Transforming Technology Leadership and the Changing Culture of Higher Education

By January 7, 2020 March 10th, 2021 No Comments

Information technology continues to weave into the strategic fabric of the higher education community, creating new opportunities to improve and expand the experiences of students, faculty, and staff. Changing the culture of higher education to match the rapid cultural shifts in technology is anything but simple, but devoted leadership is fundamental to getting the wheels in motion. Institutions must creatively preserve the valuable elements of traditional academics, while integrating the most useful benefits of digital innovation. “Leveraging technology is an integral part of creating a vision for the future,” says Milos Topic, Ph.D., Vice President and Chief Information Officer, IT and Operations, Saint Peter’s University. “Digital transformation takes a CIO and a leadership team who stands collectively and is willing to take certain risks to move forward.”

Supporting Equal Leadership

Adopting new technology helps advance an institution, from recruitment and marketing, to admissions and academic affairs, yet budgeting for these improvements cannot be approached the same way funding was 20 or 30 years ago. “Proper leadership can help inspire organizational opportunities and growth,” shares Topic. “Technology can help reduce expenses, streamline and automate processes, while empowering and enabling organizations to be more effective and productive. When all members of the leadership team, including the CIOs, Presidents, Provosts, Chief Academic Officers, and Deans, unite during strategy formulation, progress is more likely to be achieved. Leaders who encourage the right conversations at the right time can introduce new teaching and learning opportunities and help the institution stay in stride with evolving technology and student expectations.”

The Growing Role of Information Technology

Information technology continues to provide more value across higher education which results in many opportunities at strategic levels. Since joining Saint Peter’s University, Topic has been a vital part of implementing many technology-driven initiatives. One focus included student planning where early alert and degree progress tracking solutions were provided to assist students and their advisors and faculty with spotting potential challenges and helping students stay on the right academic path to achieve their goals. “We are helping students to avoid wandering aimlessly for five or six years, but giving them the guidance and resources to graduate with a 4-year degree,” shares Topic. Saint Peter’s University also recognizes the value of students’ time and has found several ways across campus to reduce queues and eliminate long lines. Technologies have been put in place to allow students to register from their mobile devices or receive alerts when an open appointment is available to discuss courses or receive assistance.

Saint Peter’s University has also integrated the first project management office in the University’s history. Located within Information Technology Services (ITS), this office helps monitor ITS requests and keeps students and faculty informed of the progress and status of their requests. Topic has plans to expand this office to provide additional services to other areas of the University. IT has also partnered with certain vendors to provide more effective monitoring and management of the school’s network, infrastructure, and overall security.

Promoting Strength in Numbers

The higher education community only becomes stronger and more successful by building alliances between institutions and the state’s business organizations. As a main mission of Edge, membership is strengthened by the powerful opportunities networking provides. “Coming together to learn from Edge and other colleagues across the state is incredibly important,” says Topic. “Seeing that others are fighting the same battles, just perhaps at a different point on the timeline or with different resources, is beneficial to improving your own strategies. Being around fellow members of the industry brings new thoughts and ideas and listening to Edge members and other CIOs has been extremely valuable to me and Saint Peter’s over the years.”

The Future of Technology and Education

In looking at other industries, specifically transportation and hospitality, innovators changed how activities like finding a ride or reserving a room had been approached for decades. “Great change, progress, and innovation never take place from a comfortable chair,” states Topic. “There are always others who are hungry and are looking for different ways to disrupt different industries and models; higher education is no exception.” Looking to the trends of other industries helps prime educational organizations to understand the impact and significance new technology can bring.

“The only thing constant is change and we need to understand and embrace this idea in our daily jobs and responsibilities, especially as we develop strategic plans and the steps for executing them,” shares Topic. “I believe technology and education will alter the model itself. The powerful tools of today and the technology of tomorrow will modify the way higher education functions as an industry across the world. While I value the model and believe in the purpose and mission of higher education, we must be open to taking risks and challenging some of the current ways in order to stay competitive and provide greater value to future generations.”

Recruiting New Students

Many students are graduating from high schools where technology is heavily integrated into the curriculum and has shaped their expectations and learning behavior for the future. “One of the greatest values technology can provide is flexibility,” says Topic. “Students can access important information on the go from a mobile device or attend class from afar if, for example, there is inclement weather. A technologically-advanced institution allows learning to go uninterrupted and can prepare students to graduate with the right skills and training needed to enter today’s, and even more importantly, tomorrow’s workforce.” Students are looking beyond the degrees and physical infrastructure when deciding where to attend. Today’s young adults seek a more immersive and personalized experience where technology is easily accessible to enhance their day-to-day life on and off campus.

“Technology has the ability to provide context and a customized learning experience based on the strengths of a person, not just the broad degree program he or she chooses,” says Topic. “Institutions must help put the building blocks in place to make students stronger writers, communicators, and critical thinkers, so no matter what career path they choose; they will be valuable, successful additions to their respective professions.”

The Evolving Role of CIOs

Technology is affecting every aspect of an organization and the role of the CIO is changing and growing in importance. Several factors are driving this transformation, from big data and analytics to the large variety of technology coming to light every day. CIOs must adapt their personal and professional skills to meet today’s demands and the new environment of higher education. Leaders in IT must be technologically-savvy, go beyond strategy to employ tactics, and a set an overarching vision for the organization to work toward. With a vast dispersion of IT within higher education, breaking down the organizational silos will be essential to fostering innovation and navigating change successfully.

Topic offers advice to other CIOs or those who aspire to be a CIO in higher education. “Getting out of your office is number one. Be visible to other team members, offer help, and allow people to see how you can contribute. Networking with other CIOs, within the industry and beyond, also exposes you to new solutions and approaches you may not have considered. Listen and ask questions and bring back ideas to implement that will improve your organization as a whole.”

Given the growing changes in technology and the CIO role, leaders must find ways to enact change that are the most suitable and meaningful for their organization. As education and technology continue to intertwine, investing in IT services, solutions, and infrastructure will help institutions remain competitive while harnessing the power of digital transformation to their advantage. Finally, and most importantly, get comfortable with change as it is inevitable and look for opportunities to help lead innovation across your organization and the entire industry.