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How a President Prioritizes Digital Transformation on Campus: An Interview with Astrid S. Tuminez

min read

The President of Utah Valley University talks about prioritizing digital transformation on campus and its wide-ranging effects throughout her institution and higher education.

How a President Prioritizes Digital Transformation on Campus: An Interview with Astrid S. Tuminez
Credit: Photon photo / Shutterstock.com © 2021
Astrid S. Tuminez

Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez was appointed the seventh president of Utah Valley University (UVU) in 2018. Before UVU, President Tuminez was an executive at Microsoft, where she led corporate, external, and legal affairs in Southeast Asia. She also served as vice dean of research at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. She has worked in philanthropy and venture capital in New York City and is a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of Russian Nationalism Since 1856: Ideology and the Making of Foreign Policy and many other publications.

Earlier this year, EDUCAUSE President and CEO John O'Brien talked with President Tuminez about her digital transformation efforts at UVU and the wide-ranging effects of digital transformation for the UVU community as well as more broadly in higher education.

John O'Brien: Every year EDUCAUSE publishes a "Top 10 IT Issues" list. In 2021, nothing was normal, so we didn't have ten. Instead, we explored three possible post-pandemic scenarios. We asked campus leaders to think about whether they hoped to restore everything as soon as possible, evolve what they were doing as a campus, or transform their institution. What are you planning for Utah Valley University?

Astrid S. Tuminez: I believe all three scenarios are relevant: restore, evolve, and transform. I really like the words you've chosen. We will restore some of our old interactions as we come back together face-to-face. We hope to restore an optimistic spirit after a very difficult year, not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic but also because of the bitter politics in the United States.

Evolving means learning from the past year, in terms of agility and in terms of new things that we should do. Permanent remote work is simply going to be a feature of life as we know it. For me, this is nothing new. I previously worked for Microsoft and was very used to working remotely. However, this will be an evolution for many of my colleagues. It is a question of establishing trust and clarifying the expectations and deliverables. In many instances, people can work from wherever they need to, but that's not true for all cases. Policies have to evolve, and so do facilities. At UVU, we are creating new workspaces, lodging options, tech-equipped conference rooms, and hybrid-focused classrooms to provide flexible working options for our employees and faculty members.

Transformation is probably the hardest part. This is long overdue in the higher education sector. Higher education is not always known for agility. Transformation comes with a mindset of understanding the people we're trying to serve in higher education, putting students at the center of everything we do, and then being very accountable for our resources and expectations. We must deliver exceptional results for our students.

O'Brien: Higher education, as you say, is not known for its quick speed. Do you really think that there's a different story being created as we speak?

Tuminez: I certainly hope so, because frankly, the current landscape will not let us keep doing things the way we've been doing them. Anyone who is in higher education or anyone who follows higher education is well aware of the enrollment crisis, the funding crisis, the student debt crisis, and the fact that our citizens today question the very value of higher education. Three decades ago, when I was in college, it would have been unthinkable for anyone to say, "You don't need to go to university, or you don't need a college degree." We were still very much in that post–World War II ethos of getting an education, acquiring skills and competencies, earning a degree, and then moving on in life and in work.

We ignore the need for agility and transformation at our own peril. We have seen colleges and universities closing. We have seen departments being shut down. Those are very, very painful decisions to make. The COVID-19 pandemic hit during the second year of my presidency at UVU. Our base budget was cut by 2 percent from the legislature. That wasn't drastic, and we were able to quickly pivot—with very few furloughs or layoffs. But we can't always know what the future will look like. We need to feel a sense of urgency.

O'Brien: We often hear that there is a vast difference between the speed in the business world and that in higher education. As a former corporate executive, what is your impression of the timing for how things get done in higher education?

Tuminez: It's been very interesting for me to become a university president after a decade in the corporate world, at Microsoft and at AIG Global Investment on Wall Street. I do have prior academic experience at the National University of Singapore and at Harvard University, but coming here was a little bit of a shock to my system. The technology was very different from what I was used to at Microsoft. I immediately began making a list of what we needed here in order to digitally transform. As far as speed, I had to get used to the slower academic pace, but I've tried to address that very directly. I am known to say to my colleagues and faculty that I don't want to have the same conversation three months from now or six months from now. I have very little patience for three years of committee meetings.

