Feb 06 2024

What Is a Chief AI Officer, and Should Your University Appoint One?

This key decision-maker on artificial intelligence could be the next member of your university’s C-suite.

As artificial intelligence continues its reach into nearly every aspect of higher education, a new role has emerged to oversee the responsible growth and safe management of this rapidly evolving technology: the chief AI officer.

The CAIO role first began to appear in the business world less than a decade ago, within corporations and startups alike. More recently, the government sector has jumped on board, as President Joe Biden’s recent AI executive order requires that all federal agencies appoint a CAIO.

Now the academic world is following suit, with the first CAIOs popping up at the end of last year, including a CAIO at Sacramento State, a chief health AI officer at the University of California San Diego Health and a CAIO at Northwestern University’s Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute and the Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Medicine. Canada also recently installed its first CAIO in the higher ed realm: professor Mark Daley at Western University in London, Ontario.

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Daley, who started his new appointment in October, notes that the chief AI officer role is bound to look very different depending on an institution’s structure and needs.

“Some colleges and universities are highly centralized; others, like mine, are fairly decentralized,” Daley says. “What is universally important is to have a very clear understanding of the aspirations and concerns of one’s stakeholders and enough technical acumen to match those to the current and near-future capabilities of technology. AI is already affecting every aspect of our institution, from how we teach to how we do accounting, and so no single person or committee could possibly articulate alone what an AI strategy should encompass.”

What Do Chief AI Officers Do?

There are some key responsibilities that a CAIO will be in charge of no matter the institution, which points to the CAIO soon becoming a crucial member of the modern-day C-suite in higher ed.

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According to David Mathison, founder and CEO of the CDO Club and the world’s first CAIO Summit (which took place in December at Northeastern University), a CAIO in higher ed can:

  • Ensure student success by driving AI initiatives that provide personalized learning experiences, early intervention systems and support for at-risk students
  • Better support faculty and researchers in leveraging AI to advance their work, attract research funding and enhance the institution’s reputation
  • Help make data-driven decisions in areas such as enrollment management, resource allocation and academic program planning
  • Help the university keep a competitive advantage and attract students, faculty and research partnerships by proactively adopting AI strategies and innovations
  • Ensure that the university adheres to ethical guidelines, mitigates bias and maintains transparency in AI applications
  • Act as a bridge between academic departments, IT and administration, facilitating collaboration and coordination on AI initiatives

Daley, who served as Western University’s chief digital information officer before becoming CAIO, says this newly created position is all about working together.

“The CAIO is a role where big things can, and should, be done in partnership,” he says. “The CIO/CTO is a key partner for me, in everything from service delivery to thought leadership.”

One major advantage of a university employing a chief artificial intelligence officer? Having a person who can be the single point of accountability for AI transformation and who can support cross-institutional coordination and collaboration, adds Daley.

Mark Daley
I don’t think there is an optimal, one-size-fits-all solution. Higher education institutions are massively heterogeneous.”

Mark Daley Professor, Western University

How Is the CAIO Position Evolving?

As AI and its applications are constantly changing, the responsibilities and oversight of the newly created CAIO role are also in a state of flux.

“What is possible with the technology is evolving every day, so the range of interested stakeholders — and the academic and business problems they want to tackle — grows with it. I would characterize the position as one of constant evolution at the moment,” Daley says.

While the CAIO title is gaining traction, “other titles can also encompass AI leadership responsibilities within an organization,” Mathison says. “These hybrid titles reflect the multifaceted nature of AI leadership within organizations and the recognition that AI is often closely integrated with data, digitalization, technology and innovation efforts.”

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In some cases, a hybrid title might be more appropriate for an institution. For instance, “chief digital and AI officer” is used by a senior official at the Department of Defense. The specific title used depends on the organization’s size, industry and the extent to which AI is a strategic priority.

What Advantages Does a CAIO Provide for Universities?

Wording of the title aside, what remains absolutely necessary for anyone stepping into this new leadership role is to adhere to ethical and responsible AI practices while effectively navigating the evolving landscape of technology and education.

For most institutions, Daley says, an ideal CAIO candidate understands that the job will “require a lot of soft influence to move projects forward in partnership with business-line and academic leaders. A strong candidate is one with sufficient technical knowledge and experience to understand the art of the feasible with AI technologies, along with the soft skills required to be an effective peer leader and champion. Experience with the complexity of university governance and approaches to management would be helpful too.”

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While Daley thinks that CAIOs will become more common in higher ed, he also says that creating the role is not enough for transformation.

“For some institutions, it will undoubtedly make more sense to place the AI mandate in an existing portfolio, and for others to lead by committee,” he says. “I don’t think there is an optimal, one-size-fits-all solution. Higher education institutions are massively heterogeneous.”

Eva Bee/Ikon Images

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