The Higher Education Chief Information Officer (CIO)
A 30 Year Perspective
Ronald Black, Georgian Court University
Higher Education exists as a community of scholars dedicated to the creation and dissemination of
knowledge and the preparation of future leaders in a global society. For many students there are significant barriers
to full participation in this teaching and learning experience. Technology is intended to break down the barriers of
time and space and enable more of our students to participate and collaborate with faculty and other students.
Certain critical thresholds must be met in order to use technology to communicate, collaborate, and transform
teaching and learning. Technology can help the learner to get connected to information and learning communities;
expand participation in the teaching and learning process; improve access to learning materials, experts, and peers;
and provide new channels for active learning. These new teaching and learning options will require substantial
Technology by itself does not improve or cause changes in learning. Today online learning environments
have many capabilities and the potential to widen options and opportunities available to teachers and learners. The
key to changing conditions for improving learning is how these options and opportunities are implemented. The
value of technology for higher education is proportional to the need for that technology to impact on educational
objectives. The current use of technology involves the restructuring and the re-development of new teaching and
learning models that match the unique capabilities and features of the technology media. To carry out this complex
paradigm shift and address higher education’s challenges the technology leadership must develop effective
partnerships and collaborative efforts internally and externally.
There is a major need for most colleges and universities to confront the intense local and national
competition, to enhance academic programs to meet the challenges of this competition, and to develop new teaching
and learning strategies to meet the demands of a global marketplace
Leading information technology in higher education has changed significantly since the 1970’s. In fact the title of
Chief Information Officer did not exist 30 years ago and today there is no standard career path to the position.
CIO’s today have come from the campus technology staff, academic administration, and yes, even from the faculty.
The qualifications for a CIO in higher education today vary but are mostly the same as the qualifications for any
senior administrative position:
proven leadership skills
strong management skills
expert technical skills
and a solid grasp of all three.
Having these very different but very critical skill sets is imperative to lead information technology in higher
education today. In an Educause article on Leadership, Carol A. Cartwright, President of Kent State University
explains that the Chief Information Officer in higher education must be a “Leader, Manager, and Member of the
Executive Orchestra”. She goes on to say “As technologies and IT issues become increasingly more complex, the
CIO’s roles as educator and communicator will be even more vital…the CIO must not only be able to perform as an
effective soloist, providing the technology perspective, but also must be able to perform in concert with others in the
“executive orchestra” placing technology within the big picture of the institutional mission and goals.
The past three decades have seen the role of the CIO emerge beyond the data centers cutting across all
areas of the institution expanding into senior leadership roles throughout higher education. In the past, the chief
information officer mostly took care of the mainframe computers and the software that was installed for business
and administrative processes. The IT staff made sure that terminals and printers were wired but rarely left their
“glass walled office” to help users. The advent of the personal computer and the World Wide Web has changed all
of that. The technical doors opened for staff and faculty at an outstanding pace. Hardware and software was
distributed throughout the campus and user support became a key factor. The role of the IT Director quickly began
to change. There was a growing realization on campuses of the strategic value of information technology for
teaching and learning as well as the management of the institution.
The 1970s were dominated by large mainframe computers pioneered by IBM’s System 360/370 product
line and an extensive array of sophisticated peripherals. These computers required expansive facilities with raised
floors, air conditioning and extensive power requirements. These facilities were called data centers or data
processing centers and usually were located in the basements of administrative buildings. As noted earlier, the 70s
CIO was often called the Data Center Manager, or DP Manager with primarily responsibility as a technician or
computer programmer. The operation of these data centers were dominated by the manager, centralizing all
decisions, funding, management, operation, and use through the manager.
The CIO of the 70s was charged with maintaining the machine-based records of their institutions with a
specific focus on administrative computing. Academic computing was nearly non-existent. In this decade CIOs
were primarily concerned about how best to organize staffs, programs and data to accommodate the needs of
administrative functions. Most administrative systems were custom designed and programmed by the CIO and the
staff of computer operators and programmers.
