Chief Data Officer: The Most Strategically Important Leadership Position in Higher Ed?

Institutions of higher education produce vast quantities of data. Even excluding the data produced by research efforts — which is a lot to ignore — institutions produce an immense volume of operational data. These data come from every unit on campus: student data from the registrar and from academic departments, employee data from human resources, data about network and technology usage from the IT unit, data about vendors and contracts from all campus units, institutional research and assessment, federal and state compliance reporting data...to name only a few of the types of data collected at any given institution of higher ed.

Higher ed is not the only sector swimming in data, of course. This situation has led to a relatively new position in the C-suite: the chief data officer. As part of its series of studies of the IT workforce in higher ed, ECAR conducted a survey of CDOs to identify the scope of the position and the characteristics of those in it.

As discussed in the recently published report IT Leadership in Higher Education, 2016: The Chief Data Officer, the role of the CDO encompasses both providing leadership to the campus community in the use and interpretation of data, and managing the unglamorous tasks of data collection and governance. Institutional data are critical for supporting strategic decision making by campus leadership, yet the close connection of the CDO to strategic decision making has unexpected consequences:

  • First, there is little agreement across institutions about the appropriate reporting relationship. CDOs report to CIOs, presidents, chancellors, vice presidents, associate vice presidents, vice chancellors, vice provosts, and indeed nearly every leadership position on campus. This might not sound like an important consequence, but it indicates the relative newness of the CDO position in the C-suite, as well as the complexity of the role. On the one hand, institutional analytics requires close collaboration with the IT unit. On the other hand, this work is much broader than IT and requires collaboration across campus units. And, CDOs work on strategic projects not just with individual campus units, but at the institutional level. Data are critical for supporting strategic decision making by campus leadership, but so ubiquitous within and across campus that it is difficult to know just where in the institutional hierarchy the CDO properly belongs.
  • Second, despite the deeply technical nature of the work, the CDO is a highly political role. The CDO, to a greater extent than anyone else on campus, perhaps even the CIO, is "responsible for driving the overall data strategy for their organization." Within higher ed, as in other sectors, it is critical for an institution to have a data strategy, as well as the tools to collect, organize, and visualize the appropriate data for institutional decision making. The CDO's role is to manage all of these tasks and engage in "data storytelling" on issues of importance to those stakeholders. In working horizontally across campus units and vertically through the institutional hierarchy, the CDO could expose politically sensitive issues.

CDOs have such a wide range of reporting relationships precisely because the work is both strategically critical and politically fraught. Data are ubiquitous, and institutional data are critical for supporting strategic decision making at all levels of the institution. In this context, the CDO is arguably one of the most strategically important leadership position in any institution.

For More Information

For more on the role of the CDO in higher education, read the ECAR report IT Leadership in Higher Education, 2016: The Chief Data Officer, the fourth of four leadership reports in the EDUCAUSE IT Workforce in Higher Education, 2016 research series. Reports on the chief information officer, the enterprise architect, and the chief information security officer are also available.

This IT workforce research and all ECAR publications are now available to individuals at EDUCAUSE member organizations under the new all-in-one membership.


Jeffrey Pomerantz is a senior researcher, EDUCAUSE.

© 2017 Jeffrey Pomerantz. The text of this blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.