2019 EDUCAUSE DEI Leadership Award: Melissa Woo [video]

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A conversation with the 2019 EDUCAUSE DEI Leadership Award winner.

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Melissa Woo
Senior Vice President for Information Technology and Enterprise Chief Information Officer
Stony Brook University

Gerry Bayne: So how you doing? How you feel about winning this award?

Melissa Woo: I, this is, I'm incredibly humbled by it, if only because I know that there are people in Educause that do more than I do for diversity, equity, inclusions. I'm just like, I think shouldn't someone else have gotten it?

Gerry: So can you talk to us a little bit about how you got your start in higher education IT?

Melissa: Well I definitely did not start out in higher education IT. My degrees are in biophysics, and coming out of my doctorate, I actually started in the field of health physics. And for people who don't know what that is, that's radiation safety. But I was finding, because I was also doing as my other duties as assigned, the maintenance of the website and a huge international mailing list of health physicists, that I really actually enjoyed IT, but not because of the technical aspects. Because it helped to break down communications barriers between people. So I decided to toss an entire career away, literally in my 30s, and I started all over again as an entry-level unix sys admin.

Gerry: Wow.

Melissa: Then that's how I started at the University of Illinois.

Gerry: And can you talk a little bit about where you went from there? How you got to where you are today?

Melissa: Well I, got, had progressively larger and larger duties at Illinois, and at some point I realized that I wanted to go to the next level. But that really meant leaving the institution because of just the way things were structured there. So at that point I remember talking to Bruce Maas. He and I were both serving on, I think it was a Midwest Regional Educause Program Committee back when we had Regionals. I already knew him because we'd met each other at the Educause Leadership Institute a few years before and had kept in touch. And I actually was not asking for a job because he was in Wisconsin and I was already in Illinois, and did not want to go any further north, but I simply asked him for advice on how to interview for Director of IT job because I didn't know how, and you know, before I knew it, I got an offer to go up to Wisconsin.

Gerry: Wow.

Melissa: And from there, I got my first CIO job at the University of Oregon, and now I'm on my second CIO job at Stony Brook University.

Gerry: Wonderful. How long have you been in Stony Brook?

Melissa: Three and a half years.

Gerry: Three and a half years, yes, okay. What would you say in your career would be your greatest accomplishment for you?

Melissa: I think what's the most personally satisfying is paying forward all the help that I've got in my career and watching those people who, you know and I don't take any credit for them advancing themselves but I feel as if in many cases, I've at least said a couple of things that help people think about their futures and get them on a path to the kind of career that they wanted, I mean that to me is my greatest achievement and something that just personally satisfies me the most about this job.

Gerry: Great. When you think about your career, what lessons learned would you pass along to those starting out on the field?

Melissa: I often say as advice, and I've since changed it just a tiny bit, my advice particularly to women and people from other underrepresented groups is, just be fearless. Now that said, my little modification now that I'm a little wiser I hope, is be fearless but don't be an idiot. Or I guess more sane way to say is, be fearless but have some common sense.

Gerry: That's a great one, I like that advice. What is one characteristic you think every leader should have, besides fearlessness?

Melissa: I think every leader needs to have empathy. I feel it's a very, very important trait for a leader to be able to understand or have, have some ability to walk in another person's shoes and to be able to understand how people are feeling.

Gerry: That's great. So why is diversity, equity, inclusion so important to higher Ed IT?

Melissa: Well the reason I feel that diversity, equity, inclusion is important to higher Ed IT goes beyond the social justice aspect. I mean that's something that does work for a lot of people but what's really important beyond the social justice aspect is that research and studies have shown that diverse groups perform better for an organization, they're more innovative, they generate more product, I mean just generally they help the institution, the organization, the business, you know whatever vertical you're in, diversity of the teams does actually improve outcomes. And that's why it's so important to higher education IT.

Gerry: What would you say would be your biggest concern facing higher Ed IT right now as a CIO? What's the thing that keeps you up at night? Is it security? Is it to do digital transformation stuff? What is it that really, like has you rattled for the future?

Melissa: I think what keeps me up at night is that we're still socializing the strategic importance of IT to higher education. And some areas, and some colleges and universities do understand how important it is really to student success, to increasing research expenditures. It however hasn't, is a message that's not really taken everywhere, I mean it, I think in many ways unfortunately IT is still being seen as plumbing, and with all due respect to plumbers, I mean, it's, IT is still being seen in many ways as just as utility, not being seen as strategic asset. And that's my real concern for higher Ed IT going forward.

Gerry: That really surprises me that even in 2019, we're still arguing that case.

Melissa: Correct.

Gerry: Yeah. Well, that's about all I have. Is there anything else you'd like to add about getting the award or about your career or anything you'd like to add?

Melissa: The only thing I'd like to add is that I'm very honored and humbled to be receiving this award as its inaugural recipient, but I do wanna point out that advancing diversity, equity, inclusion really is a community effort, and it really isn't about one person, and there are so many fantastic leaders within Educause who are advancing the cause of DEI. I wanna make sure everyone understands that it's not a me thing, it's an us thing. We all have to work together in order to advance diversity, equity, inclusion.