President Astrid Tuminez on UVU’s Digital Transformation [podcast]

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Community Conversations | Season 2, Episode 5 | Originally recorded on July 28, 2021

John O'Brien talks with Astrid S. Tuminez, President of Utah Valley University, about prioritizing digital transformation on her campus.

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John O'Brien: Welcome. Thanks for joining another EDUCAUSE Community Conversation. I'm here today with President Tuminez from Utah Valley University. And we're here to talk about digital transformation, not as a well worn phrase or as the rhetorical flourish it sometimes is, but in the concrete context of a president who's prioritizing DX on her campus. Welcome, President Tuminez.

Astrid Tumin: Thank you, John.

John O'Brien: At EDUCAUSE every year we publish a top 10 IT issues, for 2021, nothing was normal, and so we didn't have 10. We instead had three scenarios we explored, three post-pandemic scenarios, asking campuses to think about whether they plan to restore everything as soon as possible, to evolve what they were doing as a campus, or whether to transform? What are you planning for UVU?

Astrid Tumin: I think all three of those are relevant, restore, evolve, and transform. I really like the words that you've chosen. I think you restore some of your old interaction, obviously coming back face-to-face. You restore, hopefully, an optimistic spirit after a very difficult year. Not just because of the pandemic, but the bitter politics in the country. And then I think evolving means, learning from the past year in terms of agility, in terms of new things that we should do. Permanent remote work, it's going to be just a feature of life as we know it.

For me, there's actually nothing new, but it's an evolution, if you will, for many of my colleagues. And because I used to work for Microsoft, a tech company, I was very used to working remotely. And I've emphasized here that it's all a question of trust and clarifying what the expectations and deliverables are. And in many instances, people could do it from wherever they need to do it. It's not always true for all cases. So, that's an evolution. Policies have to evolve, even facilities have to evolve.

So, we are creating new spaces, hoteling spaces, phone booths, conference rooms, that anybody could use if they're working remotely and didn't want to be on campus. And then transform is probably the hardest part. We are never going to restore everything 100% to March 10 2020. We actually have to transform. And it's probably long overdue in the higher education sector. The disruption has been going on for a very long time in higher ed. Our culture is not always known for agility, and I think that transformation, it comes with a mindset that we have, understanding who the people are that we're trying to serve with higher education, and then really putting students more at the center of everything we do. And then, being very accountable for our resources and what is expected of us. We have to deliver for our students, so the transformation, I think, is also very real.

John O'Brien: And higher education, as you say, is not known for its speed, or if its speed is talked about, it's probably recognized as glacial. That's the story we've been telling ourselves for as long as I've been in higher ed. Do you really think and hope that there's a different story being created as we speak?

Astrid Tumin: I certainly hope so, because frankly, the context will not let us keep doing things the way we've been doing them. Anyone who is in higher ed or anyone who follows higher education is well aware of the crisis in enrollment throughout the country, the crisis in funding, the student debt crisis, and the fact that our citizens today question the very value of higher education. So, three decades ago, when I was in college, it would've been unthinkable for anyone to say, "You don't need to go to university." Or, "You don't need a college degree." We still were very much in that post-World War II ethos of getting an education, getting your skills and competencies in your degrees, and then moving on in life and in work.

And so, I think that we would be ignoring the need for agility and transformation at our own peril. And we already see across the country, budget cuts, because enrollment is very low. We have seen colleges closing. We've seen departments closing. Those are very, very painful decisions to make. And with the COVID pandemic, UVU, that was the second year of my presidency, we had a 2% base budget cut from the legislature. That, of course, wasn't drastic. We were able quickly to pivot and very, very few furloughs, single digit layoffs. But we can't always say that the future will look like that. And so, I think the way that we do what we do, we need to feel a sense of urgency.

John O'Brien: I want to pursue your particular sector. I just finished doing a fireside chat at [AskU's 00:05:18] Academic Summer Conference. And your comments make me think everything is harder at state universities, where you're dependent on state support at a time when over the last two decades, where that has just gone in one direction and it's not been good. Do you see digital transformation as an imperative to respond to this ongoing, lingering, but consistent crisis in funding?

Astrid Tumin: Yes, absolutely. So, the context, again, for Utah Valley University, UVU, is that we have a legislature that still appreciates higher education and a citizenry that greatly values education. So, in the State of Utah, the legislature has been generous and still is generous. In fact, our funding went up in the last legislative session and the economy here is strong. So, the legislature funds anywhere from 46% to 68% of the budgets of the eight institutions of higher education in the State of Utah.

