Q&A with EDUCAUSE chief John O'Brien


EDUCAUSE president and CEO John O’Brien was a man on the move last week as the nation’s leading nonprofit association for higher ed technology leaders held its annual convention in Philadelphia.

As the association celebrates its 20th anniversary, its 1,800 member institutions — and higher education in general — face a host of challenges as colleges and universities grapple with how to harness technology in more transformational ways to meet the changing needs of students, faculty members and the workplace at large.

EdScoop caught up with O’Brien high above the convention floor, overlooking nearly 300 technology, software and service companies exhibiting their latest offerings, to talk about how EDUCAUSE is trying to address those challenges. Prior to taking the helm at EDUCAUSE in 2015, O’Brien served as senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, the fifth-largest higher education system in the country, where he led a system-wide redesign of online systems to meet students’ needs.

EDSCOOP: You recently stated that you were trying to broaden the circle of interest and influence for tech leaders — essentially bringing together IT leaders with non-IT leaders — as part of a larger mission for EDUCAUSE. What’s prevented that kind of mixing historically? And what is EDUCAUSE trying to do to change that?

John O’Brien: We have had a long, long history of technology in higher ed being seen as a utility. I talked to a CIO recently who said that his mission statement was to be “quietly awesome,” which says it all. If you’re doing your job, the joke in IT is, nobody knows you’re there.

I really believe that we are at a different point with IT now. I believe that it’s axiomatic nowadays that technology is ubiquitous. It’s enterprise-critical in all these different ways, and it’s really the hope we have for traction in some of the most intractable problems and challenges and opportunities for student success and other things like that.

I think it was last year in our “Top 10 IT Issues” report, Susan Grajek said that IT has become an institutional differentiator, and I really believe that’s true. All of these things come together to say, we really need to think carefully and thoughtfully and consistently about IT’s placement within the strategic fabric of our institutions.

Why haven’t we done it? I think because of the very long history of our trying to figure that out — priding ourselves on being “quietly awesome.”

How would you characterize where higher ed IT leaders, and your members, are looking at this now?

Think about waterfall and agile development. The old IT is, you tell us what you need and we’ll go scurrying off into our cubicles and build something awesome and bring it to you. Agile is a shift, right? People are at different stages in that journey. It requires collaboration and incremental discussion.

We look at things like relationship building or ability to communicate effectively outside IT, and we say, “How important is that and then how good are you at that? Where are your capacities at?” There’s a decided gap, not just in CIOs, but non-CIO managers and staff as well. So, it’s an evolution. It’s something that we’re really focused on this year.

What steps is EDUCAUSE taking to get greater involvement, or participation, from higher education administrators?

One thing is the work that I’ve been doing at AGB [Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges]. We’re really forging these new connections with presidents, chancellors, trustees, because if IT is a strategic asset, then that means that’s the domain of presidents and chancellors and provosts.

This year for the first time we have 31 provosts who have been named digital fellows by the Association of Chief Academic Officers and they are here at our conference participating. We have literally hundreds of other provosts and presidents here — I met with some of them — so trying to make those connections.

I like to say the future of IT isn’t IT talking more intensively to itself. It has to be connecting across C-suites and outside of traditional silos, because if we’re a strategic asset then you can’t continue to operate within traditional structures. You have to be connected.

We still have data that shows 45 percent of CIOs aren’t on the president’s cabinet or chancellor’s cabinet. I was on the AGB task force [that’s coming out with a statement] that says, “If a campus is going to be innovative, which is not negotiable, then technology is a huge part of that.” Then you have to start thinking, what is the involvement? Are we … part of the decision-making fabric of our campus?

Thinking about EDUCAUSE’s strategy going forward, what other things do you envision or are you planning to build on?

One thing that’s different now from a year or two is I think the whole student success conversation. It has been happening for a while, but in the last year, it’s become settled science that technology tools, iPASS systems, technology enabled advising — these offer the best hope for making a difference.

