Recasting the Role of the Higher Ed CIO/CTO

Jeff Harris & Rick Skinner Harris Search Associates

In our work recruiting higher education administrators, we are finding that the role of the Chief Technology or Chief Information Officer (CIO/CTO) is changing in ways that make an already important position all the more strategic to a university or a college.  The latest source of change is the recent acceptance of online learning by several of the most prestigious institutions that had heretofore resisted embracing technology as a major component of their academic missions.  What had been since the 1990s the province of a few pioneering colleges and universities is increasingly mainstream, entailing an expansion of the CIO/CTO role.

Traditionally, the campus director of information and communication technology (ICT) was a mid-level administrator known and valued for his (and virtually all incumbents were male) technical expertise.  As ICT was brought to bear on the basic business functions and processes of universities – financial and budgetary, student information and inventory, directors of campus computing were called upon to understand business processes and procedures in administrative units over which they exercised no control. 

Further, directors were expected to replicate and automate those activities using technology they either developed or purchased or persuade others to change their processes to accommodate the limitations of technology.

At larger institutions, the director of computing was often juxtaposed with an academic counterpart who carried responsibility for ICT’s application in research and teaching/learning, much of which tended to be quite idiosyncratic rather than systemic, reflecting the interests and ambitions of individual professors. 

Within a relatively short time, directors of computing were required to identify, evaluate, acquire and install hardware and software systems, including enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, that made it possible to integrate and manage what might otherwise be disparate software applications for different tasks and functions.  Here too, the director took on more of the role of a business analyst but added the task of managing multiple vendors who provided systems.

Directors of computing were also called on to push for institutional standards in everything from hardware and software to be supported to protocols for managing data storage and security.

More recently, a slow but persistent stream of colleges and universities began moving from a sort of “homegrown, cottage industry” approach to academic applications of ICT to, once again, outsourced systems for everything from e-mail ala Google, course management via Coursera, remedial education provided by StraighterLine and content management by way of Apple’s iTunes University.  These along with digital libraries prompted the designation of ICT leaders on campus as chief technology or chief information officers as well as expanded the role to include providing services and support for –

• BYOD – Bring Your Own Device – campuses in which students, staff and professors were free to select among a variety of types and brands of tools used to partake of institutional resources, including one another, and to avail themselves of a rapidly expanding world of digitized information;

• personalized preferences for digital interaction and communication;

• seamless integration of what heretofore was seen as exclusively academic applications with the other administrative and business processes and systems of the institution; and

• widespread production and distribution of the products of research, scholarship and creativity from not only professors but also students and staff.

Cumulatively, these changes are calling on a wider spectrum of skills and expertise from CIOs/CTOs and requiring that what had been a mid-level director to be part of an executive team charged with navigating the strategic development and direction of a university.  Technical expertise remains important but is no longer the litmus test of the CIO/CTO.  Instead, analytical skills, business acumen and talent to consult rank as high and perhaps higher than technical mastery.  The ability to communicate may trump all others as the key ingredient of a successful CIO/CTO.

One of our recent university clients may have captured the current state of affairs best when commenting “ I can always spot young/first time university Presidents/Provosts….Young Presidents/Provosts think that the most important positions on campus (outside of President/Provost) are the faculty – a seasoned President/Provost recognizes that without the right Chief Information Officer /IT Department and a  strong finance organization, you won’t be President/Provost for very long!”


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