The CIO and staff members were often selected from administrative ranks within the institution or hired
from local industry. The need for special skills that differed from skills found among traditional administrators set
the stage for salary challenges in higher education. These new positions required special salary scales that deviated
from the standard salaries of higher education administrators. Most often these salaries were 20 to 30 % higher than
the standards because of the skill requirements and the fact that computing was new to higher education. This was
an especially difficult problem with public institutions with fixed salary scales set at the state level. Private
institutions had much more flexibility in setting salaries. The key to these new positions was the fact that a new data
processing CIO or staff member’s key characteristic was technical knowledge not institutional knowledge.
The mission of the 70s data processing centers within higher education was that of service, accepting
priorities for system modifications, updating and creation from the functional department manager. These systems
ranged from accounting, personnel/payroll, or student records based on a silo of data files unique to the system.
Little or no integration of data took place. Given that all data and information was processed on a single computer
most data centers operated 24 hours per day which led to large staffs of keypunch operators, computer operators and
As the 70s came to an end a significant transition began to take place in the data centers. Higher education
administrators recognized that computers could be useful no only to automate functional administrative areas but
also to serve as “management information” systems. The CIO was challenged to move from a data processing
methodology to an information systems methodology. Talks began to take place concerning “integration” of data
and information moving toward a common institutional database replacing the silos of files. This perspective was
prompted by computer system vendors providing database management technologies and methodologies for
implementing integrated management information systems. The role of the CIO changed from one of data base
manager to database manager.
With this transition, the CIO was faced with a new set of challenges that changed the service role of the
institutional technology organization. These challenges including the conversion of file systems to database
systems, the determination of “ownership” of data and responsibility for entry and updating, the authorization to
view, change and delete data, and the establishment of priorities for using an integrated, common database within
the institution. Meeting these challenges demanded that decisions be made with implications for the entire
institution. The CIO of the 70s was not prepared for this new role.
As the 1980s approached the evolution from a data and service approach to an information and decision
making approach has sparked lively debates between the CIO and technology users. To implement this transition
the CIO was faced on replacing the main-frame computer with the new minicomputers. In an effort to focus on
information, smart terminals or personal computers operating in terminal emulation mode began to become the user
preferred computing tool but this brought further challenges for the CIO. Academic departments found value in the
personal computer and its use in the classroom. Suddenly higher education found a new technology tool to not only
support and enhance administrative computing but found that the use of this new technology will assist in increasing
enrollment. As the capabilities of the personal computer become known administrative and academic users began to
assume responsibilities that were once held by centralized data centers, changing the managerial/organizational
equation. This new generation of computer users forced the decentralization of technology decision-making,
acquisitions, and application development. In other words the CIO lost control, and the end users relished in their
glory of taking over technology direction.
This transition for the CIO and the technology organization was significant. Minicomputers and personal
computers were finding their niches throughout the institution as the CIO was seeking solutions to the problems of
increased staff requirements for decentralized system development and maintenance. The rationale for a single
computing vendor concept was changed as multiple vendors initiated strategies to infiltrate higher education. The
home grown administrative systems were being replaced by vendor-designed software and support, once again
changing the role of the CIO to one of decision maker and implementer from one of operations manager and
programmer. The CIO’s role shifted from “data processing manager’ to the new role of “information manager”.
Madeline Weiss points out in the September/October issue of CIO Magazine “It is the CIOs job to lead the
development of information policy that will enable the assimilation of information and supporting technologies …”
This new orientation for information technology and support systems will create new niches, new
challenges, and new visions for the CIO. The CIO is challenged with the role to develop new information systems
to serve all administrative and now academic departments, meet the challenges, and realize the visions as we enter
The 1990’s to Today
The creation of the Management Information Systems department where technologies were decentralized
throughout the institution focused on user involvement and use of the technology with limited interaction with the
CIO or technology staff. The transition from a period of acquiring and installing technology to one of expanding its
uses and integration throughout the entire institution began to take hold in the 1990s. The CIO began to be an active
player in assisting the institution’s leadership team to use technology in the ways that best suits the campus culture
and meet the institutions systematic needs. Moving into the 1990s the technology organization made some
movement back toward centralization, without much success. The computer user still retained control of their
technology and independence but the CIO reestablished technology leadership.
