Celeste Schwartz on the Evolution of Higher Ed IT

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The Integrative CIO | Season 2, Episode 8

Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Celeste Schwartz, vice president for information technology and chief digital officer for Montgomery County Community College. She talks about her long career and the changes she has observed in higher education technology strategies over the years.

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Jack Suess: Welcome to the EDUCAUSE Integrative CIO podcast. I'm Jack Suess, vice president of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Cynthia Golden: And I'm Cynthia Golden, associate provost at the University of Pittsburgh. Each episode we welcome a guest from in or around higher education technology as we talk about repositioning or reinforcing the role of IT leadership as an integral strategic partner in support of the institutional mission.

Jack Suess: Today we're joined by Celeste Schwartz, Vice President of Information Technology and Institutional Effectiveness at Montgomery County Community College. Hello, Celeste.

Celeste Schwartz: Hello. How are you both today?

Jack Suess: Wonderful.

Cynthia Golden: Great.

Jack Suess: Could you take a few minutes to introduce yourself to our listeners and talk a little bit about your career?

Celeste Schwartz: Sure. I'm Celeste Schwartz. I'm the Vice President for Technology and Institutional Effectiveness at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell Pennsylvania. Blue Bell Pennsylvania is located 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia. I have been at the college for five decades, and I've been in a leadership role overseeing information technologies since the '80s. And I've reported to five presidents and a whole bunch of interim presidents. During my career here at Montgomery, I've had a variety of other duties as assigned. My current portfolio consists all of technology, telephony, institutional research, as well as enrollment marketing, which is an interim role for oversight and enrollment marketing. And I've been doing and been responsible for in my other duties, as assigned, college-wide construction, and I currently am overseeing about a dozen construction projects.

Cynthia Golden: Wow.

Jack Suess: Yes. Wow. So, Celeste, before we jump into our discussion, can you give us a sense of what you enjoy outside of work and what are your passions?

Celeste Schwartz: Sure. I like to travel. I have four grandchildren, a grandson and three granddaughters. I like to spend time with them and play games, and I enjoy any type of family time. I like to go out and enjoy the company of close friends, and I love the beach.

Cynthia Golden: A lot of those are on my list too, Celeste. We thought we might frame some of the rest of this conversation around the Eduqas top 10 IT issues for 2023, and those came out a few months ago. The way Eduqas has been talking about this, they've grouped the top 10 issues into three of what they call foundational models. So they've got leadership, or Leading with Wisdom, they've got one about data, The Ultra Intelligent Institution, and the third one is work and learning, and that's been referred to as Everything is Anywhere. In the leading with wisdom category, I wanted to say that I don't think we meet as many people today who have spent their entire career at a single institution like you have, and to me that means to have the successes that you have had, you've had to become not only really comfortable with change, but also an initiator of it. So could you talk a little bit about the kinds of changes, with respect to IT, that you've seen during your time at Montgomery County Community College, and their impacts?

Celeste Schwartz: Sure. Happy to. So just keep in mind, I've already disclosed how long I've been here. So some of the changes when I started in IT, it was fairly new within colleges and universities from administrative work. Grading was done the same way, I think, we voted, which was more like punch cards, and running through machines, and doing basically counts. So I've grown up in an era where the entire aspect of what technology is has really evolved throughout my career, which has been really interesting and exciting to me.

So early in my career, we're really talking about everybody's doing their own programming. We're not buying ERP systems.

Jack Suess: Didn't exist.

Celeste Schwartz: Right, they didn't exist. So we moved from doing all of this homegrown development and every college and university is doing their thing and maybe meeting at a conference and sharing the work, and maybe sharing the work among each other, to having a whole industry evolve where software is provided for you. So there's that piece.

And then on the hardware side, please keep in mind, during my career, there were no cell phones, there was no internet at the beginning of my career, so all of that has evolved as well. The classroom was chalkboards and seats, and students, and faculty. And now the classroom is loaded with all kinds of technology that not only bring information to the on-ground class, but also merge both the virtual student with the on-ground student, and the faculty members. So we've seen a lot of changes. I love change, so exciting changes as far as I'm concerned.

Jack Suess: So Celeste, like you, I've been at my institution a long time, and one of the things that I think about is that the ability to implement broad-based change at an institution is somewhat a function of the trust that the other leaders have in each other to be doing the right thing for the institution. And I know you've been involved in some really big change over the last decade, especially in that student success area. Can you talk about some of the strategies that you've used that you think might be applicable to others as well, to get some big change implemented, especially when it comes to student success?