I believe that if a committee can't agree on a final set of actions that should be taken, the right thing to do is put the committee to rest. My experience in the corporate world has led me to appreciate accountability, rewards, and feedback. How do you reward people so that their behaviors are what you need? This should not be unique to the corporate world. We can inject some of this culture of accountability and rewards into higher education. Feedback is critical. UVU has pioneered a unique performance-management system. I learned this from Microsoft, where I could sit down with every member of my team at the end of the year and give them clear, direct, honest, and caring feedback. We're not used to that in academia. Even with retention, tenure, and promotion, we want to be polite instead of giving timely and honest feedback that helps us avoid negative surprises down the road. But at the end of the day, we have to do the right thing for the institution and our students.

O'Brien: It's easy to see speed, accountability, rewards, and feedback as growth opportunities for higher education. One possible obstacle is shared governance. Have you discovered any new shared governance approaches that would allow academia to balance speed, accountability, rewards, and feedback?

Tuminez: I'm often asked about shared governance. It's a great principle: teams and organizations succeed only when they're united. You can sustain performance only when there's a solid amount of unity. You'll never get 100 percent of people on your side, but you must have enough people who believe in the mission and the changes. I'm lucky that I've had a wonderful relationship with UVU's faculty senate presidents. I've already worked with two in the three years that I've been here. I have a great provost who is an effective communicator and has a personality that aligns with what faculty want and expect. We try to have civil and very respectful conversations throughout campus.

However, it's also really important to define shared governance within your organization. Does shared governance mean that faculty make all the decisions? The answer to that is "no." But we can never dictate what the curriculum is going to be or how faculty are going to teach it.

When I talk with the faculty senate, I also share facts about our budget and how I interact with the legislature, because sometimes faculty may not be aware of the numerous stakeholders whose opinions and decisions impact the university. Those stakeholders include everyone from the citizenry, to parents, to donors, to the governor's office, to the legislature, and to the Utah Board of Higher Education.

A methodology of fundamental respect, clear and direct communication, and occasionally agreeing to disagree can happen in higher education. We must be willing to ask ourselves, "Is this helping the student, or is this blocking the student?" Only then, are we able to make honest, transformative decisions and move forward.

O'Brien: Do you see digital transformation as an imperative for responding to the ongoing crisis in funding?

Tuminez: Yes, absolutely. In the state of Utah, we have a legislature that appreciates higher education and a citizenry that greatly values education. The legislature has been—and still is—generous. In fact, our funding went up in the last legislative session, and Utah's economy is currently number one in the nation. The legislature funds anywhere from 49 percent to 72 percent of the budgets of the eight higher education institutions in the state.Footnote1

What role does digital transformation play? Certainly online, virtual education. A lot of legislators talk about that. And students want online education. It helps them finish their degree. At UVU, 80 percent of our students work while going to school. So even before the pandemic, we had students who enrolled in several face-to-face classes but also, because they work, needed to be able to take additional courses online. Hybrid courses, with some students in the classroom and others remote, require an investment in technology, in faculty training, and in changing behaviors and thought processes. That's digital transformation.

Unfortunately, digital transformation is not always a money-saving investment. Eventually, digital transformation should increase efficiency and save your organization money; however, you have to invest more money upfront for the right technology and training. With a gradual change in culture as well, we ought to be able to do the things we need to do better and faster. At UVU, we use the word delightful. Online experiences for the campus community should be delightful, whether we're using the intranet or revamping a website or paying tuition or changing classes.

But, again, higher education institutions, as a sector, are known as laggards in digital transformation. We need to take that into account and tell our stakeholders—including students and their families, the legislature, and the governor's office—our vision for the changes we're trying to implement. We also need to prepare people for failure and then make a better effort. We can't spend five years in committee meetings. That's simply wrong.

O'Brien: UVU is lucky to have what we always desire for digital transformation: a president who believes in transformative approaches. How do you incorporate that into your mission and goals and strategy?

