The Tech Savvy Presidency

What do college and university leaders need to know about technology as disruptive forces converge on higher education? Lucy Apthorp Leske offers advice.


March 23, 2012

“Fundamental change is coming to higher education,” say Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring in their book, The Innovative University, and the change will be driven by “…the confluence of unsustainable cost increases in the traditional model and a disruptive technology [online learning].” 

Whether they like it or not, higher education leaders have become immersed in the deep end of a complex pool of issues. Most come prepared with some sense of how to swim through strategic resource decisions to enhance academic quality, faculty retention, cost analysis, market positioning, and enrollment challenges. But what they, and leaders of all organizations world wide, are less skilled or experienced in is an understanding of technology, be it disruptive or established. The question is, what should leaders of today’s colleges and universities know about technology in order to manage the inevitable change that disruptive technology will bring?     

In our work, we support boards and search committees in their searches for new higher education presidents and CEOs. Typically these groups develop a list of competencies and experiences expected in their CEOs that are aligned with the institution’s strategic priorities; examples include the ability to raise funds or the experience organizing and executing a strategic plan. By the time higher education administrators reach the presidency, they have been mentored and developed (one hopes) in a broad range of areas to prepare them for an increasingly complex array of challenges -- financial management, academic planning, global competition for students and research funding, recruitment and retention of a high quality leadership team, and so on. 

Rarely, however, do committees and boards name an understanding of technology as a priority.  If it is articulated at all as an expectation, it is usually buried deep in the list and seldom given attention during the interview or evaluation phase.

In “Information Technology and Tomorrow’s University:  A President’s Confessions and Advice,” in the January/February 2011 edition of Educause Review, Jolene Koester, president of California State University Northridge, admits that when she took over her leadership role, the world of technology was “almost a complete mystery” to her. Despite years of experience, her access to and involvement with technology was limited to operational and functional contact.  It was not until she had been in her presidential role for several years that she realized technology in her university was “far more strategic, far more ubiquitous, far more integrated into multiple business practices, and far more integral to the core university functions of teaching and learning.” 

Given that technology was woven into nearly every aspect of her institution, the fact that neither she nor many of her fellow presidents felt comfortable enough to make either major or minor decisions regarding technology when they took on their roles suggests that today’s organizations are at risk if their CEOs lack both knowledge and confidence to understand how technology can contribute to their strategic goals.

The fact of the matter is that today’s college or university president was born prior to the metastatic spread of technology from overhead wires and backroom blinking boxes into the classroom and onto the CEO’s desk.  To be fair, they have tried to keep up.  They e-mail, text, blog, and communicate via Facebook, if not officially then with family and friends.  But, as a demographic group, they are hard pressed to explain what makes up the technological infrastructure of their institutions and exactly what all of it does. Inside Higher Ed’s 2012 Survey of College & University Presidents found that the 1,002 respondents had a median age of 61 and "generally appeared to be dependent on, captive to, but also ambivalent about the continuing investment of people and money required to acquire and support a full range of campus IT resources and services," as Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project and an author of the Inside Higher Ed survey, wrote on his Digital Tweed blog. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to attribute this quotation.)

The ambivalence, it seems, is related not so much to their lack of understanding of technology as to their view that their institutions are not fully capable of evaluating technology’s ROI.  Barely half of the group could state unequivocally that their investments were effectively supporting the missions of their institutions. 

It is not just campus administration that wants more evidence of technology’s value. Most board members know little about the extent of technology’s use and role on campuses and, thus, are skeptical that the investment yields sufficient returns. Faculty, too, question the rationale for increased technology spending when salaries and program budgets are being squeezed. Despite what appears to be limited direct knowledge by people making the capital decisions, higher education continues to invest in technology across the board, from libraries to administrative and operational computing, databases, and online learning.

Mary Ellen Jukoski, president of Mitchell College, in Connecticut, explains that technology is no longer a tool but a driver: “Trustees need to understand and support investments in technology in order to help a campus operate more efficiently, enhance the quality of the teaching and learning experience for students, and with the use of social media help recruit students to campus.”

Is it that campus leaders are less knowledgeable about technology because they question its value, or do they express concern about the return on investment because they do not understand what technology can or cannot do?  Regardless of the answer, the connection between understanding and willingness to make it a priority is clear.  It is no wonder that technological savvy is not usually the most important competency sought in presidents.

This is not to say that technology is not becoming a more strategic issue.  Like the corporate sector and the health care industry, which have been at this for much longer, higher education now recognizes a strategic rationale for creating IT executive/chief information officer (CIO) positions. Kumble Subbaswamy, provost at the University of Kentucky, observes that higher education is just scratching the surface of what technology can do to increase effectiveness in teaching and efficiency in services.  He supports the elevation of technology to a cabinet level position with attached strategic responsibilities.  According to the 2011 EDUCAUSE Core Data Service Almanac:

  • 52 percent of institutions have the highest-ranking IT officer on the presidential cabinet
  • 70 percent of institutions have a stand-alone IT strategic plan
  • 78 percent of institutional strategic plans include IT

An important attribute, therefore, for campus CEOs is not so much an understanding of technology as the ability to identify and recruit strategic leadership in that area.  Richard Miller, president of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, in Massachusetts, further suggests that campus CEOs do not need the knowhow as much as they need to ask the right questions about technology and how it will serve learning in the future.  College and university leaders should be prepared to accept that technological change is making knowledge ubiquitous and, thus, shifting how universities and colleges interact with and serve students. 

In other words, presidents may not need to know the ins and outs of hardware, software, and cloud computing, but they need to be able to accelerate how available technology contributes to achieving strategic goals.  The Inside Higher Ed survey results imply that instead of seeking leaders who understand technology or who possess clear views of its potential, we should be seeking leaders who can ask whether we are using technology effectively and evaluating its impact. 

Kenneth C. Green of The Campus Computing Project and one of the authors of the survey, says that he would recast what search committees and boards should be seeking in college and university presidents.  He suggests that committees and boards ask presidents not how familiar they are with technology but, instead, how they plan to ensure that technology is effectively supporting research, instruction, operations and management including the generation and analysis of data, and online education. 

CIO Steve Landry and Associate CIO and Director of the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center Paul Fisher, of New Jersey’s Seton Hall University, would take it one step further. With so many bells and whistles on campuses today and with every constituent group demanding the latest technological gizmo from high tech security systems to state-of-the-art marketing tools, virtual classrooms, and high speed data analysis, presidents need to be able to keep all groups focused on the ultimate bottom line in any enterprise:  how technology helps achieve institutional vision.

Seismic shifts are underway, driven by economic forces and technological advances.  Do presidents need to read or write code, design spreadsheets, or tweet?  The answer is no.  However, they had better have a well developed understanding of how to measure whether technology can effectively address top priorities, help meet strategic goals, and support the institution’s mission and vision.  Search committees and boards should insist that their campus leaders be able to answer these questions as technology continues to disrupt and change our colleges and universities.


Lucy Apthorp Leske is vice president, partner, and co-director of the education and not-for-profit practice at Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm that specializes in health care, higher education and not-for-profit organizations.


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