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Is IT Digging Its Own Grave?

At CT 2011, IT leaders confronted the challenges that beset their organizations and the institutions they serve.

Listening to CIOs at Campus Technology 2011 discuss the state of IT in higher education, I got a sinking feeling that some of them might be digging their own graves.

Without doubt, IT has to change--there is broad agreement about that. Nearly 60 IT leaders at an executive summit moderated by Stephen Laster, CIO of Harvard Business School (MA), all recognized the imperative of outsourcing commodity IT so they could better support the strategic missions of their institutions.

It was a message echoed by Gerry McCartney, CIO of Purdue University (IN), who urged attendees to stop being the equivalent of TV repairmen and return to the business of improving education. "Somewhere in our pasts, however dormant, however dulled that ember now is, there is a belief that IT can actually make things better through change," he said.

It was a clarion cry for IT to become innovators again--to reinvent the IT organization as a campus leader. But we also have to remember that this battle standard is being raised as institutions across the country are slashing budgets. In her keynote, Ellen Wagner, executive director of WCET, pointed out that higher ed institutions historically hunker down in the face of economic woes, shying away from anything that smacks of risk.

So, in this era of fiscal collapse, what's going to happen once IT starts to outsource commodity services in preparation for a more innovative role on campus? We can all predict the next question from the CFO: "What is it you do again?"

Unless your IT group already has a seat at the table--unless it is part of the strategic team that is charting the school's future--the next gift from the CFO may well be a pink slip. Put simply, you outsourced your job at a time when the university has no desire to start tinkering with new roles for IT. First and foremost, it wants to save money.

McCartney proposed a simple test for CIOs to determine where their organization stands in the campus pecking order: "If your president came into the room now, would he be able to identify you?" he asked.

If your answer is no, outsourcing commodity IT starts to look a lot like a shovel. Because if you haven't played a strategic role up to this point, you can't expect to be invited to play one now. So where do we go from here?

A possible way forward was proposed by Casey Green, founder of The Campus Computing Project. In Green's view, IT's future must be built on exactly the same foundation that has kept him in business for so long. Data. Big data.

No other group on campus is in a better position than IT to gather, extract, and manage data. And no other group is better able to turn that data into the knowledge needed to help administrators make informed decisions about every aspect of campus operations. Big data holds the key. As for that seat at the table, remember one thing: Knowledge is power.

About the Author

Andrew Barbour is the former executive editor of Campus Technology.

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