So, digital transformation, what role does it play? I think you certainly have online education, virtual. A lot of legislators will talk about that. Students want that. It helps them to finish. At UVU, 80% of our students work while going to school. So, even before the pandemic, the hybrid student, meaning someone who takes a lot of face-to-face classes, but also because of their schedule, because they work, they need to be able to take their other courses online, that was already going on before the pandemic.

And some are hybrid where some of your students are in the classroom and others are remote. So, all of that requires an investment in technology, in training of faculty, and an investment in changing behaviors and in changing thought processes. So, that's digital transformation. In some cases, by the way, it's not always a money savings. Eventually you should save money, but sometimes upfront, you're going to have to spend more investing in the right technology and training. And as I said, a change in culture as well. But eventually, we ought to be able to do the things we need to do, better and faster. And we use at UVU, the phrase delightful, our experiences should be delightful, whether we're using the intranet or revamping the website, or our students paying tuition, or our students trying to change classes.

And we, as a sector, are known as laggards in digital transformation. And so, I think slowly but surely being able to map that and telling our stakeholders, which includes parents, students, and the government, the legislature, the governor's office, that, "Here is how we're trying to change." And by the way, we will not have 100% success here, because in the case of technology and digital transformation, you try to do things faster and you will iterate. And so, you need to prepare people also for failure and making a better effort, but you're not going to have five years of a committee meeting. You're just not, it's wrong.

John O'Brien: UVU seems lucky to have what we always hope for with digital transformation, which is a president who believes in transformative approaches. How do you incorporate that into your mission and goals and strategy?

Astrid Tumin: So, incorporating digital transformation into my strategy, I think, part of this has to go back to where I came from before I became a university president. So, my last job before UVU was as regional director of corporate external and legal affairs in Southeast Asia. I had 15 countries ranging from a very wealthy Singapore, very digitized Singapore, to Myanmar, which had been closed to the world for many, many years. And in Myanmar, a SIM card used to cost $2,000. And then Indonesia, 260 million people and so on.

And what I learned as I was educating leaders in academia, in government and philanthropy in that region, was that leaders had to buy into the strategy of digital transformation. So, that's what I brought to UVU, was to signal at the very beginning, when I started, that we had to leverage technology better, understand it better, buy better. Use your resources, don't buy everything, and you never use them. And then, strip away the things that you don't need, simplify, pick a platform. And ownership at the very top level in the C-suite, if you will, is critical. So, I immediately started looking for a vice president for digital transformation. This university never had one before. And that was both for signaling reasons, that this is very important to the core strategy of the university. And second, to actually have someone who owns it, who knows what she or he would be doing.

John O'Brien: And that leader is Kelly Flanagan, your Chief Information Officer, Vice President Digital Transformation and CIO. Correct? And is Kelly on your cabinet?

Astrid Tumin: That is correct. Kelly Flanagan, Dr. Kelly Flanagan, who he used to be a professor at Brigham Young University and did a lot of research. He is a member of my cabinet. And what's important is the dynamics among cabinet members. So, you have student affairs, you have your provost, you have your vice president for administration and facilities, and strategic relations, and government relations. Essentially, what Kelly is doing in the cabinet is really connecting with every member of the cabinet, because he has to have a clear understanding of the priorities. And then, when you understand the priorities and you understand the dots that need to connect, that is when you can say, "What kind of technology, how do we make it happen?" Both the hardware, software and your people-ware.

And I also make sure that Kelly connects closely with our academic affairs stream. So, all of the deans, the faculty senate, the provost, because at the end of the day, our core workforce is the faculty, you cannot go anywhere without your faculty. And we have to respect that. We have to help them understand. There's a lot of skepticism, which is very natural. And people are always afraid that all you're doing is window dressing. And that is the last thing that I want to happen. So, it's very far from that. It's very serious. It's methodical and systematic, and we massively communicate what we're trying to do. It is all in progress, but the communication is so important. And then again, like I said earlier, preparing people for some frustration and failure, because you don't always ... Everything doesn't happen as smoothly as you would like it to, but it is very transformative across campus.