Celeste Schwartz: So, Jack, I think some of what you're referring to is our work with the Gates Foundation around student success. And the college was, and I was a co-author of the grant request for some of the early work around student success. I think what would be most helpful is, some of the changes that we implemented were really pretty significant, and how do you make change happen? Because for the most part, individuals are not so much resistant to change, but fearful of change. So you used the word that I think is really important, that's "trust". There are two things probably at the institution for me personally that have helped me to help move the institution forward, and that is people trust me and I am honest, and maybe to a fault, sometimes direct. So some I'm not maybe as good at painting a fluffy picture around the work that needs to be done. I'm just pretty direct, and I focus totally on the student, and talk generally about why this is important, how it will impact the students, why acknowledging that some individuals might be, I think "resistant" is a strong word, I like the word "fearful" a little bit better, might be a little bit fearful of the unknown. And I just try to talk over and over again about the potential impact that's going to have for students.

The other thing that I often promise, and I keep my promises, is we're going to measure this, and if it doesn't work, we're not going to keep it, we're going to move on to something else. I try to be super inclusive, I worked on the Gates work with a colleague who was the Vice President for Student Affairs, and we created a very inclusive, collaborative approach to the work that we were doing. It was not a secret, it was talked about, it was written about, it was published within our own community. And I think that that transparency is also really, really important to any project where you're trying to have a successful outcome.

Jack Suess: Thank you.

Cynthia Golden: So Celeste, I liked what you said about keeping the focus on students, and I know you also keep a focus on your staff. And you and I had the good fortune to work together on different committees over the years, and I especially remember when you chaired the Mid-Atlantic, the Eduqas committee, and I think from my perspective, you clearly had a commitment to professional development, and to cultivating a new generation of IT professionals and aspiring leaders.

Jack Suess: So as you think about this, what advice do you have for aspiring leaders about preparing themselves for more senior roles? And has the pandemic changed the way we should think about leadership development going forward?

Celeste Schwartz: I think for aspiring leaders, I would advise them the same way I advise our younger team members. One, be involved and know your institution, do not isolate yourself to just IT. Volunteer if there's... Remember we're a community college, not a small one, but our students are all commuter students. So I encourage our team members, our young team members, newer team members, get involved in other things at the institution, understand who the students are, understand how what we do is important, know the community college mission, and most importantly, make sure that this is a good fit for you.

So as far as professional development, we offer our employees internally opportunities for professional development, but I also encourage our folks to look at Eduqas, for example. They run a variety of institutes. We can't send a half a dozen folks every year, but we try to identify staff from the IT team to participate in the leadership training that Eduqas offers. That seems to be very important because they also engage with others from other colleges and universities, and those cohorts seem to stay together for very long periods of time. We also support folks to attend a variety of conferences throughout the country, whether it's a Microsoft conference, an Eduqas conference, or our LMS conference, whatever their specialty is in our particular department, we're supporting them. So I think for aspiring leaders, they've got to be sure they're in an environment where they're supported for their growth, and they also have to let folks know what they aspire to be. I have folks on my team who aspire to be leaders, and I have other folks on my team who just love the work that they do, and that is what they want to continue to do.

Jack Suess: That's really important, the fact that you're thinking holistically, and I couldn't agree more with you. And thinking about how you can also broadly serve the mission and be involved in the institution, learning higher ed is something you have to absorb through meeting and talking with other people.

Cynthia Golden: I agree. And I guess that also leads me to think about succession planning, and, I don't know, Celeste, what are your thoughts about that? How should today's leaders be thinking about succession planning?

Celeste Schwartz: So I think succession planning is really important. I think it's even more important since the pandemic. At my institution, we talk about it, and in my department, there is a succession plan in place, obviously, when I leave, what the institution decides to do. But I feel like I've done the job that I can do to have the institution be in a good place when I leave. I think, from a leadership standpoint, if you aren't thinking about succession planning, I think you're not being fair to the organization that you currently work for.

Cynthia Golden: I agree.

Jack Suess: So let's jump to the second foundational model that Eduqas talks about, which is the ultra intelligent institution, and how data and analytics can help decision-makers with both doing day-to-day management, but with also new insights. So I know, as we talked earlier, about some of the work that you've done in student success, and you also have the role of institutional effectiveness and institutional research reports to you. So how have you been thinking about using data to support the institution and what are some areas that you think you would love to just share as exemplars that you've done?

