The changing role of the higher ed CIO

Gone are the days when university CIOs filled their time with trouble-shooting computer bugs and managing servers. While today’s university IT staff are still technical experts, they are now expected to be much more than on-campus tech support. “CIOs are at the center of a campus conversation about the proper relationship between technology and education,” says Kamalika Sandell. Associate CIO at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C., Sandell is an expert on IT leadership and a speaker at UBTech 2014. “We are now more than ever expected to introduce and lead change at the university level.”

Change-leadership has become a critical competency for today’s CIOs and tech leaders like Sandell who are leading campuswide innovation initiatives involving much more than updating hardware and software. Over the last few years, for example, she helped to spearhead the transformation of AU’s library into a high-tech learning commons. “Our library used to be like any other, where students would come to get books,” she says. Now, it’s organized as a work-space, where students come with laptops, access online resources, and work at projector hubs on group projects.”

Sandell is also working to transform AU’s recruitment practices. In a partnership with the admissions office, she is revamping AU’s website to customize the site and cater to the specific needs of interested students. In the future, the admissions page may suggest certain courses of study or graduate programs based on an applicants’ prior internet history, Sandell says.

She explains that these sorts of changes require CIOs to be in constant dialogue with other university leaders where they are constantly discussing the potential of new technology, and stresses that CIOs must also be good communicators. Sandell sits on the university’s web steering committee with a cross section of campus leaders. “Tech works best as an incubator of change when it sits at the table with a whole range of stakeholders,” she says. “Often other administrators don’t understand the potential and risk embedded in technology.”

For CIOs to be on the cutting edge, Sandell recommends staying connected to a national network of university IT leaders and sharing ideas across campuses. Other key resources for CIOs are students and visiting professors, who often come to campus well versed in the newest technology trends. “Good CIOs make time for tech-oriented student groups and tech-savvy professors,” says Sandell. “Tuning into what they are doing gives you a real edge and helps you stay current.”

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