John O'Brien: It's easy for me to see the benefits of having someone like Dr. Flanagan, providing visible leadership in that role of digital transformation. I can also see somebody arguing on the other hand that you also need digital transformation to be everybody's job. And how do you do both of those things, have a clear single person who goes to sleep at night worrying about digital transformation, but also having everybody else also see that they are a critical role in this as well?

Astrid Tumin: In my cabinet it is pretty clear that yes, we have vice president for digital transformation, but that it is everybody's job. So, let's take, for example, the student experience from recruitment all the way to becoming an alumni. That whole process, Dr. Flanagan would not be the expert on that process. And so, our Associate vice president for enrollment has worked very closely with his team to make sure that the technical solutions coincide or align with the actual needs of the students, because we survey the students every fall. We ask them, "What are the greatest pain points in your experience?" And we try to track if the pain points disappear or get alleviated.

So, the other thing that I mentioned earlier is the importance of communication. So, digital transformation has its own website within the university website. And Kelly is expected to communicate on a regular basis with the deans, with the Academic Affairs Council, and also with the faculty senate and with another council here, the University Executive Council, which includes all of the senior executives and all of the deans. So, it's all of the academic side and the administrative side.

And you can never over-communicate. That's my mantra. People need to what you're doing and why, and that's how they buy in and that's how they understand what the effort is supposed to produce. And then, they'll know who to go to when they're confused or things are difficult. So, it is really ownership across campus. I actually talk about digital transformation in my broadcast, through the community. I do a regular broadcast called Talk with Tuminez, and I've had Kelly there as a guest. We update people on what's happening. So, the bottom line is you have to communicate, communicate, communicate.

John O'Brien: Hearing you talk about the role of the CIO at your university is exactly what we've talked about in terms of the CIO becoming not just a CIO who attends to technology matters, but a CIO who is essentially integrative, who connects the dots, who paints a bigger picture. It sounds like you're in a lucky position to have that at UVU.

Astrid Tumin: What I really want to say is, I want to keep repeating, technology is just a tool. Anything digital is just a tool. At the end of the day, the problems we are trying to solve are only very partially technical. In the lingo of leadership, the problems we're trying to solve are adaptive problems, adapting to new situations, new tools, adapting to new speeds that are required, adapting to new ways of working. And so, that's where the CIO really is a strategic role. The VP for digital transformation, that's a very strategic role at UVU.

John O'Brien: A big part of digital transformation, we talk about a lot is culture. Since you've been focused on digital transformation, how have you seen the culture at UVU change?

Astrid Tumin: Since we launched digital transformation here at UVU, there are many ways that our culture has changed. And it's also partly driven by the pandemic, right? Without the pandemic, I think the speed of culture change may have been a little bit slower. So, I will begin with our core values at this university. There are three of them, exceptional care, exceptional accountability, and exceptional results. So, we always begin with caring for one another and caring for the actual needs of people, and where they are in their own evolution in using digital tools and being innovative, and of being unafraid of tech and being unafraid to fail and unafraid to iterate. So, exceptional care.

And then, exceptional accountability. We are very careful with how we spend resources. We ask questions. With the pandemic, there was so much speed. And that again, driven by the fact that we had to move 6,000 courses, 6,000 sections online within a matter of days. And so, that agility had to come to the fore. And then, we had so many faculty members raise their hands for training. So, we now have over 50% of our faculty fully certified to teach online. And we were trying to achieve 34% of our courses online and we, of course, surpassed that at 100% during COVID. And now it's a matter of triaging which ones will be permanently online and which ones not, because those courses are filling up fast, we're finding, for fall semester.

And the third, value exceptional results. We graduated our largest cohort of graduates in our history during COVID. And part of digital transformation, no commencement anywhere, but we did a massive one in the parking lot, LED screens. It's very exciting. We had a rock band, we had firework. So, not all of that is digital, but we were able to make it work and accommodate thousands of students and their families. And so, I think where we are now, we have professors also raising their hands to be able to do a fuller suite of digitally transformed pedagogy. So, not just going online, because that's quite boring or that can be quite boring, but doing other things in terms of your interaction, synchronous and asynchronous, and doing really creative things with content, you don't even have to generate, because today content is everywhere.

So, the shift in culture has to do with speed, caring for one another, being more accountable for our resources. And then, celebrating some of the things that have brought delight and real results in student success. And then knowing also that things also have not worked out perfectly. All of that is a change in culture. I think it's exciting. It makes us feel more energetic, I think, maybe younger, and we are going through a bit of reinvention.