According to a study released by KPMG, LLP (1999), one of the leading professional advisory firms in the
world, titled “Transforming Higher Education: At the Gateway of the Knowledge Economy,” higher education must
transform to meet the needs of the emerging knowledge economy. The study analyzes trends and provides a
perspective on how the CIO can operate in the new century. According to the study, the changes facing higher
education are, (a) an increasing diverse student body, in terms of age, race, gender, work, background, needs and
interests; (b) students who are no longer mastering bodies of knowledge for a single career are acquiring the skills
needed to access information, solve problems, and communicate; (c) students who are less likely to be learning at
the workplace, home, or on the road; and (d) students, parents, employers, and policymakers are increasingly
evaluating education in terms of a return on investment. As we begin the 21st century the CIO is faced with
revolutionary change, requiring institutions to reassess market position, and embark in new technology directions.
Universities are often at the leading edge in the use of technology for research but the CIO has been slower to apply
leading technology in the classroom, and slower still to apply it to the administrative side of the institution. The
challenge of the future is to explore and use the power of technology in teaching students and running the operation.
The Internet is fundamentally changing relationships, blurring the lines between teachers and students. It is
a new economic order, based on a new currency called knowledge, which fundamentally changes the playing field.
The result is new rules of competition, with new requirements for the faculty, new challenges for the CIO, and new
demands for higher education.
The debates are growing more intense about higher education's ability to respond to the needs of the
knowledge economy. Consultants Michael G. Dolence and Donald M. Norris estimate that a new campus would
have to be opened every eight days in order to meet the demands of the full-time equivalent enrollment of one-
seventh of the workforce at any point in time. The solution they see will not be more college campuses but a variety
of providers and new types of facilitators, learning agents, and intermediaries with far greater competition and
choice. They continue to stress the transformation from teacher-centered strategies to learner-centered strategies.
Learner-centered strategies are built around learner objectives, accommodate learner restraints, are self-paced and
self-motivated, and provide for individual learning styles.
Massey and Zemsky cite a similar challenge for higher education technology. They observe that the
demand for technology-based teaching and learning programs will grow over the next decade, and that information
technology will change the teaching enterprise. Jane Marcus of Stanford University discusses the development of
conceptual models based upon factors affecting faculty adoption of technology as part of an article by Steven Gilbert
in Change Magazine (1995). In her model, technology adoption is considered a function of available resources, the
perceived value of the innovation, and communication with other early adopters. Her research provides evidence in
support of the model, indicating that social/contextual variables are as important as resources in encouraging
adoption of technology.
A significant technology transformation in higher education is the methodology used to help students get
the education they need to remain competitive in a rapidly changing world. The transformation of teaching and
learning and the creation of learning communities will be driven by the rapid change of skill sets required, the cost
of education and training, and the explosion of adult learners. The CIO ,must recognize the blurring of the lines
between the 18-21 year old student to an adult population that will be pursuing degrees in non-traditional ways,
seeking professional certification or getting training to improve job skills. These students need greater flexibility if
they are to be able to handle their course work while working.
Net-based virtual learning centers have created new ways of teaching in which exchanges among students are as
important as the exchange with the teacher. The best way to teach adults online is to form learning communities, to
get students working together in collaborative groups. This capitalizes on the strength of technology (Martin, 1998).
Using technology for teaching and learning is an adventure with unpredictable outcomes.
The Changing Role of the CIO
The Chief Information Officer is a fairly new position in higher education. In fact, it was not until 1980
that the title CIO emerged as a new senior level position. William R. Synott, speaking at the 1980 Infor’80
conference and quoted in a Computerworld article (October 20, 1980 identified the need a new high level corporate
officer as the Chief Information Officer or CIO. He further documented the role of the CIO in a book with William
H. Gruber, Information Resource Management: Opportunities and Strategies for the 1980s. The CIO concept grew
out of the information resource management concept of the late 1970s. Today the CIO continues to be linked
directly with information resource management.
