Insights from Campus Leaders on Current Challenges and Expectations of IT

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IT's role across a higher education institution is crucial, yet campus leaders typically understand IT challenges and opportunities based largely on their functional roles. Interviews with campus leaders offer insights into these views, as well as how to understand IT more broadly to better serve an institution's mission.

Insights from Campus Leaders on Current Challenges and Expectations of IT

Information technology (IT) plays a critical role in higher education, touching almost every aspect of campus life, from operations to academics to student experiences. Opinions on the most important function of IT vary depending on where one sits within the institution. For some, that key function might be driving efficiencies through business process transformation, while others might see it as helping faculty members engage learners. Almost all parts of the institution are concerned with several relatively new topics, such as analytics and data security. Still, few campus leaders grasp IT's pervasiveness; instead, they focus on how IT impacts their own functional areas.

Here, we present these and other findings gathered as part of an observational study of interviews with campus executives. These interviews were conducted by participants in the 2017 EDUCAUSE Leadership Institute (L17), an annual professional development workshop for new and aspiring chief information officers (CIOs) and chief information security officers (CISOs). The Leadership Institute's goals are to better ground IT leadership in its higher education context, develop an understanding of the style and context in which decisions are made, and enhance awareness of the need for strong communication, partnership building, and organizational skills in developing leadership abilities.

We asked program participants to interview executive leaders on their campuses prior to the start of L17. Here, we focus on two of those interview questions:

  1. What challenges is your institution facing?
  2. What do your executive leaders expect from IT?

Study Overview

Table 1 shows the L17 participants who conducted interviews for our study in June and July 2017. As the table shows, participants included an interim CIO, 18 IT directors, and 2 security officers from 5 private and 16 public institutions (19 in the US and one each from Canada and Australia).

Table 1. L17 participants who interviewed campus leaders for this study




Ryan Bass

Senior director, Computing Infrastructure

Portland State University

Troy Boroughs

Assistant vice president for Systems and Networks

University of Richmond

Diane Byron

Director, IT Client Services

University of New Hampshire

Shirley Canaan

Director, Administrative Computing

Sacred Heart University

Thomas Dixon

Information security officer

California State University, East Bay

Damien Doyle

Senior director, Enterprise Infrastructure

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Deborah Enright

Senior director, SA technology services

University of California, Riverside

Juan Garza

Assistant VP, Academic Services

Texas A&M University

Richard Godsmark

Director, Technology Innovation, Partnerships, and Risk Management

McMaster University

Jesse Gonzalez

Director, Network and Communications

Rancho Santiago Community College District

Sharon Goodall

Director, Innovations, Learning Design, and Solutions

University of Maryland University College

Stephen Herzig


Director, Enterprise Systems

University of Arkansas

Louise Howard

Director, IT Infrastructure and Cloud

Griffith University

Ed Hudson

Director, System-wide Information Security

California State University

James Nelson

Director, Systems and Software

Park University

Michael Ospitale

Senior director, Customer Engagement and Support

Stony Brook University

Erik Quimby

Director, IT Service Operations

Rhode Island School of Design

Chris Reichley

Director, Application Development and Integration

University of Mississippi

Nelson Sheets

Director, User Support

Point Loma Nazarene University

Roberta Sloan

Interim CIO

Morrisville State College

Joe Zitnik

Director, IT and Network Infrastructure

Henry Ford College

Table 2 shows the US institutions' Carnegie classifications. Both of the international universities were large, public research institutions. Table 3 shows the position categories of the interviewed campus leaders (for brevity's sake, we refer to the position category of CFO/VP for administration as simply CFO in this article).

Table 2. Carnegie classifications of US institutions included in the L17 interviews

Type of US Institution


Doctoral university


System office


Special focus four-year


Master's college/university


Baccalaureate college


Baccalaureate/associate college


Associate and community college


Table 3. Position categories of leaders interviewed





CFO/VP for administration


VP for enrollment management


Chief information officer


Other executive*


* Includes president, executive director of a campus, chief innovation officer (2), VP for planning, executive director of communications and marketing, VP for corporate services

The L17 participants conducted face-to-face interviews and provided us with a narrative summary of the conversations. The insights contained in these summaries are incredibly rich and warranted both an in-depth analysis and the sharing of results.

To achieve this, we used text-mining analysis to identify broad themes in the summaries. We assigned each comment made during the interviews to a theme, then counted the comments by theme category and position category. We then normalized counts to support comparisons across position categories. Following is an overview of the results.

Question 1: Themes Related to Institutional Challenges

Responses to the first question — What challenges is your institution facing? — included nine key themes as follows.