John O'Brien: That was a beautiful answer. Thank you. As everything digital comes to the fore of our attention, a new question has emerged lately. What does digital ethics look like to you at UVU?

Astrid Tumin: Yes. Thank you for that question. Interestingly, at UVU, we teach ethics across the curriculum. And so, digital ethics certainly is part of that. In fact, I taught a course on leadership in the fall of 2020 and I had a segment where I talked about digital ethics. The first part of that is to address the fact that we have the haves and have nots. And during the pandemic that became even more stark, as we realized that the problem was, students simply didn't have connectivity or didn't have laptops. And we hurried and bought laptops and portable broadband, so that they could take it home, borrow it from the library.

We kept the library and the computer lab open throughout COVID. It never closed. So, in terms of ethics, technology is a wonderful thing. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is terrific. We have AI. But all of that, sometimes I roll my eyes, because I think, when you think about billions of people in the world and some of them are here in the United States, it's not as if they're all in third world countries. So, addressing the issue of the haves and have nots and how we expand exposure to computers and digital literacy and information literacy. How do you judge information when you finally have access to broadband and the internet? So, all of that, I think has to do with ethics, just the haves and the have nots.

Maybe a second part of that then has to do with morals and values and even democracy. We have these very powerful platforms. What is the proper way of using these platforms? What are the limits of free speech? I lived in Singapore for 10 years, where speech was limited. You can't insult religion or ethnicity, because they never want to have those deadly riots that they had in the late '60s. What is truth? And what is the role of a university in teaching and training students to look at information critically and then be able to make sound judgements?

When there's disinformation on the COVID virus, what do we do? And then of course, maybe finally, one of the things that I would say is just, there is a dark side to our digitized world. I've done a lot of work on cybersecurity. We have a big nonprofit here in Utah that works on trafficking, on preventing trafficking and addressing it directly where it happens. And so, there's the very, very dark side of the internet, and I think at the very least, we ought to be aware of it. Cybersecurity in particular, as a university, we require cybersecurity training here. There are roughly four or five trainings that every staff and faculty member is required to take. And cybersecurity is one of them, because we are only as strong as our weakest link. And so therefore, people have to take that responsibility seriously, because their behaviors could impact all of us. And I think that's ethical, that's part of ethics.

John O'Brien: You mentioned cybersecurity required training for faculty and staff. Are students include in that requirement?

Astrid Tumin: No, we do not train students, because it's very difficult to require and we have 42,000 students. And so, really going after them and requiring that would be very difficult. But the biggest usage of our platform, are faculty and staff, and so I think that is a great place to put our efforts in.

John O'Brien: Yeah. And they have all the access rights, the students don't have. The amount of damage they can do is different from-

Astrid Tumin: Yes.

John O'Brien: And ransomware has us all running these days.

Astrid Tumin: Yes. Yes. The University of Utah had ransomware. I think that was two years ago, and had to pay over half a million dollars order to get their systems back.

John O'Brien: You're a former Microsoft executive, and one of the stories higher ed tells itself is that there's this vast difference between the business world and higher ed. And usually, it's to see higher ed as so slow compared to how quickly ... And what a great chance to ask an executive at Microsoft, what was your impression of higher ed? Is that story that we tell ourselves true, or is there something more complicated going on?

Astrid Tumin: It's very interesting. Coming from the corporate world, it's been very interesting for me to become a university president. Of course, I've had prior academic experience at the National University of Singapore and at Harvard University. But coming here was a little bit of a shock to my system, in the sense that the technology was very different from what I was used to at Microsoft. We just had great technology. And so, immediately I was making a list of what we needed in order to digitally transform.

As far as speed as well, I think I had to get used to the university being slower, but I've tried to address that very directly. I am known to say to my colleagues and to faculty that, "I don't want to have the same conversation three months from now, six months from now." I have very little patience for three years of committee meetings. I believe that the right thing to do is put the committee to rest, if it can't agree on a final set of actions that we should take.

My experience in the corporate world, and I have a decade of experience, both at Microsoft and AIG Global Investment on Wall Street, it's led me to appreciate speed, it's led me to appreciate accountability, and it's led me to appreciate rewards. How do you reward people so that you get the right behaviors? And I think that should not be unique to the corporate world. I think in academia, we could inject some of this culture, if you will, of accountability and rewards and feedback giving.