Tuminez: Part of my answer goes back to where I was before I became a university president. My job before UVU was as regional director of corporate, external, and legal affairs for Microsoft in Southeast Asia. I covered fifteen countries, ranging from a very wealthy and very digitized Singapore to Myanmar, which had been closed to the world for many years, to Indonesia, with 260 million people. What I learned as I was educating leaders in academia, in government, and in philanthropy was that leaders had to buy into the strategy of digital transformation.

I brought that experience to UVU. At the very beginning, I stressed that we had to leverage technology better, understand it better, buy it better. We had to use our resources and then simplify, stripping away the things that aren't needed. In addition, ownership at the very top level, in the C-suite, is critical. I immediately started looking for a vice president for digital transformation. Since UVU did not have this position before, I wanted to signal that digital transformation is very important to the core strategy of the university. I needed a true leader in this position—someone who could really own our digital transformation strategy and help get others onboard.

O'Brien: That leader is Kelly Flanagan, your vice president for digital transformation and chief information officer, correct? Is he on your cabinet?

Tuminez: That is correct. And yes, Dr. Kelly Flanagan, who used to be a professor at Brigham Young University, is a member of my cabinet. Kelly connects with every other member of the cabinet because he needs a clear understanding of their priorities and the challenges they're facing before he can move on to the type of technology required to make it all happen.

I also make sure that Kelly connects closely with our academic affairs stream—all of the deans, the faculty senate, the provost—because at the end of the day, our core workforce is our faculty. We cannot move forward without faculty, and we have to respect that. Faculty may have a lot of skepticism, which is very natural. People are often afraid that all you're doing is window-dressing. That is the last thing that I want to happen. We have to help them understand that our digital transformation efforts are very serious, methodical, and systematic. We massively communicate what we're trying to do. And as I said earlier, we also prepare people for some frustration and failure, because not everything happens as smoothly as you would like it to.

O'Brien: It's easy for me to see the tremendous benefits of having someone like Dr. Flanagan providing visible leadership for digital transformation. On the other hand, I can also imagine someone arguing that digital transformation should be everybody's job. How do you help everybody else see that they have a critical role in digital transformation as well?

Tuminez: In my cabinet, it is pretty clear that, yes, we have a vice president for digital transformation, but that digital transformation is everybody's job. Let's take, for example, the student experience, from recruitment all the way to becoming an alum. Kelly would not be the expert on that process. Our associate vice president of enrollment management has worked very closely with Kelly's team to make sure that the technical solutions coincide or align with the actual needs of the students. We determine those needs by surveying the students every fall and asking, "What are the greatest pain points in your experience?" We then take that feedback and pivot our strategies to enhance their experiences, tracking whether or not the pain points are alleviated.

As I mentioned earlier, communication is very important. We have a digital transformation page on the university website. Kelly is expected to communicate on a regular basis with the deans for the academic affairs council, the faculty senate, and the university executive council, which includes all the senior executives and deans. My mantra is that you can never overcommunicate. People need to know what you're doing and why. That's how they buy in. That's how they understand what the effort is supposed to produce. Then they'll know where to go when they're confused or when things are difficult. I often talk about digital transformation in my broadcasts to the community as well. I hold "Talk with Tuminez" town hall meetings, and I've had Kelly as a guest. We update people on what's happening. The bottom line is to communicate, communicate, communicate.

O'Brien: You talk about digital transformation in a way that highlights the integrative role of the CIO. The integrative CIO is not head-down, focused solely on the IT team and technology matters; rather, the integrative CIO connects the dots and paints the bigger picture.

Tuminez: Technology is just a tool. Anything digital is just a tool. At the end of the day, the problems we're trying to solve are only partially technical. In the lingo of leadership, the problems we're trying to solve are adaptive problems—adapting to new situations, new tools, new speeds, and new ways of working. That's where the CIO plays a strategic role.

O'Brien: A big part of digital transformation relates to culture. How have you seen the culture at UVU change since you've been focused on digital transformation?