Recurring concerns around the administration theme were antiquated systems, inefficient business processes, aging infrastructure, and security. Data security was mentioned frequently, from the security of cloud-based services to new security-related regulatory and compliance requirements to identifying new funding to keep data safe. Physical security was mentioned as well, specifically in relation to how universities are responding to campus violence and the need for surveillance systems.


The analytics theme occurred frequently and in various contexts. Both CFOs and provosts mentioned the need to make smarter choices about how resources are deployed and that this would require modernized, consistent reporting methodologies capable of yielding actionable results. One executive aptly summarized this notion as aspiring to be an institution that values data-driven, informed decision making and has appropriate support for analytics.

CFOs noted the need for financial analysis capabilities, stating that without reliable data, it is difficult to prioritize projects and budgets. One provost noted the need to analyze the costs and returns of degree programs. Several executives stated that strong analytics capabilities incorporating demographic and trend data were needed to support enrollment forecasting and student success. One executive mentioned the need for analytics to achieve the "right" level of enrollment, and another noted the need for intelligent social media monitoring to receive alerts and "cut through the noise."

Changing Demographics

The changing demographics theme included two areas of focus: diversity/inclusion and support for place-bound individuals. Several executives noted that their universities aspired to be more diverse. At least one noted confusion around the diversity "goalposts" and that his university was not currently prepared to make progress. One executive shared an institutional objective to increase international student enrollment. Another lamented increasing acts of hate, racism, and disrespect, which conflicted with the institution's core values and led to concerns for safety on campus.

With regard to supporting place-bound individuals, two executives noted the need for tools, infrastructure, and human capital to offer fully online, video-conferenced, and hybrid courses.


Every position category mentioned enrollment, whether declining or increasing enrollment or the need to be more competitive. Those struggling with declining enrollment noted the smaller pool of incoming students, the inability of families to pay increasing tuition rates, the impact on institutional funding, and competition from nearby colleges, which required the institution to "differentiate from the crowd."

Those experiencing increasing enrollment discussed the need to manage growth and maintain quality at scale. Some wanted to grow graduate programs, which meant adding services; others sought to meet certain enrollment targets, such as maintaining a balance between in-state and out-of-state students.


CFOs and CIOs frequently mentioned funding. Their concerns included developing sustainable funding models, balancing the strategic and operational needs of the campus, declining state funding, and a trend of never having enough funding to meet all campus needs. One executive noted the strained relationships among support units after years of doing "more with less." Concerns about funding extended into research and philanthropy, including fewer grant opportunities and the need to boost private giving.

Government Intervention

Several CFOs mentioned government intervention as a challenge. One noted the need for increased funding to meet reporting and compliance requirements, such as those for Title IX []. Another discussed the challenges of continuing to function as a faith-based institution given increases in government regulations that conflicted with beliefs. International universities saw the positive aspects of government intervention, especially in relation to government-mandated enrollment objectives.


Among the concerns related to leadership were the lack of a cohesive strategy or clear vision across the institution, the difficulty in attracting and retaining talent, and the challenges of bringing about large-scale institutional change. One executive noted that, while strong leaders existed at her university, they often have their own vision and compete rather than collaborate as a team. Also of concern was turnover in senior leadership and the inherent risks and rewards this type of change entails. One executive also noted that millennials entering the workplace necessitated changes in management styles and policies.

Student Success

Several executives identified student success as an institutional challenge, especially in relation to increasing retention and graduation rates among under-represented and under-prepared students. One noted that progress with student success would require active partnerships across campus support units such as the registrar, institutional research, housing, and financial aid. Moreover, these and other student support services and programs would require strong supporting analytics to assess their effectiveness and track student progress.

The student success theme also included issues such as affordability, the need to be sensitive to student financial hardships, and students' potential lack of basic resources such as food and shelter. One campus leader noted the need for more effective ways to alert and communicate with students about all topics including student success, while another noted the need for an improved web presence as a key method for reaching students.

Value of Higher Education

Comments on the value of higher education theme included the need for reliable information about the ROI of a college degree. Several campus leaders discussed the challenges of balancing the research mission with the teaching and service missions. One noted the challenges associated with maintaining a value proposition while increasing research productivity to help "transform the world" and producing excellent graduates at all levels.

Question 1 Results by Position Category

The individual comments are interesting and offer insights into challenges that currently keep campus leaders awake at night. To find out which themes interest which positions, we conducted a count by position category and theme. Figure 1 shows this analysis for Question 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Normalized comment count by theme and position category for Question 1

More than any other position category, CFOs and CIOs showed high interest in the administration theme. This reflects the importance of the CFO–CIO partnership in bringing about efficiencies and using technology in smart ways to help the institution run well.