Celeste Schwartz: So I think in the area of reporting and analytics, first of all, let's talk a little bit about structure. We did something unique here, well it was unique at the time, not so unique now. We have a business intelligence team, and I think, Jack, my recollection is, so do you, that is focused on reporting and analytics, separate from our institutional researchers. And we separated before our programming and development team, they were also doing reporting and analytics, and we felt that that was almost not getting the attention that it needed. So from a structural standpoint, we did a separation between reporting and analytics and that program development area. I think that has helped the college significantly.

As far as how do we use the data, we're looking at data constantly at community colleges all across the country. We're seeing either declines in enrollments or leveling off in enrollments. So that management of the admissions, and enrollment, and retention funnel is really important to the institution. The data components are used throughout the college by all of our end users. We have daily reporting that is produced.

In addition, we are also doing projections. So our board of trustees is very interested in not just the funding components of the financial pieces of all this, but also based on the data that we have, we see what are the enrollment projections for the next three years, so the budgets can be built out appropriately. Not every institution needs to do a lot of the work that we do, because they have lots of applicants, and not as many seats as they do applicants. That's not the case for Montgomery. We're in a region that is very populated with colleges and universities. There's about 60 within a one-mile drive of our institution. So folks have lots of options. So the data and analytics piece is really pretty critical.

Jack Suess: Well, I would probably say that, when we look at the demographics of this decade, probably 65 to 75% of all universities are going to be enrollment challenged in some form or fashion. And so it's really critical kinds of things that you've been doing and that you have in place. So great.

Cynthia Golden: And related to all of that, I think is the impact of the pandemic on students, because we know they have all been impacted in different ways. Are there initiatives underway in your area to try to personalize some of the interventions with the students?

Celeste Schwartz: So I'm very proud of a project we're currently working on. The IT team along with the enrollment services team is working on a CRM project. After a lot of back and forth and debate, we're actually building it on the Microsoft Dynamics platform. And it is basically going to be used as a way to manage student support calls throughout the institution. I don't know about either of your institutions, but our students are calling into admissions, or registration, or their advisor, and there's really no one central repository where you can really get the full picture of the students. So we're putting a pretty interesting customer relationship management project together. It's going to pull all of those data elements into a single repository. So when you're communicating with the student, you really are communicating with them on a personal level that is much more inclusive than what it is today. That's our goal, and we're starting to train folks now on what we've done, and we're looking for a go-live in the next few months, so more to come on that.

Cynthia Golden: Well, I look forward to following that, because that's something that people have wanted to do and have talked about for a long time, and it's not easy to pull all that together. So I'm going to take us into that third area of the Eduqas top 10. And that last one is referred to as Everything is Anywhere. And the idea of this foundational model for our listeners is that it really acknowledges the effect of the pandemic, and the fact that our campuses now consist of both physical and digital entities, even more so than before. So teaching and working are happening not only in the classroom and in offices, but also in the homes of students, and faculty, and staff, and in coffee shops, and in parks, and almost any place you can think of. Additionally, our institutional data is stored, and transmitted, and accessed on campus computers, and home computers, and portable devices, and cloud servers, and other machines that solution providers give us. So essentially everything is anywhere.

Jack Suess: So we'd like to talk about the last three items that were in this category. And issue eight was talking about this new era of IT support and updating IT services to support remote and hybrid work. And we were wondering, is your organization supporting remote and hybrid work? And if so, how's it going and what are you learning as part of that?

Celeste Schwartz: Sure. So we are supporting remote and hybrid work. During the height of the pandemic, not all, but I'd say 90% of the employees, maybe 95, were totally remote. That transition was fairly easy for Montgomery because we already had an existing VPN in place. A lot of our employees already had laptop computers, and we had already been accessing all of our critical applications remotely. So there was nothing new. It might have been new to some individuals, but it wasn't new to all individuals. Whoever knows why all these things fall into place in time for crisis, we had very few paper processes, everything had been migrated to a digital format prior to covid. So from that standpoint, we were really in a pretty good place.

Regarding the remote work, so some of us have been back about, let's say, 18 to 20 months, others have been back just about eight months. And for our first year, we did a trial flex schedule, which was either fully remote, very few people are fully remote, most of them, to be perfectly honest, are in IT, and there's only 25% of my department is fully remote. They're mostly in application development, who are fully remote.

