The Evolving Role of CIOs in Higher Education

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As the role of the CIO evolves, harmonizing both operational and strategic IT priorities remains critical for the future.

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The digital transformation during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven the vital importance of technology for weathering uncertainty. As colleges and universities have had to lean more heavily on their IT functions, their chief information officers (CIOs) are undergoing their own evolution as they reimagine their positions and become thought leaders in higher education.

Now, in mid-2022, higher education continues to try to set a "new normal" for operations amid fast-changing circumstances and increasing pressure to achieve more with fewer resources. A future-proof institutional strategy will necessarily bank on its use of technology, but how CIOs fit into—and, in many ways, shape—that future remains to be seen.

The "Integrative CIO," as identified by EDUCAUSE in its Top 10 IT Issues for 2020, is more of a navigator than a supervisor, playing a key role in charting the future of digital transformation. "The biggest challenge for the integrative CIO is changing the trajectory of IT value from infrastructure management to innovation management. This requires a change of mindset, a change of CIO competencies and experience, and a change in IT funding."Footnote1

The Expanding Role of Technologists during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Many CIOs have long held a seat at the table in strategic planning, but before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, that was hardly universal. Reliance on IT leaders to maintain operations increased the significance of those voices in discussions on institutional strategy, as evidenced by a 2020 survey of 660 administrators, finance executives, and technology executives from two- and four-year colleges and universities. When asked whether the pandemic "required closer collaboration between the president, provost, CIO/CTO, CFO, and other senior administrators to make strategic decisions about technology," 86 percent of respondents answered yes.Footnote2

As a result, many CIOs found the nature of their position evolving. An EDUCAUSE QuickPoll of senior campus IT leaders in the fall of 2020 framed an environment in which CIOs viewed their campus role during the pandemic as expanding in two vital tracks: not only operations but also strategy. In the wake of the pandemic, the IT function had become even more involved in institutional decision-making, and campus partners were more actively seeking the counsel of their IT colleagues. One survey respondent noted: "We are seen as the 'connective tissue' of the institution, a key partner in making the pivot to remote teaching, learning, and administration."Footnote3

CIOs as Business Leaders

In addition to the digital transformation, other shifts are slowly changing the landscape of higher education and the role of CIOs. In the fall of 2021, Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt, two observers of the academic landscape, projected a widening enrollment gap between institution types, new outcome-based competitors on the market, and the increasing power of consumers to choose exactly the type of education they want. In short, they foresee higher education institutions being called to act more like businesses.Footnote4

Of course, colleges and universities are not the same as corporations, as the higher education writer David Rosowsky noted in Forbes: "But, like any business, they must continually refine/improve their product, compete successfully for market share, compete for specialized workforce, support their employees, and adhere to sound financial practices."Footnote5 For technologists, that means more than just managing an institution's technology. Today's CIO must guide the institution through digital transformation to ultimately cut costs and help provide a better "product" (namely, an education) to the students.

Does this mean that IT industry certifications are valued as credentials for higher ed CIOs? Greg Hackbarth, an IT leader in higher education, sought to find out. Analyzing 65 unique position postings for CIOs (or equivalent roles), Hackbarth found that 84.6 percent made no mention of industry certifications. In a supplemental survey of IT leaders in higher education from a range of institution sizes and types, Hackbarth found that most participants strongly believed IT industry certifications would not be required for their positions in the future. He concluded: "If you are a CIO or prospective CIO looking for the most productive methods of increasing your marketability, I suggest you seek ways of improving soft skills, such as deep listening. Reach out across your organization and learn how IT can serve as a strategic partner for your institution."Footnote6

Those "soft skills" are crucial for the change leadership that CIOs must cultivate to support digital transformation.Footnote7 In making strategic decisions, IT leaders also need to foster a campus culture receptive to, and prepared to use, institutional technology to achieve campus goals and stay competitive.

Synthesizing a New Role for the CIO

Resistance to market-forward thinking in higher education is often rooted in the values of academia itself, with some educators worrying that business-first approaches will commodify students, to the detriment of learning. But just as institutional leaders will need to craft strategies that not only provide a meaningful educational experience but also stabilize finances, the modern CIO will have to harmonize both operational and strategic priorities to meet the demands of the future.

These priorities have never been mutually exclusive, but bridging the two is critical for CIOs today. Christopher Markham, formerly a CIO in higher education, described why one can't come at the expense of the other: "You have to satisfy basic transactional needs first in order to emerge as a thought leader. If you can't keep the lights on, you'll never be able to do that."Footnote8 Every strategic decision is predicated on and in support of the institution's technical needs, ensuring that long-term decision-making never compromises day-to-day institutional operations.

The modern CIO is a synthesis of the two archetypes associated with IT leadership: the technical supervisor and the strategic decision-maker. By combining an understanding of operational challenges with the tools that can help solve them, today's CIOs should be well-equipped to guide their institutions through the turbulent present and into a successful future.


  1. Susan Grajek and the 2019–2020 EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel, "Top 10 IT Issues, 2020: The Drive to Digital Transformation Begins," EDUCAUSE Review, January 27, 2020. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Stephen Pelletier, "Strategic Tech Decisions during the Pandemic," Chronicle of Higher Education Research Brief (2021). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. D. Christopher Brooks, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: Senior IT Leadership," EDUCAUSE Review, October 9, 2020. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt, "The Future of Higher Ed Is Occurring at the Margins," Inside Higher Ed, October 4, 2021. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. David Rosowsky, "If Colleges Are Businesses, Why Not Run Them That Way?" Forbes, May 10, 2020. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Greg Hackbarth, "CIO Wanted: Certifications Not Required," EDUCAUSE Review, October 1, 2020. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Tim Coley, "Change Leadership: Why Does Higher Ed Need It?" Ellucian (blog), n.d., accessed August 10, 2022. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Interview with Christopher Markham, "The Role of the Modern Campus CIO," Ellucian (blog), n.d., accessed August 10, 2022. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.

Michael Wulff is Chief Technology Officer for Ellucian.

© 2022 Michael Wulff