Several of the themes are closely related. Consider funding and administration, for example. One executive aptly noted that, with just a little digging, numerous inefficiencies across campus emerge; addressing these inefficiencies would free up financial resources to meet other campus needs.

Comments about funding and enrollment sometimes described the same challenge in two different ways, especially for tuition-dependent institutions. Whereas CFOs spoke directly about funding challenges, other executives were more likely to comment on declining enrollment. Also, from the affordability perspective, student success is related to funding and enrollment. Executives note that remaining affordable requires controlling costs and minimizing tuition increases.

Every position category except for CIO mentioned analytics as an institutional challenge; however, CIOs did mention analytics as an IT expectation (Question 2). One explanation might be that CIOs saw analytics as important, but not necessarily a challenge for the institution as a whole. The analytics theme was explicitly mentioned in the context of almost every other theme. For example, public-facing metrics comparing universities were mentioned in the value of higher education theme.

Question 2: IT Expectation Themes

Responses to the second question — What do your executive leaders expect from IT? — included seven key themes as follows.

Analytics and Data

Campus leaders see analytics and data as being a key IT function to help the institution make important decisions, inform planning, and detect trends. They also said that IT should:

  • Be the champion for data-driven decisions
  • Make business intelligence a major focus
  • Provide tools and methodologies that would lead to verified and consistent reporting

One CIO emphasized the need for a holistic approach, citing the existence of too many disparate systems across campus. This same CIO stressed the important role that IT plays in establishing data governance and keeping data safe.

Business Processes and Efficiencies

Only CFOs commented on business processes and efficiencies. They said they expected IT to work with them toward common goals and play a critical role in driving efficiencies. One CFO noted the importance of IT getting into the process space, not just the systems space. Another stated the need for IT to proactively consult with business leaders and to collaboratively develop responsive solutions. For this to happen, IT leaders must be relationship- and customer-focused and have an in-depth understanding of the university's business.

Foundational Technology

The theme that received the most attention by far was foundational technology. As one executive stated, "We expect for IT to be silently awesome." This same executive noted that most higher education executives do not want the next shiny object, they just want the systems they use to be effective and responsive. One provost said that IT "holds the keys to the kingdom"; accordingly, the services IT provides must be robust, resilient, easy to use, secure, and flawless. Another provost expected IT to manage technology resources effectively and in a manner that supports the institutional mission. A CFO said, "We want the world and to pay nothing for it — all of the modern tools, all the capabilities, kept up-to-date and current." Another campus leader said that, first and foremost, he expected support for what happens at the campuses, along with responsiveness and secure systems.

We expect for IT to be silently awesome.

Multiple leaders commented on infrastructure, including the importance of reliability and performance in core infrastructure and foundational services/platforms, the need for 24/7 availability, and the fact that IT services are now perceived as a utility and must work well. CFOs said that they should not have to think about the network, PCs, printers, backups, archiving, data warehousing, and so on.

As with institutional challenges, executives frequently mentioned security; specifically, they cited security as a growing concern and said they expect IT to keep systems secured and the institution "out of the news." Some noted confusion around what security really entails and were skeptical about whether everyone within the university saw its relevance. Other foundational technology topics included IT's role in integrating systems, business continuity, and support for communication and collaboration.

Innovation and Transformation

Regarding innovation and transformation, one provost noted that while IT has transformed society, it has not necessarily transformed education. This provost cited massive open online courses (MOOCs) and open educational resources (OERs) as examples: while some claimed that distance education would cause universities to stop building brick-and-mortar buildings and finally bring the Internet age to higher education, the tools simply let institutions teach through different communication mediums — they had not fundamentally changed teaching. This provost wanted the IT field to find innovative ways to help faculty members engage learners and to truly improve this engagement regardless of a course's scale.

Other executives called for IT to be entrepreneurial, transform business processes, promote early adoption of technology, and communicate beneficial ideas and opportunities occurring within and beyond higher education. They also expected IT to be agile — that is, to produce solutions quickly.


Provosts called on IT to provide leadership in the use and adoption of technology and to assist the community in accomplishing its vision by establishing policies and guidelines for technology use. Others noted that achieving this required a strategic leadership mindset and a commitment to be an enabler rather than a barrier. One executive alluded to the fact that IT typically has project management capabilities that could help universities implement and execute plans.