We’ve been working with iPASS schools for three years and we’re seeing clear, indisputable evidence [that it’s helping], whether it’s students finishing courses faster, students finishing courses at higher percentages, students surviving one semester to the next, and with graduation rates. That’s a big, important change.

I think we’re as an association trying really hard to listen to emerging voices more intentionally. The two examples for me would be diversity — academia inclusion — and the other one is young professionals. We have a new young professionals advisory council — because they’re our future. I don’t think we’ve been as intentional as we are now about really listening to them.

A third thing is change leadership. I think we’ve been struggling with change for a while and I think now it’s just such a fundamental part of leadership in higher education.

Doubling back to your point about the increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in IT leadership: How would you characterize where we are now relative to where the commercial markets are — and how do you hope to improve it?

I have a pretty pronounced sense of urgency around it right now. If you look within higher education IT… at racial/ethnic diversity, we see about 15 percent [minority populations] in higher education IT as opposed to 34 percent in the general workforce. If you look at women in IT in higher education, I think it’s 33 percent versus 47 percent, respectively, so there’s a gap. That’s where we want to go — to close that.

You would think these kinds of things, demographic things, work themselves out over time, but in fact ,a year ago, an organization called Girls Who Code came out with that study that took your breath away. It said that the number of women in the computing workforce will actually go down by 2025. So, if higher education isn’t doing better than that and if the pipeline is not improving, then there’s a lot of important work to be done.

How do you see EDUCAUSE lending a hand to that?

Lots of people are working at it and on it, but nobody does community like EDUCAUSE, so that’s kind of what we do. There are 1,700 institutions here at the annual conference — all different kinds.

You think about what we do in security— we provide all kinds of out-of-the-box things. You want an awareness campaign, you can get that. You want best practices, we’ve got that. I’d love to see us build out the same kinds of tools and resources for campuses who want to make a difference [with diversity] there, too.

What are your thoughts on trying to make technology throughout the K-20 continuum more coherent, and better serve students throughout the whole pipeline?

Disclosure one: I actually was a licensed K-12 teacher in a different life. Disclosure two: I was a college president at a community college, where we spent a tremendous amount of time focused on … what the Gates Foundation called “loss points” — when, and why do we end up losing high school students who don’t go to college?

To be in higher education, and believe higher education offers hope and opportunity, then you have to look at that pathway, because if we lose them before they even get to us then that’s a loss for everybody.

We have an area of EDUCAUSE called Next Generation Learning Challenges that is working specifically on K-12, with a view toward pathways, so that’s an important link to us.

Looking ahead over the next five to 10 years for the association, your members and the demands of the market, what else are you focusing on?

We have three strategic priorities for the next five years:

We are focused on personalizing the member experience. One of the things EDUCAUSE does really, really well is produce this just tremendous breadth and depth of material, videos, articles, curriculum, everything. The trick is getting you what you need when you need it at your point of need.

The personalized member experience … we’re going to move over the next five years toward getting good at that. Instead of sending you a note saying here are the 15 articles that came out this week, how about you go into your profile and say “these are the three things keeping me up at night” and we send you that? That’s a big focus.

The second important area is re-imagining professional learning. That’s all of our professional development offerings. I think we do a tremendous job with a whole wide portfolio of offerings, such as the conference, the Diana G. Oblinger Innovation Forum and the Brian Hawkins Leadership Roundtable … but that’s only a piece of a large profile.

We’re going to look at what we do well and build on that, and then we’re also going to look very creatively at what we can do better, including in 2019, developing a personalized professional learning platform.

Then the last is partnerships and collaborations, so not only how can we work with other associations to help make the IT strategic level stronger and better, but also how can we work better with getting ideas from international brother and sister organizations and colleges and universities.

I’d really love for people to remember we’re more than a conference here. This gets a lot of attention because it’s spectacular, but it’s the tip of the iceberg. We have teaching/learning events, events for security professionals, enterprise IT and then webinars and articles. We do great work all year around.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to correct a transcription error: The original text indicated the number of women in the computing workforce would drop by 20 to 25 percent. The actual statement was the number of women in the computing workforce would drop by 2025.