So, UVU is a performance management system. It is a pioneering effort. And I learned that from Microsoft, that at the end of every year, and we worked so hard that I could sit down with every member of my team and give them clear, direct, honest, but kind, feedback. And I think we're not used to that in academia. So, even when you do retention tenure promotion, we want to be polite. But at the end of the day, we have to do the right thing for the institution and our students.

And so, I think some of these things may be very different, what I'm bringing to the university. And the other thing that I bring, of course, is just exposure to technology, being smart about your technology, understanding cybersecurity. When you purchase things, know what you're purchasing and make sure they don't contradict all the other things you've purchased. And that you actually train people to use what you have. To appreciate simplicity, pick a few platforms, really hold people accountable to learning and using, and being unafraid to feel a little ignorant sometimes. And as academics, we don't like to feel that we are not experts. The culture in universities is built on expertise. And yet, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution age, you've got to be ... You know what? My former ultimate boss, Satya Nadella, at Microsoft, said that, "We have to be the learn-it-all rather than the know-it-all."

John O'Brien: This is fascinating. I'd love to just sit and talk to you about this for a long time. You mentioned speed, accountability, and reward. And it would be easy to see speed as a growth opportunity for higher ed, but I think we tend to see sometimes speed as being blocked by shared governance. And I'm curious, have you discovered some new approaches to shared governance that would allow you to balance that speed, accountability, and reward in a different way?

Astrid Tumin: I'm often asked about shared governance and I think that's a great principle, because at the end of the day, teams and organizations succeed only when they're united. And you can sustain performance only when there's a solid amount of unity. It doesn't have to be 100%, you'll never take everybody with you, but you have to have enough people who believe in the mission and the changes. And so, with shared governance, I'm lucky that I've had a wonderful relationship and with the faculty senate presidents, I've already worked with two in the three years that I've been here at Utah Valley University. I have a great provost, who's an effective communicator and has the right personality that aligns with what faculty want and expect. And we try to really have a civil and very respectful conversation throughout campus.

However, it's also really important to say, what is shared governance? Does it mean that the faculty makes all the decisions and everything? The answer to that is no, you never dictate what the curriculum's going to be, or how they're going to teach it. But when it comes to scheduling, I think there's a lot of leeway there for administrators to say, "If you don't schedule, you will delay students' graduation by a year or a semester."

I think it's also really helpful when I bring to faculty senate facts about our budget, and how I interact with the legislature, because sometimes faculty may not be aware of the numerous stakeholders whose opinions and decisions impact the university. That's everything from the citizenry to parents, to donors, to the governor's office and the legislature, and the Utah Board of Higher Education. So, I think the methodology is really one of fundamental respect, clear and direct communication, and occasionally agreeing to disagree. That will happen at universities. We don't have to be afraid of that. And sometimes it's difficult and stressful, but I think what leads to honest and good decisions is when we ask ourselves, "Is this helping the student, or is this blocking the student?" And we are an open admission university. It is a very complicated mandate.

John O'Brien: Last question. I guarantee that there's a number of CIOs out there who are envious and imagining how great it would be to have a president who understood technology and the transformational promise of technology so well. What advice would you have for a CIO who isn't so lucky?

Astrid Tumin: I think for CIOs, if you don't work for a president or a CEO who more fully understands the powerful nature of technology and how transformative it can be, is you have to begin driving that conversation. And in fact, it would be really negligent of a CIO not to drive that conversation. Technology doesn't sit in a corner anymore, where you can just be reactive because something broke. It's an absolutely wrong way to think about technology.

All businesses today, hospitals, plastics makers, oil and gas, name any industry, everything is a digital industry. And your market, the people you are serving, will move away from you. And I think it's true for universities as well. If we don't understand the strategic nature of digital technologies, we will fail in what we're trying to do, or we will not be as effective. And so I think for the CIO, don't be shy. I think you have to be courageous. You have to be clear. And then, show some initial successes. It's important to show, to demonstrate that there is a very real concrete effect that people would really like. And when you show it to them, you get those converts who will work with you. And you begin with a few and hopefully that expands, but your president and your CEO is a really important person to bring along.


This episode features:

Astrid Tuminez
Utah Valley University

John O'Brien
President and CEO