Vince Kellen on Leading with Evidence

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The Integrative CIO | Season 2, Episode 4

Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Vince Kellen, CIO at the University of California, San Diego.

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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's guest is Dr. Vince Kellen, who currently serves as the chief information officer of the University of California San Diego, as well as a member of the Chancellor's Cabinet and the VC CFO's senior management team.

Dr. Kellen brings a rare combination of academic, business, and IT strategy experience to his role with a focus on transformational leadership within IT. He applies leading edge purchase to current business challenges and has 25 years of executive level information technology experience.

Dr. Kellen has contributed in an advisory capacity to key organizations in higher education, including EDUCAUSE, Internet2, and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities. Last but not least, Vince is always one of the people that I bounce ideas off of, because he thinks big and he will tell you when your idea won't work. Welcome, Vince.

Vince Kellen: Thank you.

Cynthia Golden: Welcome to the program.

Vince Kellen: I tell myself when my own ideas won't work too, so don't worry.

Jack Suess: So Vince, why don't you start by introducing yourself to our audience and also give us a sense of what you enjoy doing outside of the job.

Vince Kellen: Yeah, I'm a CIO here at UC San Diego, which is one honking institution that's been on a roll and doing quite well. So I've been enjoying it. Half my career has been in higher education as CIO and also faculty up until I got here at UC San Diego where I no longer have the time for that. The other half was an industry, principally consulting and strategy consulting and data and analytics consulting for most of it and a brief stint as a newspaper reporter and retail management and accounting. So kind of a diverse background, but one that seems to sit well for me here as CIO. What I like doing outside, actually I just built a greenhouse and have 45 fruit trees, so that keeps me busy with horticulture, getting back to my roots and then writing. I enjoy writing and continue to write to this day on variety of topics.

Jack Suess: Well, and speaking of roots, I know you've also been studying genealogy.

Vince Kellen: Yes, absolutely. I've been doing that on the side in a big way. My sister has been leading, she's been doing it since the '80s and I got dragged in, because I'm pretty good at internet sleuthing. And so the last four or five years we've been doing much work building out our family histories on all sides.

Cynthia Golden: Oh, I'd love to talk to you about that offline sometime. That's an interest of mine too, Vince.

Vince Kellen: Yeah, it's quite fascinating. You learn more about history actually than about your own family.

Cynthia Golden: So we're really happy to have you on the podcast today and we thought we might frame some of the rest of this conversation around the EDUCAUSE top 10 IT issues and I think most of our listeners are familiar with those. The way EDUCAUSE is talking about these issues, they've grouped the top 10 IT issues into what they're calling three foundational models. The first one is leadership and they think about or they talk about that as leading with wisdom. The second one data and they refer to it as the ultra intelligent institution. And the third is about work and learning or everything is anywhere. We wanted to start with a third one, everything is anywhere. The idea I think for this foundation model really acknowledges the effects of the pandemic and the fact that our campuses now have both physical and digital entities. Many did before, but it's much more broad right now.

So teaching and working are happening in classrooms and dorm rooms and offices and conference rooms and students' homes and faculties homes. And so we have a wide variety of places where that's taking place and our data, institutional data is stored and transmitted and accessed not only on campus computers, but again, home computers, portable devices and cloud servers and other machines. So essentially everything is anywhere. Does this idea, Vince, of everything is anywhere really resonate with you and how are you positioning UCSD to leverage all of these changes over the next few years?

Vince Kellen: Well, one, I think the phrase, "Anything is anywhere," is actually a big improvement over kind of what prior phrases that existed, like, "Internet of things," for example. I've always been puzzled by that one, because it was focused on the thingy-ness, not the use. Everything is everywhere really is hearkening back at the use. Why are we doing this? What is the use that all the technology's being put in place for? And yes, that's absolutely true, I'm very much amazed at how students learn a lot through their mobile phone. How much information absorption is occurring through that device. And not only that, how much social interaction is occurring through that device. The pandemic certainly pushed that hard, although we were very well-prepared before that pandemic in my unit ITS as I had been pushing that even before the pandemic. So yes, that makes great sense.

