On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, EvoLLLution editor-in-chief and host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Jenn Stringer to discuss the evolving role of technology leaders to empower an institution and the growing responsibilities of CIOs. This episode was recorded live at Modern Campus's Educause 2022 booth in Denver.
(00:05) Voiceover: Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. We’re continuing our CIO Radio series, where we speak with technology leaders about the trends and challenges reshaping our increasingly digital space. In today’s episode, we speak with Jenn Stringer, CIO and Associate Vice Chancellor of Information Technology at the University of California Berkeley. Speaking live at EDUCAUSE, Jenn and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the evolving role of technology leaders to empower a modern institution and the growing responsibilities of CIOs.
(00:43) Amrit Ahluwalia: Jenn Stringer, welcome to the Illumination podcast. It's great to meet you in first and great to be chatting with you. Thanks so much for the time. Yeah,
(00:49) Jenn Stringer: Absolutely. Glad to be here.
(00:51) Amrit Ahluwalia: So we're recording live at the EDUCAUSE conference now. Unfortunately—for Jenn's benefit, but also for the benefit of our listeners—our booth is unfortunately very close to some kind of broadcasting that's happening nearby. So you'll almost certainly hear some background noise. But you'll forgive us for that because it's going be a great conversation. And I'm curious just about your own career pathway. How did you wind up in in sort of the tech leadership space at frankly, I mean, let's be honest, one of the world's best known universities.
(01:19) Jenn Stringer: Oh, well, thank you. Go Bears I should say. Yes. I'm at the number one public institution in the country. But it was actually a circuitous journey. I initially started working at Stanford University right after I graduated and fell into librarianship. So I was a librarian. Stanford put me through library school. And this was before technology was really at the center of things and the libraries were the tech hub. Right.
(1:52) Amrit Ahluwalia: I meant to ask about that. I mean, because there is a historic connection between the CIO's office and library.
(01:57) Jenn Stringer: A hundred percent. And in fact, when I was sort of at…the role of the CIO when I started didn't exist at most places. So anyway, libraries were really the hub of the internet. That's where the research…that's where, you know, the research connections were happening so that you could do searching and literacy searching and connecting researchers together. So libraries really where the hub, in my mind anyway, of where sort of tech got started. And so I ended up, you know, really kind of liking that side of librarianship. Honestly, when the web took off, my career took a different trajectory and it took the trajectory of working with academic technology and developing resources for teaching medicine.
(02:50) Amrit Ahluwalia: That's so interesting. Let's talk a little bit about that pathway because it's fascinating. Obviously, you were a technology leader at Stanford School of Medicine. You had to stop at NYU. Now you’re at UC Berkeley. So you're at a land grant university now. How is that experience compared to past experiences where you were still at the lead institutions but not-for-profits?
(03:09) Jenn Stringer: Right. It's actually a great question. It's a question that I've been thinking a lot about and actually talking to a lot of my fellow CIOs about recently. I will say that, you know, I have to be at a place that feeds my soul. That means that the core values of the institution has to really fit and align with what I want to do because this is not an easy job. Being in technology is not an easy job. And, if I'm going to spend that much time, effort, and energy, I want to be doing it for the right things. And I want to make a difference. And so I will say that at a public institution, the sense of mission, the sense of providing access, I think hums deep in our bones and in our bloodstream at Berkeley.
(04:00) But it isn't without its challenges. I mean, being at a public institution right now is challenging from a financial perspective. It's actually challenging, you know, from when you look at the country right now. One of the things that concerns me the most actually about higher education is the fact that, you know, a large majority of our population does not trust higher education as a whole.
You know, they don't trust science. They are cynical about the research that we produce. And I think it's a really frightening place right now. And I think, you know, especially being at a public institution where you are dependent upon people who are elected into office and people who pay taxes, to make sure that your mission, is able to be fulfilled with resources. It is a really difficult place to be. It's also a place, though of hope and inspiration and as leaders, we have to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to support that mission.
