simple goes on unseen. At least, until someone new tries to handle it.

8. fodork - May 12, 2010 at 03:15 pm

Brad Wheeler is a thought leader and a strategic thinker. That is why IU is one the most advanced with its IT all around and that too at a low cost. MIT is a different case altogether. As an example, their administrative systems are mature, student systems are still stuck in the 80's and the LMS is primitive.

Higher Ed is following the trends of other industries- IT now reports to the CFO and is therefore just another cost center. I am pretty certain outsourcing is next on the horizon as it will be used to contain cost.

9. soc_sci_anon - May 12, 2010 at 04:17 pm

At my institution, the "downgrading" of the head IT position is part of a broader, budget-induced downsizing of the central administration. Given that two years ago, you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a VP of This or That, downsizing seems like a necessary correction. Besides, our IT was a campus-wide joke when it was a cabinet-level position; it could, of course, be even worse in the future, but for most faculty that's pretty hard to imagine.

10. bert_desimone - May 13, 2010 at 09:11 am

What about the disintegrated CIO instead of a shrinking one? The integrated CIO as he/she is now constituted may need to be rethought, as I did in the article "Rethinking the IT Core" (http://tinyurl.com/245dazs).

(Isn't it great, open forums provide a special opportunity for meaningful discussion and shameless self promotion, all at the same time).

I think a lot of CIOs are really CTOs (Chief Technology Officers), and that's a fine profession, but different from what a CIO should be doing. I believe colleges and universities need a CTO to handle the infrastructure and business end of IT and a CIO to concentrate on the core mission of teaching and learning, and how teaching and learning can be bettered with technology.

After all, if you think about it, it's all about information -- either creating it (research) or distributing it (teaching and public service).

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