What's driving it I think is the, one, availability of data and information, the speed with which it comes, and the speed with which human beings want to process it. So I always say, "Systems have to work at the speed of thought," and so everything is anywhere is right there with that concept. So I think that makes great sense. The one confound I'll put on that is, the pandemic also taught us that while everything is anywhere, it doesn't mean that everything should be anywhere. Some things are better in physical places, K-12 has been decimated by the pandemic despite distance learning. Higher education probably less so, but still there's been effects in higher education and the primacy of place still looms large in our psyche. So people want to be in places. So the physicality of university still matters greatly.

Jack Suess: Vince, how are you thinking about access and student success at UCSD and is this undergoing change as a result of the pandemic? And upfront we've talked a lot about this and UCSD is an amazing institution, you have high graduation rates, but I'm still sure you have student challenges you're trying to be supporting and helping. Could you talk about that?

Vince Kellen: Yeah, we do have challenges and since UC is very much a Pell Grant type of system, we work hard on equity and social mobility. So we actually have, interestingly enough, food scarcity issues for some students. So getting access to computing devices is still a bit of an issue. So we got an initiative now to look at minimum standards for technologies for all students so it can be properly allocated to them, which surprised me even within an elite institution, but it's something I've known. Poverty hits across the board high and low no matter who you are and takes its toll. So that's one area that we've been trying to work on that crossing that, we call the digital equity divide, so to speak. But from a student success standpoint, we've been really working on the last few years on improving our degree programs to enable graduation on time.

As you know, some programs you can't get it done in four years. Engineering programs are famous for that, but we've been working hard to improve that so students can get out on time. And then we have some curious cases of students who leave prematurely but could finish and they've accumulated enough, but they've been wandering in the desert a little bit towards the end. So I know there's focus on that. We still have a big focus in some areas on pedagogy, and I'm really struck at the newer faculty coming up who are in their first or second decade and how thoughtful and probative they're on pedagogy. It's really fascinating.

So I'm very heartened by that and I think they're going to use the technology in more interesting ways. I'll give you an example. We had a ChatGPT discussion with faculty and there's a whole collection of faculty saying, "No, this is a great pedagogical tool. I'm using it to tell the student, tell me when ChatGPT is confabulating, which critical reasoning as well as you got to have a lot of domain knowledge in order to do that." So I think the impact for us is pedagogical, certainly access related, and then obviously just improvement in progress through degrees.

Cynthia Golden: So what about creating online services and support to support these student success initiatives? What are you doing now and what's your longer term roadmap?

Vince Kellen: That's emerging for us now, and the reason it's emerging for us is we're in the middle of trying to replace our student system and part of that we want to come out of that with a renewed effort on pulling together the fragmented service delivery to students. I think we do a good job in each silo doing that. I think there's reasonable coordination for the undergraduate population, because of our unique college system like Harry Potter House's living learning communities that's put in place in the large. So there's some good work there, but there's a realization that we have to do more to integrate, one, the data, and two, to orchestrate the processes that serve the student. Particularly in financial aid bill payment and navigating a degree. That works ahead of us. We're following some other places on that, but it's going to be timed appropriately with our student system implementation.

Cynthia Golden: So that leads into a question we wanted to ask you about the work you've done to train the UCSD community in lean process design.

Vince Kellen: Yeah, our Lean Six Sigma story to me is an extremely fascinating one that has exceeded my wildest expectations, because the origin story was I came and I said, "I'm a big believer in continuous improvement. Any methodology will do it." So I wasn't proud of the methodology. We had a very small footprint of Lean Six Sigma in place. So I pinched Moj Ganamini, who is my direct report in this area. I said, "Hey, let's do some training for ITS. Let's get all of my unit IT Lean Six Sigma yellow belt certified in one year, 400 people." She looked at me and blinked and said, "That's going to be hard." I said, "Come on, we teach students 400 to jot in a class, we can do that." And she put together a program with our extension, think of it as continuing education group and another group on campus that we call Office of Strategic Initiatives.