(05:14) Amrit Ahluwalia: I want to talk about that a little bit because, you know, what's always struck me about the land grant mission…backed by the Morell Act, creating access to knowledge and expertise in spaces that might not necessarily have access to that kind of education. So when you think about the role of the technology leader in that environment, how do you work to empower extension? How do you work to empower this work that's happening across the campus to really create that diverse view?
(05:43) Jenn Stringer: Well, and I would say it's even, in California particularly. Because, you know, we have certain laws that don't enable us to look holistically at admissions. So I'm going to really focus on diversity here for a minute because I think it's so important. You look at the diversity of the California population, it is not reflected at this moment in Berkeley's student population. And so part of what I think, we as leaders…so I always say that I'm a higher ed leader first and a technology leader second. So what I'm looking for is, what is the institution trying to do and where does technology help enable that mission? Right now everybody's talking about data and the better understanding of data actually enables us to make better decisions about targeting our admissions process. It helps us make better decisions about our recruitment activities, our retention activities.
(06:51) And so I think that is a place where we need to spend more effort and energy. And I will also say that when you have over 50,000 students on your campus, understanding data and then using appropriate algorithms and technologies to actually mine that data for insights, is incredibly important. We just have too many students on our campus to do this stuff by hand.
(07:27) Amrit Ahluwalia: Apologies to listeners, but hopefully you're enjoying the backing track of what I have to assume is a marching band somewhere. So you talked a little bit about the evolution of the role of the CIO from really managing library technologies. So as you think about the role and focus of IT leaders over the past decade, what are some of the most dramatic changes you've seen?
(07:49) Jenn Stringer: I think that the evolving role of the CIO right now, and remember, I consider myself a newbie. I've only been a CIO for two years. But I have been in higher education for 35 or so years. But I really think that the evolving role is much more mission focused. You know, when the CIO role was created 20 some odd years ago, and you mentioned that sort of libraries and IT, there was actually a lot of tension between libraries and IT. Originally EDUCAUSE, which was created by the merger of two different institutions, sponsored a fellowship program to bring library leaders and IT leaders together so that they could start understanding each other's cultures because the library culture and the IT culture just from an institutional perspective are really different.
(8:55) So there was a lot of work around that. And then the CIO role sort of became more prevalent. And a lot of it was around administrative systems. It was around big ERP systems. It was around making sure that people get paid. It was around networking, rolling out email for campuses, enabling communications. But it was really focused on the administrative business. And I think that the evolving role now is really recognizing that where technology and information are going now are supporting the actual core mission of the institution. It's supporting research, it's supporting teaching and learning. It's supporting student success. And so I think that the kinds of IT leaders that campuses are hiring now are actually coming from places like I came from; the academic technology space, the research technology space. You know, they want someone who understands the core mission, who can speak to faculty and students and really understand what their pain points are and what they're trying to accomplish.
(10:05) Amrit Ahluwalia: Yeah. No, absolutely. And yeah, you know, it actually leads into this idea about trends really nicely. I'm curious, as you look to the next sort of five to eight years, what are the trends you're keeping an eye on? What are the things you're watching?
(10:16) Jenn Stringer: So that's a great question. From a trend perspective, there are a few things that are the administrative business of campuses, right? Remote. Everything remote. Teaching remote, actually enabling more remote work. So I do think that there is a trend there. I also think trends in technology are around research computing. You know, think about quantum computing, think about parallel quantum computing. Think about the changes that are happening, in the research space, the amount of data that our researchers are having to process now. Think about the web telescope, right? And all of that information that's coming down that people are having to make meaning of. And I think that that's really where, you know, technology is headed the same way in teaching and learning in terms of supporting changes in pedagogy. Supporting hybrid environments to support students. Technology to contribute to access to education.
(11:20): So I think that that is a key place. I also think though that you can't not talk about security. I would love to not talk about security. I would really love to never talk about security again. But you know, I do think that provosts and presidents and chancellors are not going to want to hear this, but man, you are going to have to be putting money into making sure that we are keeping our campuses secure. In a way that they just, I don't think really, that a lot of sort of higher education academicians really understand the risk to our research. Risk to our data that ransomware attacks are posing right now, you know, all of the cybersecurity threats, nation state actors.
