Presidents’ Views on Digital Transformation: 3 Reasons to Be Hopeful

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Higher education presidents' views of digital transformation and the strategic value of technology have changed dramatically over the last few years.

hands maneuvering around a dashboard of graphs
Credit: metamorworks / © 2023

In April 2023, Inside Higher Ed published its thirteenth annual survey of college and university presidents. The article about the survey findings noted that, in general, campus leaders seem "to be quite optimistic about the state of their institutions and of higher education as a whole." However, on the topic of digital transformation, the survey found that "only" 13% of presidents found Dx to be "essential," with 30% listing it as a "high priority."Footnote1

While this data point is accurate, it isn't the only data point, and it's not the headline I would use to report on this survey. After all, the survey of presidents in 2023 represents a dramatic change in presidential thinking about Dx, showing both more awareness and more support for digital transformation than ever before. In fact, when Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), spoke at the EDUCAUSE annual conference in 2018 (before the COVID-19 pandemic), he noted that only 12% of presidents in a then-recent ACE survey viewed "institutional research and information technology" as an important area of strategic development.Footnote2 Having almost half of surveyed presidents just a few years later say that digital transformation is an essential or high priority is nothing short of a tectonic shift. These leaders clearly understand the degree to which technology is fundamentally changing the student experience (and more) on campus. Moreover, if presidents who say digital transformation is a "medium priority" are included, the total percentage of presidents prioritizing digital transformation is a startling 87%.

When it comes to recognizing the transformational and strategic value of technology, there has been nothing short of a sea change practically overnight. Think of it: in 2018 only 12% of presidents prioritized technology as a strategic asset, and in 2023 only 13% do not prioritize digital transformation at least to a "medium" degree. At EDUCAUSE, our own data of surveyed IT leaders and professionals echoes this change. In August 2019, 13% of respondents to an EDUCAUSE survey described their campus as engaged in digital transformation. Just two years later (2021), that number catapulted to 44%.Footnote3 (See figure 1.)

Figure 1. Responses to "Would you say your institution is engaging in digital transformation today?" (2019 and 2021)
Source: Mark McCormack, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: Institutional Engagement in Digital Transformation," EDUCAUSE Review, August 6, 2021.

Lying beneath the broader headlines is another interesting insight worth exploring. There seems to me to be a confounding internal dissonance in the way the same group of presidents who stated that they don't feel digital transformation is a priority then go on to prioritize most of the core components of digital transformation—for example, data/student success, data for learning retention, and teaching and learning. Between 68% to 83% of surveyed presidents say these three areas—critical fundamental components of Dx—are an "essential" or "high priority." The percentage rating these areas as "not a priority" or "low priority" is in the low single digits.Footnote4 (In other words, they love bacon, lettuce, and tomato but not BLTs?)

Why is this? Perhaps the term digital transformation is unwelcome or confusing, whereas the constituent parts that compose it are highly valued. Campus leaders should use the term if it resonates and helps achieve traction. If the term is seen as unhelpful or carrying unwanted baggage, leaders should ditch the phrase and do the Dx work anyway; the core components can continue under a different banner.

Finally, I was so glad to see that this survey continues to report data describing pandemic-changed mindsets. The percentage of presidents who are positioning their institution to "go back to normal" has declined by half since 2021: from 20% to 10%.Footnote5 While these presidents may be keen to return to primarily face-to-face and/or residential campus life, clearly the role of technology innovation and the expectations that students bring with them have changed their perspectives.

For me, the Inside Higher Ed survey powerfully underscores the importance of adding awareness of technology as a strategic asset to the already long list of critical competencies required for a president to be successful today. Presidents don't need to be subject matter experts on technology—any more than they need to be legal experts, enrollment management experts, or finance experts. But they do need a keen awareness of the trends, promises, and pitfalls of technology. After all, whether or not a president prioritizes digital transformation doesn't change the fact that the world is being digitally transformed all around us. With the recent generative artificial intelligence technology advancements, the pace of that transformation is only going to accelerate much more rapidly.


  1. "Hopeful Despite Headwinds: A Survey of Presidents," Inside Higher Ed, April 11, 2023. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Ted Mitchell, "Changing Demographics and Digital Transformation," EDUCAUSE Review, March 11, 2019. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. D. Christopher Brooks and Mark McCormack, Driving Digital Transformation in Higher Education, ECAR research report (Louisville, CO: ECAR, June 2020); Mark McCormack, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: Institutional Engagement in Digital Transformation," EDUCAUSE Review, August 6, 2021. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman, eds., 2023 Survey of College and University Presidents (Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research, April 2023). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. For 2021, see "Survey Shows College Presidents Emerging from COVID-19 More Confident Their Institutions Can Change and Thrive," Inside Higher Ed, n.d., accessed June 5, 2023. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.

John O'Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

© 2023 John O'Brien. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.