They put together a very vibrant one day training class that's highly interactive simulation based. I went through it, because I insisted. Afterwards I pulled Moj and I said, "This class should be the nucleus for a conference." Today we have processed [inaudible] that's going to draw well over 1,000 people for a one-day conference on campus. It's in its fifth year now and it's gone like crazy. Well, what happened as we did the training, we had empty seats for ITS and Moj said, "We got some empty seats. Can we bring business people in?" I said, "Yeah, bring them along for free." Then what happened, the business people and their frontline staff largely said, "This is great." They recommended to their friends and then they started to pull together funding in their own local areas and OSI then created a whole series of classes to deal with that demand in our extension unit. In a year and a half, 1,000 people went through this with nary and associate vice chancellor or vice chancellor even knowing.

Okay, what is fueling the desire for frontline staff to want to get Lead Six Sigma certified? Well, the obvious stands out, prove the resume, but I think more fundamental, they were trying to deal with the administrative cast in their own land and have tools to attack it and approach it and so it continued. Now here we are five years later and I am now starting the work of bringing Lean Six Sigma to what I call the associate vice chancellor level, getting sponsorship for our conference from them. Getting our chancellor and our EVC to speak, which they have at the prior versions of this. But now trying to get it in the language of management speak. The language of management speak is instead of leaning with anecdote by a very important person, let's lead with evidence to guide the decision and instead of working on righteous indignation over harms in the past, let's work on solving the problem going forward. And that's very tough for the academy to do. We thrive on righteous indignation.

Jack Suess: Vince, I will add that they often, when it was virtual, I would attend the process palooza interactive sessions that they had and I found them great. So I really think it is a model and it's one I'm actually trying to encourage here at UMBC.

Vince Kellen: We replicated it with Paul Czarapata at KCTCS.

Jack Suess: So the second foundation model is the ultra intelligent institution. Working with data and analytics to provide institutional decision makers with ongoing, useful and increasingly sophisticated insights. Vince, this is an area where you and I have talked a lot. I consider you to be amongst the very best in higher education at what you're doing. Can you talk about this work in the space that you're doing and if you want to go back and also talk about some of the work that you did at University of Kentucky, by all means.

Vince Kellen: This ultra intelligent institution idea is going to have a decade long plus of legs. This isn't going away, and the reason it's not going away is a couple challenges we have. One is the demographic challenge of students, which is now hitting the shores of community colleges and regional universities, and that's endemic. That's going to continue. As well as what I call citizen revolt, taxpayers frustration with what they view as the intransigent nature of higher education. What does that mean? We have to do more with less. We have to find a way to get efficient. Among the consultants who deal with industry, they know that higher education adopts things 10 to 20 years later. In fact, I equipped when the end of the world comes, I'm glad in higher education, because everything in higher education happens 10 years later. What does that mean? We have to have smart systems and data integration and smart data management to, one, automate as much as we possibly can.

I'll give you a simple use case. One of my direct reports, Brett Pollock, he's been playing with ChatGPT. He uses it to help him write UC San Diego job descriptions in UC San Diego format. He figured it saves him about an hour per job description. Beautiful example. I need 1,000 more of those where we're saving people, we're giving them their life back, we're giving the administrator life back, we're giving them time back. But along the way, we want to create a smarter university that's leaner and meaner, absolutely. I think it's a moral imperative actually for the CIO. If we're not contributing to that, we're doing a disservice to our funders, the taxpayers. So that's the big thing. I think the AI component of this is going to grow or machine learning component. I just had a conversation with our leaders in the accounting realm of the units related to our Oracle Financial Cloud implementation.

I said, "Hey, we have now a bulk of data. We got to start thinking about how to auto approve, auto route so humans don't do the work." In fact, I was talking to one CFO at a very large university who was saying she is pursuing touchless transactions. Transactions that are born digitally, process, and come out and a human never touches anything. In other words, they're being routed and managed automatically with humans reviewing what the machine has been doing. Very difficult concept for a lot of administrators. Industry is already there. Not all of industry, but a bunch of industry's there. We need to get there. We have strong desire to do it. So yes, I think this idea has tremendous legs. We have to be uber smart with data and systems and practically every dimension of what we can do.

