Leebrian E. Gaskins, CIO, Texas A&M International University
So, you have decided to enter the world of higher education as a senior IT executive? You’re a highly successful executive IT professional with progressive levels of responsibility in business or industry. Now, you’re taking on a senior IT leadership role in academia. The same practices that made you successful in business and industry should easily translate to the academic world, correct?
Much like Dorothy of Alice in Wonderland, you are not in Kansas anymore. Or maybe you are. Business IT leaders often find a the transition into academia cumbersome. Some of my colleagues who have moved from industry received a brisk awakening to the different paces, priorities, and politics of academia. Let us walk through some of the challenges and provide some insight on each.
In business, speed and execution are key success traits. Most business IT leaders come to a campus with the inclination for rapid “decide and execute” tactics. Such an approach does not always work in academia. Higher education is slow to change. The fundamental tenets of higher education have, for the most part, remained unchanged for the last four centuries. Ideas are challenged and debated. Postulates and theories are subjected to intense scrutiny and review by peers. New thoughts, ideas, and methods are birthed. Academia is the painstaking multigravida of ideas and inventions applied in the real world. Another way to gain some prospective on this concept: the acceptance of the theory of relativity versus the development of the first atomic bomb. Academics move slowly and deliberately. Business, on the other hand, moves quickly and agilely. One trait (deliberateness) is not better than the other (agility) because such traits are context- and environment-specific. One way to transition to this more deliberative pace is to embrace it. Use these “hurry up and wait” periods as time to do further research and development. While the deliberation time may be longer, it gives the CIO more time to build stronger alliances and business cases.
All work environments with people contain some degree of politics. Higher education is no exception. Unlike most business environments, your boss and your constituents are more loosely defined. Yes, you will have a direct supervisor and direct reports. However, there are other entities on campus that can help, hinder, and evaluate your success. One such group is the faculty. Campuses have a heterogeneous group of highly educated individuals from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds comprising the faculty.
Generally, the faculty move at a measured methodical pace due to the relative luxury of time and freedom of thought. Faculty do not agree on most issues, except shared governance and transparency. Most important decisions in higher education are vetted through a myriad of constituent committees, ensuring a thoughtful, yet unhurried and transparent process. Faculty and students very much want to be “part of the process” in major campus decisions (including IT), even if these decisions do not directly impact them.
A very successful business CIO goes to a midsize higher education institution. He hits the ground running, making major changes and optimizing several forward-facing customer service processes. Also, he institutes new procedures for how support will be given to students and faculty. These changes save the institution money and bring efficiencies. However, these decisions, in large part, were made without input from the faculty. The faculty become distressed with the new processes and perceived lack of transparency. More changes take place at a brisk pace. The Faculty Senate, the faculty’s representative body, brings these concerns to the attention of the CIO and President. The CIO said these changes were necessary, and saw those complaining as people opposed to change. Ultimately, the faculty “voted” to have the CIO removed… and the President fired him.
One of the best ways to raise the priority of IT is to change the view of IT from cost center to facilitator and innovator
While this case may be the extreme, it highlights the important of campus constituents. There may have been other factors that led to the CIO’s dismissal, but the point of the story is to demonstrate how groups can coalesce against a CIO. The best way to work within the politics of academia is to build alliances and consensus within these heterogeneous groups. Many senior non-academic executives shy away from contact with faculty, except during contentious times. Change this dynamic, and reach out to work with key faculty and student groups to build alliances, partnerships, and consensus.
Issues such as affordability, accessibility, and the value of higher education have propelled it to the forefront of our country’s national dialogue. Institutions are challenged with more governmental oversight and regulation while, at the same time, provided less public support and funding. The coupled challenge to grow faculty research and innovation, while increasing enrollments, puts pressure on faculty with additional teaching responsibilities. Higher education would seem to have several competing and conflicting priorities. For example: the challenge to increase security of the campus networks, while providing open access to the university and enabling connection by any internet-enabled device. Often, IT competes for scarce personnel and financial resources with other areas such as student recruitment, faculty enhancement, and regulatory compliance. The prioritization and importance of IT can become lost in the shifting sands of priorities. IT is usually seen as a cost center and the producer of negative deliverables: it does not produce direct ROI, but is needed to reduce the likelihood of a negative event. One of the best ways to raise the priority of IT is to change the view of IT from cost center to facilitator and innovator. Every department within most colleges is doing more (i.e., teaching, research, recruitment, etc.) with a lot less resources. IT can become a strategic partner in facilitating change and innovation. Through initiatives such as data mining and analytics, process automation and improvement, and workforce mobility, IT becomes a value-adding partner.
One great way to ease transition angst and pain is to seek out a seasoned mentor within higher education. A mentor who is successfully running an IT operation within academia can be an important resource, regardless of the wealth of experience you may possess. Good mentors help you see a larger picture, and assist in navigating the different paces, priorities, and politics of academia. Business IT leaders can transition into the world of higher education. The same practices that made you a successful senior IT executive in business and industry, with some tweaking and refining, can help you transition into a highly successful career move within academia. Business and industry IT leaders have so much to offer academia in terms of experience, knowledge, and real-world execution… once they’ve mastered their new world order.