The CIO: Earning Your Seat


We are past the point where IT needs to be “run.” The IT department has become so enmeshed in the interests and activities of the entire institution that, these days, IT requires a good deal more than an overseer. While the executive charged with leading IT is often called the chief information officer, chief information leader would now be a much better title. And that’s because leaders can envision where we need to go and how to get there. They get everyone on board for the trip, and they solve problems that seem about to ruin the journey. They also make sure that the tank is filled with gas and the motor tuned so that nobody else even has to think about those things.

The “journey,” as it is, is toward a better, stronger, more flourishing institution. The obstacles that litter the route include scarce funding, enrollment worries, more demanding regulations, assaults by network worms and lawsuits, and the increasing cost of just about everything that makes an institution great.

In the profiles that follow, successful CIOs from institutions of different sizes and distinctive cultures talk about how they live up to the challenges of their office, passing on some of the lessons they have learned.

Karin Steinbrenner

Karin Steinbrenner, UNC

Steinbrenner is associate provost for Information Systems and CIO, University of North Carolina-Charlotte, a research-intensive university and the fourth largest of the 16 institutions within the University of North Carolina System. Steinbrenner reports to the provost. When a new chancellor came to UNCC, one of his first acts was to restructure the executive council to include the CIO, says Steinbrenner. So she knows what it is like to be a CIO with—and without—a seat at the planning table. Here are her thoughts:

The Role of the CIO.“It is a necessity for the CIO to be part of the executive team; IT supports every single function at the university. If one of the divisions plans an initiative involving IT, one has to consider how that may affect the existing IT infrastructure: Are there solutions already out there to support this? Can we build on an existing solution?

“IT’s role is changing from supporting the business, to having an influence on how we do business. For example, IT can facilitate growth without a proportional increase in staffing if, for instance, we reach out to students through distance learning and hybrid learning. If a class meets one time in person during the week and twice virtually, then the institution has saved two-thirds of [the available] classroom space.”

Building relationships. “I am constantly struggling with the optimal organizational structure in order to reach out to all levels of the institution. For example, our Web services team has its own constituent group throughout the campus that it collaborates with. Likewise, there are staff in all colleges who are involved in eLearning. So, IT has to work collaboratively with everyone, including areas like Student Life and Physical Security. New suborganizations that are horizontal are always emerging.

I am constantly struggling with the optimal organizational structure in order to reach out to all levels of the institution.
—Karin Steinbrenner, UNCC

“Horizontal collaboration can be effective, but sitting at the table will make that work better. One can have federated arrangements and a governance policy that says, ‘This is how decisions are made; this is how we collaborate.’ But if there is no enforcement or even encouragement from the top, then when one department d'esn’t like the de facto standard campus solution, it all falls apart. “The bigger the institution gets, the more difficult it will be to be effective without presence in the top management.”

Tips for CIOs. “Don’t alienate the academics. You can do a fantastic job, implement portals and ERPs, and protect the campus from spam and viruses, but if the faculty is not on your side, forget it.

Put a good governance structure in place. Create a good organizational structure for IT. Communicate to the campus what IT is responsible for, and get approval of that from the executive team.

Work on the foundation to make sure that you are delivering excellent services before you move to the next stage. You don’t want to constantly work on the 90 percent of IT that is invisible. You want to have high-level projects that are visible to campus, but on the other hand, don’t allow day-to-day functions to become a liability for the sake of implementing a flashy project.

Understand the budget. Be an advocate for what you really need to run the IT organization (including training, replacement, and maintenance) so that you don’t constantly rob Peter to pay Paul.

Win the trust of the president and the other senior staff. The university is full of IT experts giving conflicting advice; but the leaders have to listen to the CIO.”

Mike Yohe

Mike Yohe, Valaparaiso

Yohe is executive director of Electronic Information Services at Valparaiso University (IN), a Lutheran-affiliated institution with an enrollment of 4,000 students in its liberal arts and professional programs, including a graduate division and law school. He reports to the provost, who at Valparaiso is both the chief academic officer and the chief operating officer. Yohe has been at Valparaiso for 10 years and, prior to this post, headed IT at three other institutions.