Over the past thirty years, the title for those in charge of college and university computer centers has
varied. Some were called directors of data processing or computer center manager and others, director of
management information systems. In the 80’s and 90’s titles included assistant or associate vice president or
assistant or associate vice provost, or assistant or associate vice chancellor of information technology, indicating
reporting to a vice president level position. Until the late 1990s most technology leaders reported to a cabinet
member or a senior staff position. It was rare that they reported to the President or was a member of the president’s
Changing Organizational Structure
As noted earlier, the early 1970s presented large mainframe computers that everyone visited to get his or
her information. This was very similar to the people systems in many organizations; the knowledge was stored and
protected at the top. As technology progressed, access to the mainframe computer and the data stored there became
easier to obtain. Soon, smaller midrange computers were connected to the mainframe and the smaller personal
computers (PCs) could communicate with the mainframe and with each other. Some portability of information was
now available. This transference of control of the information was mirrored in organizational structures as
technology networks began to link the people and the technology. Computers on each person’s desk allowed a vast
improvement in the relationship between the administrators, faculty, staff and the CIO.
In Us, A Theory, the authors begin their discussion of technology networks with the statement. “ For 25
years, we have been giving voice to the idea that ‘the network is a form of organization,’ the evolutionary successor
to hierarchy-bureaucracy” (Stamps & Lipnack, 2004, p.1). Viewing an organization as a network is viewed as a
method to derive better ways of working together. While hierarchical organizations are limited by their structure, a
networked organization is released from this constraint. Many higher education institutions are in some degree of
flux between traditional hierarchical structures and the enabling technology network structure.
Using the analogy of computer networks to describe higher education organizations as networks brings to
light some interesting insights. Many different computer network topologies are in existence today, but most
topologies depend on some centralization of authority and responsibility. Personal computers frequently have only
one connection to the network. Other nodes have multiple connections to the network and provide alternate paths for
accessing or sharing information.
Technological systems have created the possibility of greater connectivity and the expanded ability to
involve more people in the learning process. For this to be a value-added component in adding to the body of
existing knowledge, higher education systems for teaching and learning as well as administrative management must
become aligned with the technology. If these two elements are properly aligned, the CIO will have the advantage of
better knowledge and collaborative thinking at his disposal.
Information and Knowledge
What is the difference between information and knowledge? Bollinger and Smith (2001) stated,
“Information is processed data and can reside within computers. Because of the far-reaching effects of globalization,
it is increasingly available to everyone”. Furthermore, Bollinger and Smith define knowledge as “the understanding,
awareness, or familiarity acquired through study, investigation, observation, or experience over the course of time. It
is an individual’s interpretation of information based on personal experiences, skills, and competencies” (¶ 14).
Knowledge management has characteristics of a strategic asset to an organization and this information
contributes to the competitive advantage of a company (Bollinger & Smith, 2001). Explicit and tacit knowledge
allows knowledge sharing to expand within an organization through various channels such as networking, teaching,
leadership, and mentor roles. Cai (2006) stated, “The knowledge management systems built upon these approaches
included three types of functions: the coding and sharing of best practices, the creation of corporate knowledge
directories, and the creation of knowledge networks”.
Technology demands, leadership changes, and bureaucratic regulations create dramatic shifts within the
institution including facilitations and control to decentralization information technology. The paradigm shift away
from routine academic and administrative systems to knowledge sharing management supports technology
networking through as a new emerging form of technology leadership. The emergent leadership model requires
strategy, measurement of real time, a focus on decisions, and adoption processes and procedures (Mankins, 2004).
Furthermore, the CIO and technology teams in the global academic world depend on collaboration and networking
to accomplish knowledge sharing. Decentralized leadership occurs over global networks through virtual reality.
