John O'Brien's Quiet Start

Educause's new president and CEO has had a slow first five months on the job, but 2016 could change that.

October 27, 2015

When higher education technology officials descend on the Indiana Convention Center this week, they won’t immediately see what has changed. They will still jostle through exhibit hall crowds to pick up lanyards, tote bags and other swag, run out of business cards within a day, and spend too much time searching for a place to charge their devices.

But for the first time since 2008, a new face will welcome the thousands of attendees to the Educause Annual Conference. The organization in January named John O’Brien, a veteran Minnesota faculty member and administrator, as its new president and CEO, ending a six-month search. He replaces Diana G. Oblinger, who retired this March after leading the higher education IT organization for a decade, including seven years as president.

O’Brien spoke with Inside Higher Ed two weeks before the beginning of the conference. In the interview, he said he has maintained a “dual focus of IT coupled with strengthening higher education” throughout his career in academe, which he asserted makes him the right candidate to lead Educause.

“If you look back at my adventures, I started off as a professor and then eventually became a provost and then a president,” O’Brien said. “In between, I was actively involved in technology. When I was a faculty member, I was all about using these new technologies … to enhance and change my teaching. As a provost, I was doing the same thing at a college level. As vice chancellor of a system, I was able to do that at 31 campuses.”

He added, “Educause is all about strengthening higher education through IT. To me, that’s pretty much the definition of a dream job.”

O’Brien assumed the position on June 1, and joked that his less than five months on the job add up to “about five minutes in higher ed time.” He has filled that time with campus visits, traveling to meet with Educause members at institutions in Indiana and Massachusetts, among other places. The visits, he said, have helped him keep up with the IT issues of concern to university leaders, faculty members and staffers at some of Educause’s more than 2,000 member colleges and universities.

“I’ve been at the giving and receiving ends of technology,” O’Brien said. “The one thing I’ve learned is we need to broaden the conversation of technology, including chief academic leaders, students -- across the board.”

The visits may also help O’Brien determine which initiatives he will champion as CEO and president. For now, he is taking a wait-and-see approach, learning about Educause and its members before putting his stamp on the organization.

Oblinger’s tenure included several milestones. Under her leadership, Educause worked to connect more frequently with members through online events, rebranded the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative as the Educause Learning Initiative and launched Next Generation Learning Challenges, a grant-making program supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, among other partners.

Pressed on specifics, O’Brien said Educause will continue to support the many programs it runs today, including its publications, leadership institutes and research initiatives. The organization will add a new program to its lineup in 2016, he said, but it has yet to share any details.

“I want to see us continue to build on our strength,” O’Brien said. “The last thing the organization wants is a new leader already having figured it all out.”

But O’Brien’s patient approach is also due to the groundwork he is laying for what could lead to greater changes to Educause. This summer, the organization invited its tens of thousands of members to respond to a nine-question community poll, and this month, Educause will launch a strategic planning initiative with the goal of presenting a vision for the future of the organization at next year’s annual conference.

“We’re going to take a deep breath and ask members how we’re doing,” O’Brien said. Although he declined to share details about the strategic plan, he said it will aim to outline “ambitious but achievable goals” and avoid some common missteps (“Some [plans] are rhetorical flourishes, some are paperweights,” he said).

As part of the initiative, Educause will ask its members -- and then itself -- whether it needs to do everything it does today. Should it still maintain dozens of constituent groups? Offer digital badges for professional development? Maintain a chief information officer lounge at the annual conference? In other words, will Educause ever reach a point where it is doing too much?

“That’s a question every thriving organization has to ask itself,” O’Brien said. “That’s exactly what we’ll be doing in the strategic planning process.”

With a membership that rivals the population of a small town, Educause also needs to ensure it can remain flexible enough to respond to a rapidly changing educational technology market. That development can be seen in the technologies that capture the attention of conference goers. A few years ago, the conference was abuzz with interest in massive open online courses. Subsequent conferences generated hype for personalized learning and data analytics. This week’s conference is sure to spawn its own buzzwords.

Educause’s own research, however, indicates many colleges are struggling to keep up with the pace of change. O’Brien said he has heard the same during his campus visits, including that members in some cases rely on Educause for professional development.

“My leadership style is going to be focused on our members,” O’Brien said. “If we keep the focus on the people, that keeps us grounded. Otherwise, if it’s focused on every single new technology, it’s easy to get lost.”

Educause is unlikely to become more politically active with O’Brien as CEO and president. While the organization is “always looking at policy making,” he said, “we don’t do lobbying.” Instead, Educause will continue to build coalitions “behind the scenes” on issues that touch higher education, he said.

O’Brien pointed to Educause’s involvement in the net neutrality debate as one recent example. The organization last year joined with 10 other higher education and library groups to petition the Federal Communications Commission to enforce rules that treat all traffic on the Internet equally.

On its own, O’Brien said, Educause can offer a rebuttal to critics who question the value of higher education and the role of technology in it.

“What sustains me in this technological adventure has been this absolute fervent belief that technology has to opportunity to get traction on these ideas,” O’Brien said. “We weather the dynamic nature of what’s going on by keeping our eye on strengthening higher education.”


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