Every Friday, I write a newsletter about what is going right, what is going wrong, what is coming up next week, or what is on the horizon. Even the student newspaper occasionally picks up items from it.
—Mike Yohe, Valparaiso

Leading IT in a close-knit institution. “I do not sit on the president’s council. Given the environment at Valparaiso, I don’t think that makes a lot of difference, because there is so much conversation back and forth. And it is not that I am excluded at all from the processes, I just don’t sit at the table. Occasionally, there are things that might have gotten clarified a little sooner, and in that case, there would be some usefulness in being on the president’s council to provide understanding at a meeting rather than straightening things out afterwards.

Getting a collaborative project done. “When I came to Valparaiso, the president told me that the number one priority was to change the administrative system. I was fortunate that the registrar had been here a long time, and was a highly respected and loved person on campus. She teamed up with me to cochair the process. She was the ‘people person’ and I was the techie.

“We got the stakeholders together, started the RFP [request for proposal] process, and used that RFP as a consensus- building instrument as much as a definition of what we wanted from the vendor.”

Taking part in the budget process. “I don’t think IT would get a different share of the university budget if I sat on the president’s council. Most institutions are operating on a lean basis. While IT d'esn’t get all the money that we believe we need, from the standpoint of what is available, I actually think the university is on target with what it gives us. We have to stretch dollars and make equipment run longer, just like everybody else, but I don’t feel shortchanged.

“IT’s effect on the budget process probably depends on the culture of the institution. I have tried to keep the whole picture in view, not just IT. If your colleagues see that you are concerned about the mission of the whole institution, not focused parochially, then they give you more credence when you ask for something.”

Managing the burden of communication. “When things are going wrong, it’s a good idea to get out there and say, ‘I know this isn’t good. Here is what we are doing to fix it, and this is about how long it is going to take.’ People need to know what progress you are making in solving problems. But most of us are stretched pretty thin. If you stop and give progress reports as often as people want, you won’t get anything done with the problem. It is more than a balancing act—you have to keep from falling off the tightrope.

“Every Friday, I write a newsletter that is sent to a campus subscriber list, saying what is going right, what is going wrong, what is coming up next week, or what is on the horizon. I throw in a few things about how to manage a PC, or other tips. It runs a couple of typed pages, and it’s written so that busy people can skim through it, find things they are interested in, and learn about places to get more information. It has my ‘voice’ and my return address. Even the student newspaper occasionally picks up items from my newsletter. It also has turned out to be a good way for me to keep in touch with what is going on in my own organization.”

Tips for CIOs. “Be a good listener. People need to understand that their work is important to you. It’s all about serving the needs of your community. In order to serve those needs, you have to help identify them.

Keep the big picture. Sometimes technical people can lose the big picture and get the sense that the university is here for their convenience. You have to keep widening their perspective.

You have to be tuned in to the culture of where you are. It has to fit you; if you can’t tune in, move on.”

Robert Paterson

Robert Paterson, Salem State

Paterson is CIO at Massachusetts’ Salem State College. (The 150-year-old institution enrolls over 9,800 full- and part-time students.) Paterson has served as the head of technology at four institutions during his career, and has been at Salem State for eight years. He is known to many higher ed IT execs as one of the organizers of the annual Educause pre-conference workshop for CIOs.

Constructing a CIO position from the ground up. “I was the first CIO hired at Salem State. The president had bought into the concept that we urgently needed a new administrative system, but was not comfortable leading in the technology area. I recruited one of the vice presidents into the role of co-leading the ERP project. The VP for Student Life had a lot of respect from everybody and was good at working with people; in fact, he is now the executive vice president. We built a good working relationship. At first, though, he was reluctant to take a leadership role in the project because he was not ‘into’ technology. I convinced him that the project could not be successful if it was run from a solely technical point of view. He had responsibility for financial aid and admissions, and those areas were going to be key. We set up a structure at the senior level. We decided: If people really don’t like what we are doing, they can appeal to the president.”

