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NERCOMP Session – Panel discussion with three college presidents March 12, 2008

Posted by ficial in conference, EDUCAUSE_NC08, NERCOMP.

This was a panel presentation, moderated by Joanne Kossuth (CIO of Franklin W Olin College of Engineering). The presidents of three colleges (Cheryl Norton, from Southern Connecticut State University Georgia Nugent from Kenyon College, and Susan Scrimshaw from Simmons College) talked about their perspectives on their jobs and on IT, then took questions from the audience. It’s not often the college presidents have the time to sit down and do such a thing, so this was a great event. Most of the sessions / workshops at this conference are in one of 6 tracks, but this session was a general one – nothing else was running concurrently. That was good, because it meant I didn’t have to forego anything else to attend it. An important note before I get any further- I’ve tried to capture everything they said, but there was a lot going on so I missed some things and have paraphrased elsewhere. Unless explicitly denoted (“”), what is written here should NOT be taken as exact quotes of these people. [My thoughts and comments are enclosed in square brackets.]

The panelists started by recounting a bit about their history and their present positions – how did they get into higher ed administration to begin with, and how did they get from there to president. Two went from VP of something-or-other to Provost to President [switching colleges at the last step – hmmm, I like our current Provost, hope this means he’s not headed elsewhere]. I don’t remember and didn’t note the other one. Two good quotes/ideas worth sharing here:
Teaching faculty is one of the biggest challenges. Keeping them abreast of the latest things is difficult, but professors CAN do it
“Facebook is one of the best ways to learn what our students are thinking”

Then, some questions from the moderator [not sure how they decided on the questions, but they were decent ones]:

How do you see the expectations of incoming students changing?
Cheryl – students stay connected with each other, and expect to remain connected to professors, administrators, etc 24/7. There are lots of issues with policies and procedures (cell phones in the class room, etc.). They want, and use, instant access to all resources all the time, from library information to people. The real problem is with the faculty catching up to the students and trying to teach the students a little patience (e.g. that people might not always reply to students right away at all hours).
Georgia – cell phone use has increased dramatically. A few years ago there were areas of the campus that were cell-phone free by common consent and seniors enforcement [??? sounds a bit extreme typed out like that, but I suspect it was something along the lines of simply asking another student not to use a cell if they were doing so in a cell-free area], but now they’re everywhere. Faculty are lamenting that students go to Google first, but need to get over it. FACULTY go to Google first, so why should students do differently?
Susan – students are multi-tasking all the time (emailing in class, etc.). Students know a lot, but don’t know everything they need to know. Simmons has an ongoing technology training program from the moment the students arrive. Also, Simmons is working on blended learning, which small colleges [and specifically, professors at small colleges] tend to resist because in their view it undermines the classroom experience. Simmons is working on making blended learning a positive education force – the key is figuring out what can you do with technology that you CAN’T do in the classroom. C
Cheryl – access to info can be good, but it’s a problem when the students can’t distinguish valid sources from invalid ones. Also, there are issues with plagiarism and other such things.
Georgia – there are many ways in which technology is changing our cultural milieu. One of the ways as a presidents that our students have changed our expectations is in regards to privacy. For example, they aren’t forward looking; they can over-share on facebook and have it come back to haunt them when they’re looking for work a few years later. [erm, those last couple of sentences don’t really hang together because I missed recording a sentence or two. Still, valid and interesting points, so I kept them in despite the awkward wording – blame me, not Georgia]

What is the most challenging thing you have to deal with, with respect to technology?
Cheryl – cost. There needs to be a strategic plan that includes technology. Need to know when to say no; not everything that can be done should be done.
Georgia – get a really good CIO, and keep them as a part of the senior staff. She likes the 24/7 connectivity/availability thing, but needs to make it clear to her staff that such access is not expected of them.
Susan – distinction between technology support and academic needs. They’re integrated, but have slightly different needs. There is a tension/balance there that needs to be managed.
Georgia – anecdotal survey (during her visits to many other places) merged [IT and library] groups [colleges? administrations? actual departments? Don’t think it’s the latter – people in departments generally don’t like change in their department] thought it better to be separate, separate groups preferred merged. At each college, the particular set up that college had depended on histories of individuals involved more than anything else.

What do you want your CIO to do for you?
Cheryl – listen to the users! If the user doesn’t have a vision for how it can have a positive impact on their education experience, then the technology to support it isn’t worth the cost in time and money (paraphrasing). Also, avoid tech speak! Communicate well (talk and listen).
Susan – The CIO also has a role to educate the rest of the campus.
Georgia – servant leadership. Embrace the concept of servant leadership.

