CIOs share the secrets to their success, from surviving campus politics and the budgeting process to supporting a diverse community of students.
In 1994, psychology professor Lori Temple knew more about depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder than she did about computer viruses and network downtime.
But when she joined the administration of University of Nevada, Las Vegas 11 years ago as the director of academic computing, she learned technology fast. Because the university didn't have a CIO, UNLV's top brass piled technology onto her lap, from managing classroom audiovisual equipment to asking her to create a committee to coordinate campus technology efforts.
Temple, now vice provost for information technology, has discovered that her background in psychology –and expert knowledge of human behavior –helps her tremendously with IT. Different campus interests sometimes disagree over technology choices, and she brings them together to resolve the conflicts.
“I'm a good people person,” she says. “If people don't agree on a particular issue or don't get along, I can pull them together and weave compromises.”
CIOs in higher education serve a large, diverse group of users, from administrators and staff to faculty and students, all of whom have different needs. Staffers, for example, require software to manage university operations, while faculty members not only need technology tools to teach, but some require high-powered computers and applications for research.
Unlike their corporate counterparts who can hand down strict usage policies and software and hardware standards for company-issued computers, university CIOs have to manage and secure an IT operation where the majority of users–the students and faculty–use their own computers to connect into the campus network from home.
College CIOs say it's important to understand the specific needs of everyone on campus, provide good communication and service, and have the ability and patience to successfully navigate through campus politics and the budgeting process.
In 2000, when Ray Ford became associate vice president for information technology at the University of Montana, in Missoula, he noticed the price of software, Internet service and other IT costs were increasing each year. Faced with a limited budget and needing to protect essential IT services, he lobbied university budgeting officials for three years to subsidize the costs and treat them as if they were general utility costs like electricity. The administration now pays for the yearly $1.2 million in IT utility spending, which includes hardware and software maintenance, uninterruptible power supply devices and security alarms.
“It is a grind,” Ford says. “You basically have to convince everyone it's in their best interest for the entire organization to take on the IT utility costs, rather than forcing me to lay off the IT support staff who run payroll and student registration systems. The only thing we can cut is infrastructure, and that hurts everyone.”
Building a Staff, Managing Services
One of the most important lessons UNLV's Temple has learned is to recognize her own strengths and weaknesses. While she's become proficient with technology, she's not an expert, so she's rounded out her management team with trained IT staffers.
“When you're a high-level administrator, you just need to surround yourself with the expertise with what it is you're administering,” she explains. “It's more about getting people together and agreeing on a course of action, doing the planning and finding the resources to make sure plans stay on course.”
She prefers to focus on what she's good at: dealing with immediate IT problems, while her management team focuses on the future. Planning ahead is critical because UNLV, with its 27,000 students, is rapidly growing with seven new buildings in the works. Her 85 full-time IT staffers, working with a base $10.2 million budget, are experimenting with wireless networking and are piloting an IP telephony project at the campus's new recreation center.
She generally makes the final call on infrastructure technology, such as networking equipment, but if it's a new tech project that affects many people on campus, the decision is made through committees. When conflicts arise, she stays neutral and provides options instead. “We say, â€˜Here are three or four solutions with different strengths. You all decide what best fits your needs, and we will make it happen.'”
Most recently, different colleges within UNLV have debated on how to unify their different advising software systems, so student information can easily be transferred to each college if students switch majors. That way, students can quickly determine what their new set of requirements and remaining classes are to earn a degree.
The colleges using the two different advising applications have good reasons for not wanting to give up their existing software. While Temple's preference is to standardize on one system, she knows the politics and the culture won't support a single solution. So, Temple is brokering a compromise in which the IT staff will create interfaces that connect the two applications. “We can try to make everyone do the same thing and make enemies, or we can use technology to bridge the gap,” she says.
When making buying decisions, Ford points out that CIOs don't always have to purchase cutting-edge technologies. He says one of his best decisions at the University of Montana was not replacing old computing systems that run many administrative tasks. His systems run on the VMS operating system, and the servers are still running smoothly.