Hales (2002) stated, “New managers engage in team leadership, negotiating integrated effort across boundaries,
inspiring and promoting organizational learning, and conceiving, instigating and facilitating change” (p. 55). The
new CIO role allows more freedom from hierarchical analysis, which allows more room for creativity and
innovation. Knowledge management allows the CIO to share their skills and knowledge with others and
simultaneously, this dynamic learning allows employees to add to their knowledge base. Additionally, the faculty
and staff working in networked teams use their social skills to acquire new knowledge, and share acquired
knowledge with each other. The cyclical process allows the CIO to stay on the competitive edge of innovation in the
The transformation of information technology in higher education has gone from a period of acquiring and
installing technology to one of expanding its uses and integration throughout the entire fabric of the institution.
Brian Hawkins in “A Framework for the CIO Position” reports “The need for the CIO position in academia really
began with the need to manage and coordinate computing and information technology services with the dramatic
influx of microcomputers and networks in the earl-to-mid 1980s.” In “The Chief Information Officer in Higher
Education” a report authored by James Penrod, Michael Dolence, and Judith Douglas highlights the result of a
survey conducted in 1989. The report identifies that the new position of CIO has the line responsibility for the units
of academic and administrative computing, and voice and data communications. the report highlights the fact that in
higher education the CIO must focus on the institution’s educational mission, which translates to supporting
teaching and learning, research and scholarship, as well as improving administrative systems. Today as it was in
1990, the CIO position is significantly shaped by the primary mission and culture of the institution.
Mark Cain points out in “The Rise of the CIO in Higher Education”, “No longer merely a purveyor of
hardware and software, the CIO could also be called the CCA, Chief Change Agent, of the institution. Important,
mission-critical student services such as Web registration enabled by technology. Processes are being re-
engineered, Web forms are replacing paper forms, and arcane manual procedures are being eliminated. Staff time
can be reclaimed; the occasional position can even be eliminated. Higher education institutions are actually
collecting money with technology: tuition and fees, spirit wear sales receipts, alumni donations, etc...”
The CIO is increasingly being recognized as a key senior administrator in colleges and universities. This
will continue to be driven by institutions realizing that academic and administrative technology is critical to support
the institution’s strategic development. The 21st century CIO will be expected to advance the use of technology by
the faculty and students providing increased value to the academic programs. Through collaboration with
administrators, faculty and students, the CIO’s role will extend far beyond the traditional boundaries of information
technology requiring leadership across the institution.
Organizational stewardship in the coming millennium will require more effective decisions at all levels of
the organization. The distinction between leadership and management will again become less distinct and the need
to capitalize all employees’ abilities will be a requirement to survive and thrive in the global marketplace. Peter
Drucker notes that “economic growth can come only from a very sharp and continuing increase in the productivity
of the one resource in which the developed countries still have an edge (and which they are likely to maintain for a
few more decades): the productivity of knowledge work and of knowledge workers (Drucker, 1998).”
Today’s higher education institution is becoming increasingly complex. The internal forces are pushing for
change in academic programs and further use of technology in the classroom, as well as, the external forces pushing
for new ways of assessing the institution’s performance, demanding that intuitions strategically use technology in all
phases of administration and academics. Technology is a major fact in whether or not the institution can survive
these demands. Students today expect computers, Internet tools, laptop programs, wireless and integrated networks
so that they may effectively collaborate with other students, the faculty and the administration. As a result, more
CIOs in higher education report directly to the President and serve on the President’s cabinet.
Mark Polansky, managing director and member of the advanced technology practice of Korn/Ferry
International in New York City, noted in CIO Magazine in his article, “The CIO Top 10” that:
“The number one requirement for the position of chief information officer is leadership. This is
the quality that is not only in every search specification but most frequently comes up first an most
emphatically as in “What we really need is a leader.”
The CIO in higher education has evolved, from the mainframe era to the Internet era. The successful CIO
in the 21st century college and university has advanced from technology planning to strategic planning as knowledge
management is recognized as the core component of strategic planning. The CIO’s role will continue to be
challenging and stimulating as the CIO’s contributions are acknowledged by all higher education stakeholders.
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