What was your biggest surprise (technology related or otherwise) on stepping into the role of presidency?
Susan – surprised most by the depth and complexity of the small campus of Simmons. It is different from big universities because there’s more cross-group work. On the technology side, surprised by how well developed everything was – possibly this is mostly related to a public institution vs private institution difference (in public ones, you are always struggling for money just to get the basics).
Georgia – the biggest surprise is the meaning that everyone attaches to what you do or not do, say or not say.
Cheryl – “This is a pretty color” means that suddenly the color appears everywhere! I was impacted negatively by how little the college had embraced technology in the decision making process. There was no historical data, no tracking, etc. We could not compare how we did this year to how we did the previous year.
Georgia – a comment in the grocery store carries the same weight as a speech prepared for weeks. Changing topics slightly, resistance to blended learning is a problem endemic to small, high touch campuses; it doesn’t suit the campus well because the students expect something different. (Students expect more/different for 40K/year). [What more? Does blended learning require too much work from students? Many students want simply to know things after attending college, skipping the whole idea that learning is/requires work]
Cheryl – you need to find creative ways to do the right thing. It’s often the faculty that resist changes most. E.g. if you want to get paid during a flu pandemic when you can’t come to campus, then you NEED electronic deposit, which finally overcame faculty resistance. Lots of resistance to blended learning.
Susan – the trick to blended learning is use it where it’s content appropriate; use it where it offers benefits, but don’t do it just to say you do it. BL offers a lot, but it’s not appropriate for every situation.

How do you balance your work and your life, and what is the balance?
Susan – what balance? It’s all work. Joking aside, she really is working and connected all the time.
Georgia – don’t believe in balance. Gave up the notion long ago. She blends work and play and family and it’s all together.
Cheryl – it is key is to slot in some specific activities and limits. E.g. she does NOT show up in the office at 7:00. She’s likely working at that time, but will be at home, on the blackberry, etc. Getting evening time is the real problem; lots of dinner events.
Susan – finding exercise time and time to make music is tricky, but you NEED to make time to some personal things to keep sane. There has to be SOMETHING that you do that replenishes you physically and emotionally.

Any advice for the CIOs out there?
Cheryl – always lead with the soles of your feet. Make sure with your decisions that you take the highest road possible, so people don’t question your personal agenda.
Susan – never stop learning, ESPECIALLY if you’re a leader.

[A commonly repeated aside is that the presidents believe/say they don’t actually have power, but their anecdotes belie that. I think what they mean is more that they don’t have and can’t exercise any kind of dictatorial control, but it’s a bit ridiculous to say they don’t have power. Generally, when the president wants something to happen, it happens.]

Then there were some questions from the audience:

What kind of strategies do you have in place to make sure incoming students have a certain level of digital literacy?
Georgia – none
Susan – we have some programs in place for incoming students, and then ongoing technology education on a voluntary basis. There are more details on our website.
Cheryl – we talked about testing for technology, but the students [rightfully, IMHO] ask “have you tested the faculty? So, we decide instead to provide opportunities for learning and to have some core courses that require technology skills.

In dealing with faculty and trying to bring them along, have you had success, and how?
Susan – the most important / effective method was to work with small groups of faculty, which are now faculty affinity groups. Take a cohort and work with them to develop their tech skills, then they form the core of a user / peer community. [reminds me of community building work in the early Tripod days]
Georgia – my experience is the opposite of that. Technology did NOT transfer from one dept to another, there are too many dept boundaries; e.g. a religion professor will ONLY learn from another religion professor. So, go to the end of the tunnel yourself first, then bring the faculty along. Figure out what they want to do, then figure what technology will help them.
Cheryl – ignore the hardcore resistors, the early adopters will do tech regardless, and the middle group needs incentives. She found that money was the best (most effective) incentive. There was some peer-to-peer transfer, but incentive is required.
Susan – larger groups had more resistance, and pay was critical. There are different challenges on different campuses. Fewer silos [this is a buzzword from somewhere, clearly. It was used repeatedly by all of them] on a small campus.

To Cheryl, why the problems, and what did you do about it?
Cheryl – as the president, she is the top user. She needed to convince the management of the importance. We know there’s been progress, because now when the system goes down there’s an outcry. Before she arrived the technology people could do the work, but there was no demand.
Georgia – ownership of technology use does in the end reside with the president. The president has no power, but they do set a tone.

When reviewing proposals for new technology, what are you looking for?
Cheryl – Focus on functional results. Not, what can I do in technology, but what can I do elsewhere? Make the cost-benefit case for how it serves the whole enterprise and/or how it fits in with the academic goals.
Georgia – take off your IT cap a bit. Will it be used (outside of IT having fun with cool new technologies)? Is it user friendly? What are the unintended consequences?

Have you sought out your employees advice or help?
Cheryl – yes [with an implied “of course! What kind of question is that?”], it’s critical to success. Among other things, you always have to ask ‘how does this affect our students?’
Georgia- I have a regular open forum
Susan – monthly open forum for students, responds to student email.
[ASIDE – Georgia and Susan focused their response on the fact that they are open to STUDENTS, and largely avoided the question with respect staff and faculty. Probably not ignored, but the appearance is not good. Note to self for public forums – always answer the original question, even if there’s more interesting stuff to talk about later in your response.]

There were more questioners waiting, but we ran out of time. All in all, a great session.



1. NERCOMP 2008 Blog » Blog Archive » Some outboard postings - March 18, 2008

[…] wrote up several of the conference sessions, including Tuesday’s General Session, “From Their Viewpoint“. This was a candid and enlightening panel discussion with Cheryl Norton, President of […]

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