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Harvard Chief Digital Officer Moves to Nonprofit ITHAKA

The chief digital officer (CDO) is a title that is still trying to get a foothold in higher education, and one of the highest profile CDOs just announced she is leaving her position. Perry Hewitt, chief digital officer at Harvard University since 2011, has accepted a position as vice president of marketing for the nonprofit digital technologies organization ITHAKA.

At ITHAKA, Hewitt will work to develop a cross-channel marketing strategy spanning its research, consulting and preservation services — Ithaka S+R and Portico – as well as its global knowledge platform, JSTOR.

At Harvard, Hewitt has led the institution's digital strategy, including overseeing the redesign of its Web site and establishing a strong social media presence.

Before Harvard, she held executive marketing, editorial and strategy roles with companies including Crimson Hexagon, Razorfish, Harcourt and Lotus Development. Hewitt is a frequent writer and keynote speaker on business and technology issues. She serves on the boards of Junior Achievement U.S.A., MITX and Venture Beat's CMO Council, in addition to advising emerging efforts like Robin and the HBS Digital Initiative.

In a 2014 Educause Review article, Hewitt discussed some of the steps she had taken to strengthen Harvard's capabilities for digital engagement. She concluded that although it may feel like we're already moving at breakneck speed, "in truth we're still at the starting line of digital transformation in higher education." Change is the new normal, she wrote. "If we manage that change well, we can help to empower our institutions and the people driving them. In short order, we'll be able to use data more easily to optimize our digital engagement. Tools will improve, and the process of making data-informed decisions will become faster and clearer. There is still a wide gulf between the data we collect about digital engagement and our ability to optimize solutions based on that data. Developing data literacy alongside digital literacy will be critical to engagement."

Whether the position of chief digital officer has staying power or not is still an open question. In 2015, Campus Technology interviewed several chief digital officers and CIOs about the CDO role. (Hewitt declined to participate in that discussion.) Sree Sreenivasan, who was CDO at Columbia University before taking a CDO role at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said, "We are at an important moment of change in society, education and technology, and the chief digital officer's role is something that is ideal for this particular, unusual moment. Every senior executive in higher education needs someone at their right hand who can guide them about using digital technology to amplify, optimize and enhance the work they are doing. This is the right time for that. In a few years, you won't need that because the chief operating officers will already have that knowledge."

But Brad Wheeler, vice president for information technology and CIO at Indiana University, countered by saying, "I think some of this stems from a lack of confidence in the CIO role and who is in that position. To the extent the academy — the provost, deans and faculty — can trust that person, then they can see things coming together in online learning, electronic recruiting of students, etc. To the extent that they don't, they feel they need to hold it more tightly. But it still has to have some kind of administrative structure, so they create these 'vice provost of digital stuff' positions. When people create a position like this or play organizational box chart matrix and move stuff around, it often has very modest impact in the end, because they are not solving the core issue of how organizations evolve — through influence, trust, action and cohesive strategy."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.

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