Cynthia Golden: So Vince, Jack mentioned that the two of you got to know each other through IMS Global, which is now 1EdTech, and that organization I think really aims to kind of accelerate digital transformation of learning. How are you using data to inform and improve teaching and learning at UCSD?

Vince Kellen: Yeah, we're doing what I call the classics that many people are doing. We've got a bottleneck report analysis, which was used and can easily be used to identify curricular reform. We have units who've been looking at interaction with different classes and understanding enrollment patterns and classroom interaction patterns. Obviously the data is useful for looking at how degrees are shaped, how to improve the degree by mixing your offerings, your course offerings up. So there's been a lot of use of the data for that. We've now stepping into generating anonymized data sets for faculty researchers who want to do research on their classes themselves. That's a big deal for a couple reasons. One, it might enable students to participate in that research. I think students love to research each other and themselves, but we can do it in a safe way that anonymizes the data well. So we're starting to step into that.

As you can imagine, an institution with close to 90% six year graduation rate, I don't necessarily get a lot of demands for improved student success right now. So the demands tend to be much more focused on narrower or single course, single program issues. In aggregate, we've been using it to understand behavior patterns of our learning management system and how usage has been evolving over time. The pandemic actually increased usage and that increased usage seems to stick. While we still have some shallow adoption of learning management systems in some cases wisely so, in some cases not wisely. Net-net we have more adoption of the digital technology and use of it. So I think we're going to look like many institutions like that, but probably with more of a focus in very specific problems we're trying to look at.

Cynthia Golden: So I'm curious though, when you make this data available to faculty, for example, to take a look at classroom interactions, what's the adoption like? What's the interest like?

Vince Kellen: Because we're a strong STEM institution, we have a lot of interest in this. Being a former faculty member myself and teacher and longtime teacher in different domains, different instructors have different philosophies of how they want to teach. My job is to say, "One's not better than the other." But the philosophies range from the measure itself. I want to know everything about me as a teacher. I want to know everything about the student. This is a science domain. I can analyze this from science.

Then there's another one that I'll call more of a deeply humanist privacy focus, which is as an instructor, I should know nothing about that learner at all so I am not biased, and therefore only our dialogue should be the only thing to improve. Being a studio art major, I appreciate that to an extent, but also being the engineer that I am, there's also truth in the science domain. So I think it's a both end. So we've got a strong STEM group of faculty and they have a strong interest in doing further research in this. So we want to support those faculty and give them the tools they need to research their own instruction.

Jack Suess: I think those are both great examples. And one of the things we've found that's been successful in sort of encouraging faculty is we have this learning analytics community of practice where we do regular meetings and my division will give out what we call mini grants. It's $2,500. We usually give three to four a semester, and as part of that we'll work with faculty where we're helping them to be able to analyze some of their data. They're bringing the questions. They're bringing, "I'd like to find out more about X, because I'm trying to do this and I want to see if students are there." And so we found it to be just a really exciting way of getting faculty interested in studying how students learn. I think it's an area that we just have to get more people spending time on. To your point, Vince, I mean the number of publicly available data sets for studying learning analytics is minimal.

I know we've tried to work with a couple where we've anonymized, but there's just a dearth of data to even get started in this, and we've sort of been bound up in FERPA and had difficulty in how we can actually study ourselves and the learning that takes place. I'm going to shift just a little bit though in this next question, because I know you have one of the best chief information security officers in higher education in Mike Korn. How are you and Mike working together to better protect your UCSD community from cybersecurity threats to their information and privacy?

Vince Kellen: Yeah, and that's a great question, because I was ruminating on that a bit, and I use the term partner, not so much in your question, but in things you've sent me earlier. What I've learned over the years in partnership, partnership never really exists between two institutions or two titles. Partnerships exist between people. So the people have to have a deep appreciation for each other. The deep appreciation has to be founded on a deep understanding of each other. So what I do with my team, and Mike's part of our team, is I say, "Hey, consider me a guide on the side or perhaps a player on the field a bit too. But Mike, if you're the shortstop and Kevin Chow, you're the third baseman, it's good for the third baseman to admit they have trouble going to the left a bit. And Mike, if you're the shortstop, it's good that you know that. And it's good that you both are very good with that, because you'll get the ground ball. Whereas two people that don't do that, the ground ball will go between them."