Tuminez: Since we launched digital transformation efforts at UVU, our culture has changed in many ways, driven partly by the pandemic. Without the pandemic, I think the speed of culture change may have been a little bit slower. An illustrative example lies within our three core values: exceptional care, exceptional accountability, and exceptional results. We always begin with caring for one another and caring for the needs of people and where they are in their own evolution in using digital tools and being innovative and unafraid of technology, of failure, and of iterating.

As for exceptional accountability, we are very careful with how we spend resources. We ask questions. With the pandemic, there was so much speed. That, again, was driven by the fact that we had to move 2,000 courses, 6,000 sections, online within a matter of days. Agility had to come to the forefront. Then we had so many faculty members raise their hands for training. We now have over 75 percent of our faculty fully certified to teach online. Before the pandemic, we were trying to achieve 34 percent of our courses online. Of course, we surpassed that 100 percent during the pandemic. Now it's a matter of triaging which courses will remain permanently online and which ones will not. In addition, faculty are interested in being able to do a fuller suite of digitally transformed pedagogy—not just going online, because that can be quite boring, but doing other things in terms of synchronous and asynchronous interaction and getting creative with the content that is available everywhere.

Our third value is exceptional results. We graduated our two largest cohorts in our history during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, we delayed commencement until August and then held a massive, drive-in commencement ceremony in parking lots with LED screens. It was very exciting. We had a rock band. We had fireworks. Not all of that was digital, but we were able to make it work and accommodate thousands of students and their families.

The shift in culture was tied to increasing our speed, caring for one another, being more accountable for our resources, and celebrating the real results in student success. Plus, we recognized that things did not work out perfectly. All of that is an exciting change in our culture. We are going through a bit of reinvention, which makes us feel more energetic.

O'Brien: As everything digital comes to the fore of our attention, another question emerges: What does digital ethics look like to you at UVU?

Tuminez: We teach ethics across the curriculum at UVU, and digital ethics is certainly part of that. In fact, when I taught a course on leadership in the fall of 2020, I included a segment about digital ethics. First, we have to address the fact that the digital divide remains. During the pandemic, this divide became even more stark at UVU as we realized that many students simply didn't have connectivity or didn't have laptops. We hurried and bought laptops and portable broadband for students to have at home or borrow from the library. We kept the library and the computer lab open throughout the pandemic.

There are haves and have-nots. Billions of people in the world do not have technology access. They're not all in developing countries but are here in the United States as well. How can people judge information when they finally do get access to broadband and the internet? How can we expand exposure to computers and digital literacy and information literacy? What is the role of the higher education institution in teaching and training students to look at information critically and then be able to make sound judgments?

A second part of digital ethics concerns morals and values and even democracy. We have these very powerful technology platforms. What is the proper way of using them? What are the limits of free speech? For ten years I lived in Singapore, where speech is limited as a result of the deadly 1964 Singapore Riots. What is truth?

Finally, there is a dark side to our digitized world, including human trafficking. I've done a lot of work on cybersecurity. At UVU, we require cybersecurity training. Every staff and faculty member is required to take roughly four or five training sessions, including cybersecurity. We are only as strong as our weakest link. Our community needs to take that responsibility seriously. That's part of ethics.

O'Brien: I know that a number of CIOs are imagining how lucky they would be to work for a president who understands technology and the transformational promise of technology. What advice do you have for a CIO who isn't so lucky?

Tuminez: If you're a CIO who doesn't work for a president who fully understands the powerful nature of technology and how transformative it can be, you have to begin driving that conversation. In fact, you would be negligent if you did not drive the conversation. Technology is no longer simply something to react to when it breaks. If presidents don't understand the strategic nature of digital technologies, we will not be as effective in what we're trying to do, or worse yet, we will fail. If you are a CIO in this situation, you can't be shy. You have to be courageous. And you have to be clear. Show some initial successes to demonstrate concrete results. Your president is a critical person to bring along with you on the digital transformation journey.

Note

  1. See Utah System of Higher Education, Data Book 2021, Financial Information. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.

Astrid S. Tuminez is President of Utah Valley University (UVU).

John O'Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

© 2021 Utah Valley University and John O'Brien