The CIO’s role at the table. “Having me at that table, being one of the senior folks, gives a different footing and allows a different kind of conversation to go on. I saw an ad for a CIO position reporting to both the academic and administrative vice presidents, and I shook my head and said, ‘That is going to be tough.’

“IT deals with foundational things on which we’re building the institution. You need a structure that crosses all areas. People may say, ‘The CIO isn’t really interested in topics that get discussed at the president’s council, like admissions.’ But I am! There is always a technology hook in any topic like that. Actually, I try to keep the executive group from straying too much into the nuts and bolts of technology; they need to talk about the process and what they want to achieve. Leave it to us to figure out how to do it.

“I believe you are at a disadvantage if you are not really the CIO. I’m not saying that there are not people who can pull it off, but the folks I know who are not sitting in at the top level seem to have a more difficult time. A lot has to do with personalities, who is at the table representing you, and what issues are distracting them from supporting you.”

Tips for CIOs. “First and foremost, you have to be able to communicate. Technology is only third or fourth on the list of things you need to know. Develop ways to explain things non-technically. Make use of metaphors.

Understand your organization, how it works, and how to get that understanding.

Pick your battles. Initially, do things the way somebody wants them, then work on getting it right over time.

Remember that you can do it quick, cheap, [or] right: Pick any two.”

Mihir Chatterji

Mihir Chatterji, Eastern Illinois

“Chat” Chatterji has been assistant VP for IT Services at Eastern Illinois University since October 2002. EIU has an enrollment of 11,500 students, and offers undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, including colleges of business and education. Chatterji previously served as CIO for Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, responsible for its 23 Indiana locations.

The policy role of the CIO. “Many of us came up through the ranks at a time when the senior-most person in technology was the director of the computer center. That person spent most of the time being in charge of the glass house, running the mainframe, but all that has changed. The role of directing the computing center has shifted to one of being responsible for infrastructure and policies that affect the whole campus.

“The structure at Eastern is still a traditional one, however. I report to the VP for Business Affairs. And though it has become more the norm for the CIO to be at the vice presidents’ table, that hasn’t quite happened here yet. Maybe the next CIO will be hired as a VP.”

New issues promote centralization. “Whether structural change is needed is an individual university choice. But what the president and the provost have to pay attention to is that all the aspects of computing that were decentralized in the past, by the ubiquity of it all, are now forced into a centralized thought process. Issues such as privacy, HIPAA and FERPA, Napster, technology fees, and wireless access force the director of computing, if not formally a CIO, to be viewed more as a CIO—to find ourselves at the president’s conference table. We are drawn more into things that affect the whole campus community.”

Help for the Emerging CIO

  • “New Beginnings: Techniques and Methods for Succeeding as a Senior IT Leader.” The title of this Educause pre-conference workshop changes each year, but the content is always aimed at equipping new CIOs (or similar positions) with the skills and strategies for success. The 2005 speakers included Robert Paterson, CIO, Salem State College; John E. Bucher, chief technology officer, Oberlin College (OH); Thomas F. Moberg, VP & CIO, North Dakota State University; and H. David Todd, CIO, University of Vermont.

  • Educause CIO Constituent Group. There is no better place to rub shoulders with working CIOs actively facing the challenges of leading IT on their campuses. Topics include: the role of the CIO, financing and funding strategies, planning and organizing for information resources (especially IT), human resource issues, policies for the networked information environment, and the future of higher ed. This group meets at the Educause annual conference and uses the electronic discussion list to mull over issues throughout the year. The group and electronic discussion list are moderated by Scott E. Siddall, assistant provost for Instructional Resources, director of Instructional Technology, Denison University (OH).

  • The Edutech Report. This newsletter, aimed at faculty and administrators, often deals with issues of IT leadership. The March issue, for instance, carries a story by Linda Fleit, president of Edutech International, about the individual who is an excellent technologist, but is unable to break through to upper career levels. To subscribe: Click HERE.