So that requires a level of trust and implicit liking of each other, at least professionally to make that work. And yes, Mike brings, every time I said, "Mike, when I talk to you, I feel like I'm talking to a Supreme Court justice. I can't poke a hole on your reasoning." So he's very probative. So what Mike and I do is we've been engaged in our own mutual self-awareness journey, meaning what are you good at? What am I good at? Where do I stand strong? Where do you not? And we support each other in that. And so the way we operate as a team, we'll go back and forth on what role do I want to play? What role does he want to play? How do we mix that up?

So that's the nucleus of the partnership. Now that leads to the generation of programs. One of the areas where I excel and Mike appreciates that is, I kind of get the lay of the political landscape and the art of the possible given our chancellor, our CFR, our EVC, or our provost essentially, and how things could unfold in time using that. So he trusts me to nail that. I trust him to nail what he's trying to do, and from that, that forms a partnership. So the partnership has to be more than mechanical, it's got to be in cybersecurity. It's got to be almost to a level of, I won't say intimacy, but to a level of trust and knowledge that goes way beyond what most managers are comfortable with.

Jack Suess: No, that's a great answer. And the reality is that it takes a large group of people committed to trying to protect the cybersecurity and privacy, your infrastructure, your policy, your cybersecurity, but also people in various areas. So I really appreciate how you're trying to build that trust and that organization deeper.

Cynthia Golden: So I want to kind of bring our conversation back to that third foundational model that EDUCAUSE defined leading with wisdom. The title we have for this podcast is, The Integrative CIO. And what we've been trying to do is really share insights into how others are doing this, how they're leading with wisdom. So Jack, I think you had some things you wanted to talk about first.

Jack Suess: So Vince, I know that you've had a lot of change at UCSD and you've generally been very successful at that during your tenure. Could you share how you've learned to manage change both across the campus, but also inside the technology organization? I think if you're not thinking about change management in your own team, you're missing a group that's important to be getting buy-in from as well. Could you talk about how you've done that?

Vince Kellen: Yeah, I mean, this is a complex topic. I'll start with, I think 80% of leadership is self-awareness. I may be understating that by 20 percentage points, because the root of all change difficulty is a lack of self-awareness by those who are trying to prosecute the change. So we often use techniques that work against the change we're trying to get. So I think the anchor for me is every individual that I'm dealing with in the change process, I have to recognize that they're an individual that is at some point in their journey, early, middle or late, that all of us can improve. So therefore I have to take a personalized approach to that person.

So it's how to exhibit the intellectual curiosity and what they're doing, how to get inside what they're doing intellectually and engage with it. So it starts with this kind of human transformational leadership concept right out of Bernard Bass and his framework for doing that. And it's mainly because of my education background. You're trying to approach a learner, you got to hit the learner where they're at and deal with the motivation that they bring. So I have to do that with each individual and certainly with an ITS and my senior management team. Yes, that's a lot to roll up your sleeves change work to help build that self-awareness among the team. Then that rolls into how to build change program. I kind of hate the phrase change management, because it's been so productized as to be meaningless.

Jack Suess: Vince, I agree with you. And one of the things that I believe is that as a leader, you've got to also be willing to admit sometimes that what you're proposing isn't going to work. As you get feedback from people, you're prepared to change yourself or what your plans are going to be and how you're going to do things. If change management is solely, "You're wrong, I'm going to fix the fact that you're wrong. Do what I ask," it's really hard to get significant buy-in to that. If it's a conversation and if you're open to listening, it seems like that's sort of the start and the foundation for long-term successful change management.

Vince Kellen: Absolutely. And I turn this into a collaboration concept, meaning, "Hey Moj, we need to think differently about this." And so it'll be me leaning on her to probably see some change that I need. But it will then quickly turn into, "Well, let's collaborate on a design around this." Even in small things where we're doing a change, even if it's a technical change, I try to turn it into a collaboration, a group think exercise where the group can think better than an individual and then do it that way.