“Five years ago, we did not jump on the bandwagon and convert all VMS systems to Windows,” Ford notes. “People who did that have faced an ongoing struggle with security. VMS has been rock solid and hasn't been hacked.”
New Technology's Impact
Ford, who has 65 IT staffers and a $5 million budget, has learned to better anticipate how new technology can affect students, faculty and staff. IT staff has spent three years tying about 15 different software systems together under one directory, so everyone can use their same user name and password to sign on and access the campus's computing services, from e-mail to online class registration.
While consolidating user accounts has decreased the workload for some university staffers, it has increased the workload for other employees–particularly the human resources staff. Prior to consolidation, user accounts could be created by multiple departments at various times. For new faculty members, for example, IT staff would establish accounts in the summer so staff members could create online materials for fall classes. Meanwhile, human resources staff had until the beginning of school in September to add new faculty to the payroll.
Because the new system is driven by a central database, human resources now handles the brunt of account creation duties. And rather than having until September to create personnel entries, human resources employees now have to do it sooner so faculty can access computer services. “We underestimated the impact this has had on the typical workload for somebody in human resources,” Ford says
Good communication is critical to success in a campus environment. Ford, who is also a computer science professor, spends time building relationships with researchers on campus, inviting them to take part in his IT pilot projects. Staying proactive pays dividends later, he says.
For example, it's a bad situation when a CIO finds out that a researcher has received a grant, but that the researcher didn't account for the servers or network bandwidth needed to conduct the work, Ford says. When that happens, he has to scramble to come up with the IT money. By building relationships ahead of time, researchers are more likely to consult with Ford and incorporate IT costs before submitting grant proposals.
When technology falters, CIOs must admit failures publicly and in a timely fashion, UNLV's Temple adds. She sends an e-mail to affected constituents, explains that the IT staff is working to resolve the issue, estimates the time of repair and offers a diagnosis of the problem.
“You have to set a culture in which an occasional technology failure is acceptable,” she says. “You do that by always being ready to drop what you are doing and devote all your attention to whatever the problem is until it's resolved.”
University CIOs have created stringent technology guidelines for students, faculty and staff, such as banning the illegal downloading of music, but some unexpected circumstances sometimes occur. For example, a student working on her doctorate used the University of Montana's Web servers to back up patient data from her job. Because the data was stored on Web servers, search engines found the patients' data, thereby making it public.
To prevent the mistake from recurring, the university now requires everyone to pass an online test on the proper use of the school's Web servers.
Finally, both CIOs say it's important to give IT staffers training to improve their IT skills and to praise employees to boost their morale. CIOs also need to help staffers set priorities if they feel overburdened with work, Temple adds.
“You have to pace yourself, have a life outside of work, and encourage that in your staff,” she says.
Running a Smooth IT Operation
Lori Temple of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Ray Ford of the University of Montana share lessons they've learned as CIOs:
NEVER LET TECHNOLOGY DRIVE DECISION-MAKING:
“Focus on problems that need to be solved, then see if technology can provide a solution. Often, technology is not the solution but is a means to implementing the solution.” – Temple
“Use consultants to address one-time issues.” – Ford
“Our folks manage them and make sure their work meets our standards.” – Temple
HELP DESK SUPPORT:
“It's not wise to have student employees provide help desk support to professors. In a university, faculty members are the experts, and they teach students. It is better to have your full-time IT staff support the faculty.” – Ford
“Can you imagine how hard it would be for a student to instruct a faculty member on how to apply a software patch?” – Temple
LISTEN TO YOUR CRITICS:
“If you don't, it will cost you in the end. A vocal minority of 10 people saying you're doing a bad job could affect the 90 people who think you are doing a fine job.” – Temple
“Purchase antivirus software for everyone on campus. If you don't pay for it, then you will pay dearly when viruses bring down your network.” – Ford
“If campuses throughout the state can agree to buy the same technology, you leverage your purchasing power and save money.” – Temple
“Universities may elect to make the networks available to people outside campus, but they are under no obligation to do so. Students are paying for them through their tuition dollars. Opening it to the public is also a security risk.” – Ford
Wylie Wong is a veteran technology reporter based in Phoenix.