Moving away from geekism. “Not much of the CIO’s job is technological anymore. Most of us got here by being geeks. Now we find ourselves being detached from geekism by necessity. I have dealt with it by hiring really good people around me to delegate the technology issues to, so I can concentrate on the policy issues. In fact, what’s most important to me now is the people I hire. You can’t make mistakes there, or else the infrastructure that you are responsible for breaks and the policy issues get put aside while you fix the network.”

Second management layer is emerging. “There is another planning level developing—the non-VPs, who are forced to cooperate in new ways. Because of issues that cut across boundaries, you find yourself cooperating with people who you didn’t have much to do with before. For instance, Eastern is considering a universal laptop requirement for students. That involves the deans and department chairs, the bookstore, Business Affairs, and the Purchasing department. And it could change the whole way we provide computing infrastructure through computer labs, and how we support students through the Center for Academic Technology Support. It affects the whole campus, but it all started with some of us at lunch, saying that we ought to have something in place for students that involves laptops and the standard Microsoft Office suite; that we ought to think about a universal campus standard. Projects like this have become less departmentalized, more cooperative. We work out a solution among ourselves and then move it up to the vice presidents’ level to be blessed.”


Some IT issues are too big for the technology head to handle alone, but also too technological for the institution to face without the CIO taking a leadership role. Here are some examples of current, widespread issues that point strongly in the direction of including the CIO in the top levels of management.

  • INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY MANAGEMENT, LITIGATION, AND LIABILITY. The danger of the institution being sued by RIAA because of student downloading; litigation over existing technology by owners of patents.
  • THREATS TO THE SECURITY OF NETWORK AND SERVERS from viruses, worms, spam, new students bringing infected computers to campus; policies needed to contain these threats.
  • BUDGET. Influencing the setting of priorities; how big a part of the pie g'es to IT, capital, and operations.
  • COST OF REPLACING IT EQUIPMENT versus other budget priorities.
  • ROLE OF IT in recruiting, enrollment management, fundraising.
  • IMPROVING NATIONAL RANKINGS that depend on IT facilities.
  • RISK ARISING FROM ACTIONS BY VENDORS and other corporate partners in the IT area.
  • TRAINING CAMPUS STAFF ON TECHNOLOGY, with the complications of unionization, work rules, standards, and competency requirements.
  • SAFEGUARDING E-MAIL and other fundamental services.
  • DISASTER RECOVERY from hurricanes and other natural and unnatural disasters; business continuation planning.
  • ALLIANCES WITH OTHER INSTITUTIONS, with businesses, and with local and state government.
  • OPERATING AS PART OF A LARGER ENTITY (system, state, etc.).
  • CENTRALIZATION VS. DECENTRALIZATION. Keeping a handle on the IT infrastructure as it becomes cheaper and more possible for smaller units to manage their own technology.
  • STUDENT LIFE FACILITIES. Securing the dorms, security, vending, laundry, etc.
  • INSTALLING NEW MAJOR SYSTEMS. ERP, content management, learning systems, calendaring and scheduling, e-mail, single sign-on.
  • PROVIDING NEW ONLINE SERVICES TO STUDENTS, such as music downloads, and access to information databases.
  • WIRELESS ACCESS, controlled and uncontrolled.
  • ACCESS TO CAMPUS IT FROM OFF CAMPUS, for students, faculty, parents, and international students.
  • EXPECTATIONS OF SERVICE from the user community, and from the department support units.

Table or No Table…

As the scope of the CIO’s job broadens, that role has moved away from simply providing technology solutions. Projects today—such as electronic document imaging, campus card systems, or transforming the business processes through an ERP implementation—involve much more than installing hardware and software. As James Dalton, executive director of IT at Roanoke College (VA) puts it, “The definition of implementation has changed. Instead of starting with a given solution and handing it over to the user, the CIO must now start from an idea about what the institution needs, and produce the right solution for the institution by developing that idea.” Today, by whatever means—structural, informal, or personal—the CIO must be positioned to work meaningfully with a wide range of campus partners just to get that allimportant CIO job done.

comments powered by Disqus

Campus Technology News

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.