Student Experiences and Expectations

Several executives called on IT to pay attention to student experiences and expectations, putting a priority on the student experience and supporting convenience and personalization. One CFO was sympathetic to the challenges of supporting student expectations around network connectivity, noting that students expect to "be connected as fast as possible all the time and from every location." One provost challenged IT to help the university keep up with technology inside and outside the classroom.

Teaching and Learning

As one might expect, provosts championed IT's role in enhancing teaching and learning. As noted earlier, one provost wanted IT to improve student engagement in all learning environments. Others called for IT to be responsive to faculty needs and provide training in instructional technologies. Campus leaders also mentioned the importance of support for distance and online learning and help in integrating the latest technology for teaching.

Question 2 Results by Position Category

Figure 2 shows normalized counts by position category and theme for Question 2. As with figure 1, this visualization helps identify which themes are most important to which position categories.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Normalized comment count by theme and position category for Question 2

Despite the diversity of these themes, some areas that typically fall within IT's responsibility — such as research computing, identity management, and support for special events — are not even mentioned. The themes raised, together with the typical IT responsibilities not explicitly mentioned, remind us once again of IT's pervasiveness in a modern university. What support unit other than IT touches as many different areas or has as high an exposure when things go wrong?

Nonetheless, figure 2 indicates that few position categories grasp the broad role that IT plays. The provost position had the most balanced perspective, mentioning every theme except for business processes and efficiencies. The CFO and VP for enrollment management positions clearly articulated IT expectations relative to their respective areas, but had a relatively narrow view of the overall expectations for IT; each focused primarily on three of the seven themes, with little to no mention of the other four. Even the CIOs failed to explicitly mention two critical areas that are topmost priorities for provosts and CFOs: teaching and learning, and business processes and efficiencies.

This calls to mind the parable of the blind men and an elephant, in which each blind man feels a different part of the elephant, then offers a description based on his limited perspective. In the L17 interviews, each position category described how IT serves its part of the university. IT's reach is so broad in higher education that, even for CIOs, it can be difficult to stay abreast of all the ways that it touches an institution.

As the interviews clearly showed, foundational technology must work well for IT to achieve its mission. Moreover, for IT to move into more innovative areas, it must first show mastery of core services. Multiple campus leaders noted that they expected technology to "just work" without requiring campus leaders and constituents to know the details of how it works (recall, for example, the "silently awesome" comment). Given these expectations and IT's complexity, the CIO must have superb judgment, rock-solid credibility, and outstanding leadership abilities to succeed and serve the university well.

These same interviews, had they been conducted a decade ago, might not have mentioned analytics. Today, however, the effective use of data and appropriate supporting tools are fundamental to the success of almost all institutional areas. In the L17 interviews, every position category mentioned topics related to analytics and data.

Similarly, while not as well understood, data security was mentioned frequently in responses to both questions, reflecting increasing awareness across the university. Multiple position categories mentioned the importance of keeping data safe and indicated that they expected IT to provide data security leadership.

Reflections and Research Opportunities

When we gave this assignment to the L17 participants, we assumed they would benefit from hearing the perspectives of campus leaders, which they did. However, what we received in return was truly amazing. Their outstanding work — specifically, their enthusiasm for the assignment and the richness of their interview summaries — yielded a data set that demanded further study and reflection and provides important insights into the concerns and opinions of today's campus leaders.

Our study's observational text-mining approach has resulted in many interesting findings. It would be useful to expand on this study using more formal methods and a larger group of campus leaders. IT's broad reach within a university raises questions about the most ideal reporting structures. Likewise, the role of the CIO varies from institution to institution, such as whether CIOs are part of the senior leadership team, how they interact with other campus leaders, and so on. Further analysis could help inform institutional decisions on the CIO position and placement in the organization. It could also help campus leaders understand the many ways that IT serves the university's overall mission and enlighten everyone, including CIOs.

The 2018 EDUCAUSE Leadership Institute

The 2018 EDUCAUSE Leadership Institute will be held next summer. Check the EDUCAUSE events website later in 2017 for more information. New and aspiring CIOs and CISOs are encouraged to participate to enhance their own professional learning and better prepare themselves to be informed partners in decision making on their campuses.


This study was made possible by the outstanding work of many participants in the 2017 EDUCAUSE Leadership Institute (see table 1). We commend them for advancing IT and higher education through their efforts and thank their universities for supporting this work and for encouraging their growth as campus leaders. We also thank the campus leaders at these universities who took the time to be interviewed and provide such thoughtful responses.

Kathryn Gates is CIO Emerita at the University of Mississippi and faculty director of the 2017 EDUCAUSE Leadership Institute.

Joan Cheverie is director of professional development at EDUCAUSE.

© 2017 Kathryn Gates and Joan Cheverie. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.