Community Conversations: Mitch Davis on Change and the Need for Focus [video]

min read

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE CEO and President, talks with Mitch Davis, Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Dartmouth College, about change and the need for focus.

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Mitch Davis
Vice President and CIO
Dartmouth College

John O'Brien
President and CEO

John O'Brien: How long have you been at Dartmouth now?

Mitch Davis: Three years as of July 1st.

O'Brien: So I always have felt like when you go from one, one job to another, that it's an opportunity to sort of abandon strategies that hadn't worked and, and adopt some new ones. Did you do much of that or was it...

Davis: Yeah, cause I had, one, I had to do an evaluation of Dartmouth culture you have to fit in as the CIO, right? You can't just go in and think that you're going to be, come walking out of an EVP job at a small liberal arts college and be an EVP position when you're taking a VP position and you have people above you in a different hierarchical relationship and how those people integrate and work with each other is something you have to take into perspective. So was I pick, I wanted to be myself, but I also recognized that I was taking a job and they had a goal for me.

O'Brien: What a great tension built into what you've already said, which is you want to make sure it's a fit, but you also want to be a change agent and that's attention I imagine you've lived with for a while and found peace with.

Davis: Since I've been alive.

O'Brien: You've taken me back to my imagining Mitch in third grade.

Davis: I was the same kid.

O'Brien: Well, we've been, we've been, you know, talking about change you and I over the years, and always been interested in your comfort with working at the edge of things. I thought we might take some time just to probe that a little bit and think about it. And, and I'll start here. That, that, to me, one of the most complicating factors in the Covid pandemic has been the, the tendency to bring out deficit thinking, you know, focusing on all the things that the pandemic has taken away or changed in a way that's uncomfortable. And, and I get a sense that, that you're seeing it a little differently at Dartmouth. So I'm going to step aside and hear from you on that.

Davis: People get so wound up in the past that all their sort of intellectual ability is focused on thinking about what they could have been rather than what could, could be. And for me, I don't have all those free cycles. So I try to strip out anything that I can't actually do and focus on something that I can get done. And it's, it's what I do every morning is I wake up in the morning and I think this is my first day on the job, my first day alive. What is it today that I can do to make tomorrow better?

O'Brien: I've been doing some community conversations where I've been talking to folks and, and, and I've questioned, I've asked everybody is, you know, what was the thing you did best? Like what, what was your that happened during the spring that you're particularly proud of? And almost everybody said some version of the same thing, which is, I used to believe the narrative, that higher ed can only move at glacial speed. And yet we discovered that we can do things way faster than we ever had before and do it, you know, better than we thought we could faster. So I imagine that's been part of the, what's happening at Dartmouth.

Davis: All the promises of change in higher ed that people used when they were talking about MOOCs, all came to true with COVID.

O'Brien: It just took a few years, eight years.

Davis: All the change, MOOCs didn't do a thing, but COVID in a very short period of time has changed higher ed in actually a good way. Operationally, it has them focused that they've started to learn that, hey, we can move fast. And actually in the future, we have to move fast. So if you think about this, this is like a primmer for the future. It's preparing higher ed to actually operate in a way that it needs to be successful. It just needed a kick in the pants to do so.

O'Brien: Are things going to go back to the way they were?

Davis: I don't think so. I think there's permanent change that permanent change is, one, just operationally is people are not all coming back to campus. We were already hiring people and not even having them move. That's a permanent change. How we now were able to recruit across the United States and maybe around the world where before that would have been highly resisted. Now it's just another option. And then how we work digitally is if you think of higher ed and, and sort of online education has been pretty staid for some time. I mean, I could go back 20 years and look at what we were doing for online education at Stanford, and it's not much different than what they're doing today. So you think in 20 years there'd be a lot of innovation, but what you're seeing now with people, everyone being involved and there's a lot of energy and thought going into it. There's everything from VR, there's different ways of integrating with canvas. The tools, we're actually working on a project with Slack it's to build an integration of Slack into Canvas and we're, their kicking in money, we're kicking in money. It's going to be a service that's going to be available to anybody that's using Slack. That sort of business, academic partnership is something that I've always fostered, but it's becoming much more apparent and much more easier to do, to the point where now we're have to, we're actually having to say no to various projects because we have to weigh how much energy, how much can we put in to all these sorts of business partnerships that are out there to build tools that actually make education a better space in the future.

O'Brien: So the environment, the environment's changing, the potential partnerships outside of higher ed are changing. What about the sort of the, I think in, in an email you referred to it as bureaucratic tendencies of, of higher education. Are those, is this a temporary change or is this going to continue past pandemic?

Davis: I think it depends on the institution, the ones that are actually cataloging and sort of finding the attributes of the things that were successful and they want to continue forward, and they're actually thinking about the future, that's fine. A lot of people are, again, are back in that survival mode. It's how do we get through this rather than how do we thrive into the future? How do we take everything that we've learned and come out of this running rather than walking.