(12:20): I mean, we are like the perfect place to wreak havoc. And I just think that the kind of investment, and honestly, it's not even investment. It's the fact that people are going to have to change what they do. And faculty and students, they really think of that space as needing to be open, which I understand, but you know we really are going to have to actually change hearts and minds of faculty and students in their behaviors. So I think that's a big piece of it too.
(12:55) Amrit Ahluwalia: That's really interesting. Yeah. So we've obviously, we've talked quite a bit about the evolving role of the technology leader in the modern institution. So what role do you think IT leaders need to play in starting to define the strategy and priorities for respective institutions—especially as the world becomes more increasingly digital, but as the sort of responsibility scope of CIOs really starts to expand and evolve?
(13:22) Jenn Stringer: We have to remember that the mission is first and that we are there to guide, to engage, to provoke sometimes to bring in new ideas. But institutions have missions that are driven by their research, driven by their educational mission, driven by the programs that they're trying to offer to their students and to the state. So I think that, you know, we've got to be thoughtful and honestly, we have to be higher ed leaders first. The technology stuff is not the hard part. It really is about engaging with the mission, and understanding where we best can provide support and further that mission and really enable it and be a strategic enabler.
(14:19) Amrit Ahluwalia: Absolutely. Well Jenn, I mean that pretty much does it on my end. Now, the way we like to end our Illumination podcast episodes is with one simple question. Which is, if someone's going to dinner in your town, so in Berkeley California, where do they need to go to dinner?
(14:32) Jenn Stringer: Oh, that is so funny. It's a great question. Can I put in one plug before I tell you where to go to dinner? One piece that we didn't talk about is the diversity of and diversification of IT staff. And I cannot leave this Podcast without talking about it.
(14:53): There are a couple of things. First of all, I was talking about diversity of our student body. The diversity of my staff does not reflect the diversity of the California workforce. And we really have to do better. And I think that, that is a place where if you want to know where CIOs should be spending some of their time and thinking about things. I actually think we need to consider how we actually mentor and bring along the younger members of our profession. The newer members of our profession, to ensure that they see a place for themselves in senior leadership. That they see a place for themselves in actually supporting the mission of our institution. So I just think that that's really important and it's one of the hardest things to do.
(15:47): I will also say one more thing. One of the things that I've been spending a lot of time thinking about is the mental health of staff and students and faculty. And it's not a technology problem. It is a leadership problem. We have got to figure out how to support, you know, what is happening. Across our country, probably across the world, but certainly across our country as we're seeing mental health challenges for our students rise multiple fold. We've got staff who have their challenges with them, partners with themselves, with their own children. And we've got to find a way to take care of people, as a whole. And so I don't have answers, but they’re critical to think about.
(16:46): So with that, where to go to dinner in Berkeley? Well, what I will say, I can tell you where to get a drink in Berkeley.
(17:00) Amrit Ahluwalia: How about that? Hey, let's go with that. Absolutely. Yes. Let's give it a go.
(17:04) Jenn Stringer: I'm going tell you like the biggest off the beaten path. Nobody goes to this place who actually attends Berkeley. This is like the best. It's called the Starry Plow. The Starry Plow. And it is like a straight up old fashioned local bar. They do music every once in a while, but it is where people who live in Berkeley go.
(17:31) Amrit Ahluwalia: It's impossible not to. Love that. There you go. Jen, thank you so much for your time.
(17:42) Voiceover: This podcast is made possible by a partnership between Modern Campus and The EvoLLLution. The Modern Campus engagement platform, powered solutions for non-traditional student management, web content management, catalog and curriculum management, student engagement and development, conversational text messaging, career pathways, and campus maps and virtual tours. The result innovative institutions can create learner to earner life cycle that engages modern learners for life, while providing modern administrators with the tools needed to streamline workflows and drive high efficiency. To learn more and to find out how to modernize your campus, visit moderncampus.com. That's moderncampus.com.