The Disrupted CIO: Being A Leader In Higher Education

By Joanna Young, Vice President for Information Technology and CIO, Michigan State University


In what I consider the funniest scene from the animated film “Ice Age,” a group of dodos frantically try to protect three melons, which represents the last of their food supply. The chaos that ensues demolishes the melons – and the dodos become extinct. Perversely, by focusing all their attention on protecting the melons, which would presumably be difficult to grow in the ensuing ice age, they caused their own destruction. Dodo Inc. ceased to exist.

The higher education industry, from the large research institutions to the local community college, is being disrupted from all sides: declining state appropriations, declining federal research dollars, expense pressures and increasing expectations of students and parents are a daunting mix. There can be a false sense of immunity in the academy – after all, the basic model has not changed for many decades and the demand for the traditional product exceeded the supply.  While Uber and Amazon might have taken shorter amounts of times to disrupt their respective industries, higher education is not immune.  Now, like the taxi and retail industries, it is higher education’s turn to disrupt themselves or be disrupted.

Smack in the middle of the varied reactions and strategies by Boards and Presidents is technology, and ergo the Chief Information Officer. CIOs in this industry have all the normal challenges –the omnipresent cybersecurity risk, vendor licensing schemas that change every 2 minutes, the escalating demands on storage and networks, figuring out how to move to the cloud, explaining to other executives what “the cloud” really is….. However there are particular challenges and opportunities in this industry that call for unique approaches.

1. Central vs. distributed.Higher education institutions are highly distributed, decentralized places. It’s not unusual for a large college to have a dozen or more departments, often with their own business infrastructure ranging from technology to travel reimbursement. The challenge for the CIO is how to drive effectiveness and efficiencyandchannel more spend to innovation given the extreme decentralization. Many institutions have attempted to increase technology centralization, with mixed results. The opportunity is to think differently, starting with throwing out the word “centralize” in favor of “alignment.” The CIO needs to think like an internal service provider trying to win more clients. First, you have to have quality services that meet needs – storage tiers for researchers is one example. Second, you need to work through the budget and financial framework to ascertain what, if anything, to charge for a particular service. Typically, charges should be low enough to incent broad adoption, but meaningful enough to ensure that the corresponding costs in the units are retired. A further opportunity is that alignment is starting to creep inexternally – merging of institutions in full or in part is a nascent trend that I predict will grow, as boards and legislators push state-funded institutions to further efficiency.

2. Build vs. buy. Particularly at research institutions, entrepreneurial spirit and technical know-how is abundant. Ideally, that creativity should be aimed at research and education. The challenge is a plethora of home-grown solutions for mundane items readily and inexpensively available in the marketplace, like e-mail and file services (and the knowledge of this arcane DIY is usually resident in one person’s head). There is also a tendency to customize purchased software to the extent that operational expense becomes both onerous and opaque. I’ve seen institutions grossly underestimate IT expenses because they only look at licensing or other external costs, and are overly protective of homegrown solutions and customizations (a/k/a the higher education equivalent of the Dodo’s melon). The opportunity is to help the institution make better decisions about the technology portfolio, starting with identifying and articulating the total cost of ownership of the existing IT, and gradually rationalizing the portfolio away from costly and unnecessary point solutions.

3. The CIO has two types of talent challenges. First, technology talent. The challenge is that higher education doesn’t compete within its own industry for technology talent, it competes with every industry (and the competition is fierce). Public institutions are disadvantaged from the start by constrained compensation models. CIOs need to have multiple methods of sourcing talent at all levels and they need to partner with the Chief HR Officer on recruiting, retention, compensation and talent management. The opportunity is that the CIO can be an exemplar for bringing modern talent management to the institution.Second, leadership talent across the university is quite different than in the corporate sector. Academic leaders have academic skills, not always management skills. Further, taking management roles (like department chairs or assistant deans) is often viewed as a chore instead of an interesting assignment. For the professional CIO, this means changing tactics and expectations. For example, common 21st century terms like “relationship management” and “process engineering” can be alien, and words like “customer” and “business” can have strong negative reactions. Further, the ability for higher education executives to be directive is limited even when all the executives are in agreement. Technology-enabled efficiencies that corporate America has long exploited like data center centralization (or outsourcing), singular enterprise e-mail, adherence to IT security practice and so on, can be pitched battles in higher education, as the culture of academic freedom permeates the most mundane of business practices. The opportunity is similar technology talent; the CIO can be an exemplar of business and leadership practices.

Last but not least, in such a disrupted and often difficult industry, what is there to attract a leader? Only 30% of the people in the US have college degrees, yet by 2020, the majority of jobs will require post-secondary education. I walk out into the hallway and the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders are usually walking around all but surgically attached to technology. My job is to help get the other 70% into that hallway.

Mini-bio: Joanna Young (@jcycio)has been in higher education since 2009, disrupting towards positive, customer-centric outcomes. Currently, she is Michigan State University’s Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, and prior to that was the CIO and AVP for Finance at the University of New Hampshire. Prior to 2009, she spent a couple of decades in corporate America, including as a CIO in insurance and financial services. Joanna is a top social CIO and publishes a blog at