2019 EDUCAUSE Community Leadership Award: Mark Askren [video]

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A conversation with the 2019 EDUCAUSE Community Leadership Award winner.

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Mark Askren
Senior Advisor to the President
University of Nebraska

Gerry Bayne: Hey, Mark.

Mark Askren: Hey, Gerry. Can you hear me okay?

Gerry: I can hear you great. So it looks like you've won the Community Leadership Award this year. How do you feel about that?

Mark: It feels great. I was very surprised and honored and humbled, there's some amazing folks in our industry so I'm very fortunate, and it's exciting. It's kind of getting closer to the end of my career and I'm still working full-time as a senior advisor for The President, but I'd stepped down at VP role this summer, so it's kinda of closing the book so to speak in a very positive way.

Gerry: And that actually brings me to our first question. How did you get your start in the higher education IT profession? What happened? What kind of got you started in this path?

Mark: Well my grad assistantship at the Indiana University Business School was in their new computing lab and that gave me hands-on IT experience in higher ed, which was the most interesting experience I'd ever had. I've been very fortunate to stay on this same career path.

Gerry: So your original path was business. Is that what I understand?

Mark: It is and through that when I graduated I had the choice to either interview for analysis position probably in a corporate organization. That's what I was thinking when I started. And then after that experience working with PCs, local area networks, engaging with faculty and students, I also applied for positions in higher ed and I was very fortunate and I moved back to Southern California where I was from to get a position at .

Gerry: And the rest is history, right. I mean, you just stayed in that path.

Mark: Yes, absolutely.

Gerry: So when you think about your career, what are some of the lessons learned that you would pass along to those starting out in this field?

Mark: Follow through matters a lot, consistently doing what you commit to will build trust, which will give you a competitive advantage, promotions, key leadership assignments and other career development opportunities will go to those who've earned an organization's trust. It's commonsense but I've noticed that as I work with other people that those who really follow through and that focus on building those working relationships. That's even more important than the technical knowledge.

Gerry: That's great. How can we prepare ourselves for the higher education challenges ahead? I know we're living in kind of disruptive times right now. What are some of the ways we can get ready for that?

Mark: These are really interesting times and verY challenging. It seems like many of our institutions will continue to face increasing financial pressures unfortunately. We in IT need to be more effective and to raise our collective and individual games. Incremental progress is not going to get it done at this point. We're in the innovation and transformation business for our campuses and we need to find ways to leverage our scale for both academic and administrative gains. This is not the time to make excuses as to why we can't deliver more.

Gerry: What do you see coming in the next five years?

Mark: Well, I think for, most of my experience has been in public higher ed and issues, increasing tuition. We can't lose our focus on affordability, on access to higher ed for all students that are interested in. So I think what we've done, is unfortunately we're in a expensive business right now. And IT is, IT is expensive no matter whether we do it well or not. So we have to really focus on those resources that we do have, whether we're a public or private institution, large or small. We need to use every dollar effectively and I think we need to go back and look at how we can to things together more effectively. We hear a lot about, well our institutions are different, they might be unique snowflakes. I understand all that, but we need to go passed that. We need to have a breakthrough. It's going to get a harder for many of our institutions. The good news is IT. We can help. We can make a breakthrough.

Gerry: Last question. What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

Mark: Well narrowing it down to one is really hard, so I'll give three instead. If you're happy with that?

Gerry: Great.

Mark: Empathy, determination and believing in the power of teams are ones that I think are. When you have empathy you'll care about personal outcomes for all the right reasons. And people will sense that about you. And you'll be more effective in focusing on increasing the diversity, equity and inclusion within your department and overall institution, which is critically important for all of us. Second characteristic is determination. Careers like other areas of life can be very challenging at times. All the outstanding leaders that I've met are 100% self-motivated, with the exceptional determination to accomplish meaningful work no matter how hard. And the last characteristic that I believe in is teams. Do you believe that teams you belong to will make better decisions and accomplish more that you can do on your own? Being part of a high performing team that's really the highlight of my career when I've been able to do that. It's really hard work. It's rarely without difficult moments, but in the end it's absolutely worth it. It can be very rewarding experience.