I often, when I get into a very sticky wickets on change, I tell the person, "Listen, you're on the bus, probably doing the great concept. We're not kicking you off the bus. So relax, you're not getting fired. But two, we need to get some change, and here's some ideas how to go at it." I'll often preface everything I do and say, "I could be wrong," and you guys point holes in this. Or I'll specifically recruit somebody to say, "Poke holes in this." And fortunately, I got no shortage of that on my direct report team. So they're very good at that.

Cynthia Golden: That's a good thing.

Vince Kellen: But the leader has to stop thinking about, how can I impose this change, but how can I get the organization to lean into the sunlight of the change?

Jack Suess: That's a great statement. Thank you.

Cynthia Golden: Yeah, makes a lot of sense. So Vince, Jack mentioned in his introduction that you've been involved in many of our higher ed IT community organizations and other higher ed organizations like EDUCAUSE, like Internet2, 1EdTech, APLU, and these are all great resources, I think, for campus leaders and they're very forward focused. How have these kind of organizations helped you bring along your organization to be ready for the challenges that higher ed technology is going to face or is facing?

Vince Kellen: I think these organizations, and EDUCAUSE right among them, is great for scouring the landscape for, one, problems, and two, solutions. Also, to scour the landscape for understanding of local context elsewhere. So the frequent thing, "Oh, university of Miami Ohio is doing this, or Miami University of Ohio is doing this, and here's the context, here's what we learned." And that becomes worth its weight in gold. Now, I like to even go beyond that and take this to industry. So I frequently, because of my industry record, I reach out to industry. I just did hour and a half with actually Kevin Chow and an old hand at large scale ERP implementations in industry, Pat Moroney out of Chicago. He chided us and say, "Industry's not terribly dissimilar from higher education, but here's where we do differ and here's what we did differently."

So I'll often do the scouring for this in industry as well. And I think higher ed should do more of that. Maybe that's an area of growth for higher education is, how do we tap for best practice scrolling, searching within the realm of industry. So I think these are very helpful for keeping an eye on the current landscape. You'll see signals out there that represent patterns of change. So scouring for those signals is helpful as well for trying to think about what would affect our institution going forward basis. So they're invaluable. We all live in a fishbowl, so to speak, and so we got to meet and greet the other fishes in that fishbowl.

Cynthia Golden: I agree.

Jack Suess: So Vince, to me, you really are a model for what I would call this integrative CIO role, and you've accomplished so much at all the institutions you've been at. I'm curious, do you like the term integrative CIO? And if so, how do you feel it relates to this broad area of leading with wisdom?

Vince Kellen: Well, I don't dislike the term, but I also like it too. I always often said, "We're chief integration officers." "What do you integrate?" I said, "Data, information, humans, processes, thought." Technology brings its own ontological commitments and framework, often unbeknownst to institutions that adopt it. So it brings values and principles and ways of collaborating as human beings that are often dimly understood until well after the implementation. The CIO has to be the guide to walk the institution through that. So therefore, we've got to be worried about the integration of everything. The integration of politics, the integration of pay, the integration of promotion, the integration of people, the integration of relationships, data, systems, you name it.

To me, it looks like all one big bundle of stuff, not separable pieces that are kind of inexorably intertwined with each other in many cases beneficially so. In fact, I would say we're weavers. We weave together those strands of human politics, technology, and local context in a way that is very enduring for our institution and gives us an advantage. So I like the term, and I think you can talk forever about it. In terms of leading with wisdom, that I don't like so much, because I don't think we're all that wise, quite frankly. I'd much rather say leading through a self-awareness, something a little more mundane.

Jack Suess: Thank you.

Cynthia Golden: Well, this has been a great conversation, Vince. Thank you so much for sharing your day with us.

Vince Kellen: Thank you. It was a good conversation.


This episode features:

Vince Kellen
University of California, San Diego

Cynthia Golden
Associate Provost
University of Pittsburgh

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