Redefining IT Leadership: A Provost’s Perspective

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© 2010 David H. Farrar

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 45, no. 2 (March/April 2010): 62-63

David H. Farrar is Provost and Vice President, Academic, at the University of British Columbia.

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Information technology is of fundamental importance to the research, learning, and student engagement missions of modern colleges and universities. IT innovation has led to new possibilities in global scholarly activity, holds the promise to help transform teaching and learning, and is an essential part of students' success. The use of information technology is ubiquitous across all functions of the higher education institution, and yet technology has significant untapped potential to more directly contribute to the achievement of strategic objectives. Today's fiscal challenges make the efficient and effective use of IT resources more important than ever. At the University of British Columbia (UBC), information technology is thus being repositioned as a key element in UBC's strategic thinking, planning, and ongoing operations.

I came to UBC in 2007 from the University of Toronto, where I had served as Vice Provost, Students, and before that as Chair of the Chemistry Department. During the first few months of my appointment as Provost and Vice President, Academic, at UBC, it became clear that there were serious issues with information technology. To gain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities, in June 2008 I initiated an external review of information technology at UBC to encompass the governance, funding, mission, and effectiveness of centrally provided IT infrastructure and services. The external review committee comprised experienced leaders from highly respected universities in Canada and the United States. The review team's report brought into sharp focus certain systemic challenges facing UBC, including the need to develop a new funding model for centrally provided IT infrastructure and services, to improve IT governance, and to redefine the role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO).

The report was discussed with UBC's executive team, with the deans of faculties, and with the heads and directors of units. These discussions led to the recommendation to appoint a Vice Provost, Information Technology, to be responsible for developing and realizing the long-term academic vision of the university through the strategic integration of information technology into the core academic activities of learning, research, and student life. The managerial duties devolved to a new administrative position of CIO, to be responsible for transforming information technology at UBC to a level of world-leading and industry-independent excellence in IT solutions, service delivery, and management practices.

UBC shares attributes with many other large public research universities. It has a large and diverse student body, multiple campuses, significant decision-making autonomy within its academic units, various institutional cultures, and a strong global reputation coupled with greater aspirations. Total IT expenditures are significant: more than $120 million per year, or roughly 8 percent of total revenue. Historically, however, only about 15-20 percent of those expenditures were directly managed by the CIO.

More than two decades ago, UBC distributed the bulk of its central IT resources to academic and administrative units. The remaining central IT organization functioned as what is locally known as an ancillary unit, meaning that it received no financial subsidy from the university and was required to fund its operations by "selling" services and by charging for the use of centrally managed infrastructure. Over time, some funding was allocated to central IT core activities such as supporting the data network, but the sales/revenue funding model remained in effect.

This combination of factors — significantly decentralized IT resources and decision-making, together with an IT funding model that was no longer appropriate to needs — led to systemic problems in IT governance, security, life-cycle infrastructure planning, and strategic focus. The new structure is intended to overcome these past challenges. Coupled with a new institutional strategic plan that effectively links budget priorities with strategic objectives, this new structure in IT leadership will be key to future success.

From an academic perspective, there are many pockets of IT excellence at UBC: individuals and teams located in the faculties and in instructional support units have developed innovative and effective approaches to using information technology in support of learning and research. Several have done world-leading work. Their achievements are widely recognized and act to enhance UBC's global reputation. Currently, however, most of these efforts are independent and uncoordinated. The technology platforms are developed in isolation, resulting in incompatible bespoke systems that cannot be scaled to large numbers of users. Support is ad hoc. Operational sustainability is inconsistent. Despite many outstanding efforts, the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts.

As noted, the mandate of the Vice Provost, Information Technology, is to identify and develop opportunities to apply innovations in information technology to enhance core academic functions in research, teaching, and student engagement — including the implementation of the Kuali Student System at UBC. The Vice Provost, Information Technology, leads a small, strategically focused team that works in partnership with operational units across the institution and that maintains deep relationships with IT leaders internationally. The team's composition balances the competencies needed to translate vision into action. This includes the capabilities to enable UBC to create a shared vision of information technology, identify new possibilities, stimulate creative thinking among campus stakeholders, and then distill abstract visionary concepts into tangible deliverables, project plans, and business cases. The team has the skills necessary to define the strategic architectural elements (technology and process) that will drive flexible, scalable, standards-based solutions to enable academic innovation. It is expected to manage change (people and process), communicate effectively, and develop change capacity within the UBC community.

Of equal importance to UBC's strategic direction is renewed excellence in the day-to-day IT service delivery, the reliable operation of systems, the implementation of new solutions, and the development of UBC's many IT professionals — responsibilities that are the focus of the new administrative CIO position. The CIO oversees the central IT department and provides senior leadership to UBC's community of IT professionals. Concurrent with the restructuring of the IT leadership, we began bringing together many of the staff in departmentally based IT organizations within administrative units, starting with the teams supporting major administrative systems and the executive group. Thus, the new model of information technology is less decentralized and more integrated but is still distributed. We believe it is a model that can work well in a large research-intensive university like UBC.

The relationship model between Vice Provost, Information Technology, and CIO will be critical to our IT success. A simple model was developed to ensure the appropriate clarity of roles and separation of responsibilities, with the necessary and useful hand-off points between the two positions. The model reflects the functional/strategic emphasis of the Vice Provost, Information Technology, and the technical/operational focus of the CIO.

Although the model is still new, we are pleased that some of the expected outcomes have been achieved already. Previously distributed IT groups have been brought together under the CIO and have begun to develop a career framework to benefit all IT staff at the university. Strategically, we are refreshing our shared vision and strategic plan for information technology, rethinking scholarly publishing, and planning to redesign some core processes to improve student engagement. UBC is gearing up to introduce the Kuali Student System, a project that we have played a lead role in planning and developing. I am confident that the changes we are undertaking will unleash the power of information technology to advance the strategic goals of the University of British Columbia.