College-wide, there's a category of folks who are fully on-ground, facilities, custodial, and then once again IT infrastructure folks, fully on-ground. And then the majority of the non-teaching faculty are doing either a four-one or a three-two. So four days on campus, one day off, three days on campus, two days working remotely. We just did a review of that, and we're in the process right now, as a leadership team, of reviewing each position, and determining if that position is going to be able to continue to operate in the same mode. I think most will continue to operate in the same mode, but it doesn't look like we're increasing the number of fully remotes or decreasing, in any significant way, the flexibility.

I think folks have appreciated the flexibility, and I have to be absolutely honest, new employees seem to expect it. There's been a fair amount of turnover, I would think, at your institutions, just like there is at our institution, and we actually, in some of the management positions, we're expecting them to be here three days. Once again, we're a commuter college, so if there's no folks here, then what is that experience for students? But we have found that people have not accepted a role because it's not fully remote, even if they only live 10 miles away, they still are looking for jobs right now that are fully remote. And we're not, as I said, we have a few of those, but not many.

Jack Suess: That's that makes sense. And that's similar to where we are. We're probably a little more in the hybrid spot, so most of my staff are 50%, but the reality is that there's a lot that might be more 60, three remote, two on campus, or four remote, one on campus. But we're trying to think through how we bring teams together and get that sort of camaraderie that happens from people interacting with one another just on those chance meetings in the kitchen, or the hallway, or whatever.

Celeste Schwartz: So Jack, just the response to your, "We're trying to come up with ways to bring people together." So because I have quite a few of my team fully remote, every two months, we do ask them to come to the campus for a whole day, and that whole day is spent around professional development. So the team's together, and remember, my team's not the size of your team, it's around 40, but we bring them all in on the same day. We make it valuable for them to come in and spend time, spend their time coming in. And we have two kinds of remote positions. We have remote that we have advertised to be remote, so they are permanently hired remote. And then on this flexible work policy, we have remote employees, but each year, that gets reevaluated. So there's two different kind of categories on remote. But bringing them in every two months, they've enjoyed it. And our team that was used to seeing them all the time really enjoys them being back in person.

Jack Suess: I think that's great advice.

Cynthia Golden: I think that going forward, our institutions are going to have to be really deliberate about this. And especially when you think about a new hire, maybe somebody who's right out of school, how do you get them inculcated into the team? How do you assure opportunities for them to work on different projects? And so I think that that deliberate approach is going to be important as we go forward.

So switching just to students for a minute. We just talked about employees, but the ninth issue in the Eduqas top 10 relates to online, and in-person, and hybrid learning strategies. And so developing a learning-first technology-enabled learning strategy is that issue. And we know that community colleges work really hard to meet student learning needs. So do you think the pandemic has changed how your college is supporting online, hybrid, and in-person for students?

Celeste Schwartz: Absolutely. So the college has been offering online courses since the mid '90s, but there were always segments, and I would bet at your institutions you would say the same thing, that thought that it was still better to have the in-person class. So there was classes that were course offerings never offered online.

Once the pandemic came in, there was no choice. First of all, for the faculty, in two weeks time, we had enough training done to get all the faculty who were on-ground, for their classes to continue in an online format. So interesting, things are still evolving. But we now have many full-time faculty who love teaching online. Love it. That is a difference. And once again, I think early on I talked about, why is change a challenge at times? Here was a situation where you didn't have a choice. You started your classes, and you didn't want to leave your students down, so you had to do this. But a lot of the faculty have found that they still want to be on-ground in the classroom, but they also like that mix of almost, it's flexible for them doing on-ground in online classes.

So we've seen an increase in interest in faculty wanting to teach online. Now let's talk about students. So I don't know where this is going to land, but we're not back to the pre-pandemic on-ground, online numbers. We're still seeing more interest in online than what we had prior to the pandemic. Will that settle out? Last year we were back on ground, but we still had high numbers online. And the numbers are starting to come down a little, but not where they were in 2019, '20. So as far as hybrid, I think both faculty and students really liked that approach. I'm going to say several dozen of our faculty are teaching hybrid classes, and there's two flavors. So one flavor is, it's intentionally hybrid, meaning you're going to meet one day a week for an hour or an hour and a half on-ground, and the other hour and a half is remote, but it could be synchronous remote or asynchronous remote. The other flavor is, this is a on-ground class, but if you are sick, we've put technology in a lot of the classrooms so that you never can miss a class anymore.

I think the other thing that we've seen, and this has only happened so far once or twice, because we haven't had very much bad weather, which is unusual for this area of the country, we now never cancel classes. Never. Because every single class we've already... I've seen this happen twice. All classes will move to remote. So there's no more, "There's three snow days. How are we going to catch up on all the work?"

The other piece that I forgot to mention is, as a result of the pandemic, at a community college, not everyone has the technology that they need or the internet connection, and the fact that we couldn't be on-ground, we then implemented a laptop loaner program, and moved to a total bring your own device environment, which we continue to be today. You can come to us, no questions asked, you don't have to demonstrate financial need, if you walk up to our help desk and say, "I need to borrow a laptop for the semester," you check it out for the semester. We also have a program that helps to pay for internet, and that is needs-based.

Jack Suess: Those are so important, those programs. I think that's great that you're doing that. We have shorter term things that we do through our library, but I love that you're thinking about students in need and through that.

Celeste Schwartz: So let me just add one other thing that might not be as obvious. So the students in need could be because it's a parent who has three kids in grade school or high school, and they have one computer at home, and so the parent can't get their schoolwork done because the kids are all on the computer, sharing it. So sometimes it's not so much they don't have any technology, it's that they don't have enough technology so that the college student can share the technology with other members of the household.

Jack Suess: So I'm going to jump to the last issue, which is around SaaS, ERP, ERM, which is really titled An Alphabet Soup of Opportunity. And I'm curious, you mentioned the project that you're doing with Microsoft Dynamics and the CRM, are there examples where you've really been leveraging this SaaS capability to implement new functionality, or make changes relatively fast? And could you give an example of your process for just managing that implementation, and the risk, and how you bring it on board? Because I think that's one of the challenges that we all have to begin thinking about, how do we identify our partners and bring them on board?

Celeste Schwartz: So it's interesting that you bring this up because the whole issue around SaaS has been a challenging one at Montgomery, because we have a tremendous amount, with our ERP system, of custom code, that goes away. So let me talk about the areas where I think where we've implemented a SaaS solution. We have not, Jack, in the ERP environment, nor are we planning any time in the near future to do that. But as you both well know, vendors are at times only offering a SaaS solution. So in a variety of our room-scheduling, our recruitment application, they're all SaaS. In our LMS, we are moving our LMS from an on-ground solution, and we're actually changing vendors, and that's happening as we speak. And that is also a SaaS solution. I think in those areas, it's been beneficial to the institution from the standpoint of all the changes get made, the faculty get used to, or administrators get used to the fact that this isn't customizable, so to speak.

So that has helped, I think, the institution to, stay focused on maybe some of the other important things like having more personal relationships with students rather than worrying about all the customizations that they might want in all of these varying systems. So I think that has helped the institution.

On the ERP side, we could go back and forth about this probably for days, at least in our institution, the dollars don't add up. So there's not the savings, whether it's short-term or long-term, it's just not there for a SaaS solution at this time.

Jack Suess: Well, I think your point is that all of these discussions really need to be thought of in a cost-benefit model. And what it sounds like you've done is you've been looking at where benefits are highest and really thinking about how to be bringing those in the LMS, CRM, other kinds of peripheral systems are probably more cost-effective than trying to develop custom code. But replacing your ERP, you've got to decide are you really, at this point, ready to be making that kind of leap, and is it going to provide enough added benefit to be able to justify the cost and disruption that would be there?

Celeste Schwartz: Absolutely. I think that is a struggle for a lot of institutions. I do think our college has benefited tremendously from all the custom code, but it doesn't lend itself well to a seamless, painless, or as pain-free as possible move to a SaaS solution.

Jack Suess: So Celeste, we often end our podcast conversations with the question, what does the term "integrative CIO" mean to you? Do you have any thoughts?

Celeste Schwartz: So for me, an integrated CIO is somebody who has a seat at the table, somebody who is invested in the institution, somebody who knows things, who understands how the institution operates, the mission, the vision, is intimately involved in institutional strategic planning, especially at a leadership level, can speak to the other areas of the college with some confidence that what they're speaking about is on point. And I think that it is someone invested, as I said, beyond the stuff, the tools, the technologies, is really invested in the mission of the organization.

Cynthia Golden: Well, and listening to you talk for the last hour, you've talked about a lot of those kinds of characteristics that inform your work.

Jack Suess: With that as the definition, which I think is superb, you are clearly an integrative CIO, and it's been wonderful having you on the podcast, Celeste. Thank you.

Celeste Schwartz: It was great seeing both of you. Thank you.

Cynthia Golden: Glad you could join us.


This episode features:

Celeste Schwartz
Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Digital Officer
Montgomery County Community College

Cynthia Golden
Associate Provost
University of Pittsburgh

Jack Suess
Vice President of IT & CIO
University of Maryland, Baltimore County