Illumination by Modern Campus

Don Welch (New York University) on The Imperative for Tech-Driven Transformation in Higher Ed

February 01, 2024 Modern Campus
Don Welch (New York University) on The Imperative for Tech-Driven Transformation in Higher Ed
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
Don Welch (New York University) on The Imperative for Tech-Driven Transformation in Higher Ed
Feb 01, 2024
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Don Welch to discuss the importance of technology in higher education and how CIOs can play a strategic role in ensuring the institution is prepared with the right infrastructures and support systems to serve modern learners. Don 

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On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Don Welch to discuss the importance of technology in higher education and how CIOs can play a strategic role in ensuring the institution is prepared with the right infrastructures and support systems to serve modern learners. Don 

Voiceover: Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Don Welch, who is Vice President for Information Technology and CIO at New York University. Don and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the importance of technology in higher education and how CIOs can play a strategic role in ensuring the institution is prepared with the right infrastructures and support systems to serve modern learners. Don 

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:02):Don Welsh, welcome to the Illumination Podcast. Thank you so much for jumping on.

Don Welch (00:06):Yeah, my pleasure.

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:07):Well, I want to start off just by talking a little bit about the evolving roles of CIOs, especially as it relates to strategy now edu cause has a seat at the table for CIOs as their number one issue on the list of top 10 issues for it. This is a standard call. We've been talking about the need for CIOs to be more involved in institutional strategic decision making for years. Why have CIOs historically been on the sidelines when it comes to defining and pursuing strategic goals for the institution?

Don Welch (00:40):Sure. So I think when you look at the mission of the institution, it's generally not, it may be teaching IT or research service, et cetera, and it is a support function. And so when I think academic leaders think about strategy, they're not necessarily thinking what they can do it wise. They're thinking afterwards how does it support the strategy that they're trying to execute? And so I think that's the main reason behind that. And it is I think a difficult barrier to break through. Many CIOs have experience in the classroom and came up from the academic side or from the administrative side, but for administrative things overall, they are going to support the strategy of the institution, but they're not necessarily going to lead it like you would in a commercial company that decides to go heavily online marketing, et cetera, things like that. So I think that's a difficult thing to break through. But for CIOs to do that, I think they have to establish reputation for being a good strategic thinker and contributing to it. And that is not necessarily going to be something that comes from above or outside. That's going to be something that each of us are going to have to earn in our own institutions.

Amrit Ahluwalia (02:26):I just want to dive into this a little bit deeper. It is a startling reality that so often that the office of the CI office of IT services is seen as sort of an operational support unit as we're shifting into an environment where the average student is a digital native, whether they're 17 or 36 or 48 or however old. Every learner coming into the institution today is used to primarily engaging with any service provider through technological means. The of devices that are operating on campus is skyrocketing. The positioning of technology is evolving from being something that supports the work of the institution. Instead, technology is really something that the work of the institution is directed or conducted through. So how do we really highlight or relay the importance of shifting our thinking about the role of technology in the modern institution?

Don Welch (03:26):So I might not completely agree in that. So the role of the CIO, a lot of it is what you will administrative running ERPs, running networks, and doing those kinds of things. Many of us have organizations underneath us that do high performance computing, that do consulting to teachers and to researchers on how to use technology. We run labs that courses are taught in and so forth, but we're not actually on the front line. So I think once again, you can establish your credibility with the institutional leaders to say, Hey, we have this capability or we have this potential, we can help push this forward.

(04:25):That I think that's where we can be involved in the strategy. But of course the important part of it is no institution is going to successfully execute a strategy without technology. And whether we worry about digital natives or whatever, that's just the reality of the world today. Students have got to pay their bills, get their classes, do all their coursework and so forth through the applications that we deliver and support to the institution. And if you're going to make a big strategic thrust in we'll say science and technology, well, you're going to need all the infrastructure, everything from wet labs to the IT infrastructure to be able to support that. And so I think that we should be included in those strategic discussions, but it'll be the astute university leaders who understand that they're supporting organizations need to have a strategy that fits within the strategy of the institution.

(05:48):And so if your institution is trying to keep tuition low, then you are going to have one kind of an IT organization that has certain strategies. If you are doing a lot of DOD or otherwise sensitive research, you've got to have a different kind of an organization with that supports classified or confidential research and so forth. So I think that is an important discussion to say what would it take to get us from where we are to where we need to go so that institutions can have realistic strategies in higher ed. Especially I think a lot of institutions come up with strategies but then don't necessarily follow them or they come up with strategies that they don't have the resources to actually execute. If we think of in a business strategy, and the three different ways that you can differentiate on progress, excuse me, on products, you can differentiate on customer service, you can differentiate on your costs. Universities some think that way, some a little along that way, but some are very unrealistic that they want to be a top tier institution. But that may take 50 years to get there in terms of being able to attract the faculty who can attract the grants and build the infrastructure and all those things that are necessary to be a research university and there. So anyways, I think it is important to make sure that all of those foundational leaders are part of the strategic discussion.

Amrit Ahluwalia (07:47):Absolutely. Well, and building on that then we're seeing CIOs positioning themselves in this more strategic light. You've served both as a CIO and a chief information security officer, A-C-I-S-O. Why is it important for CISOs to make a similar transition?

Don Welch (08:05):Yeah, I think that's absolutely vital, right? So security is not an absolute thing. It's not binary. What you want to do is accomplish your mission with the right level of risk and what is the right level of risk. Certainly we have increasing regulations and compliance and laws that will tell us what we have to do, but by its nature a university, especially a research university, is not going to be as secure as a financial institution or part of the defense industrial base and so forth. So your strategy has to meet your mission and has to enable you to accomplish the mission in the best way possible. We have so many resources and those resources are not just money, but if you think about the imposition on people's time, their agility, their ability to innovate and do those kinds of things, you need chief information security officers who thinks strategically about the university's mission and how to keep the university at the right level of safety and risk while still being able to accomplish the mission with the resources that we've got.

(09:34):That requires strategic thinking and a different kind of strategic thinking than a chief information security officer, or excuse me, than a chief information officer would think. So chief information officer is trying to support the institution, accomplish its mission, the chief information security officer has got an adversary. The myriad of bad guys that are out there are trying to do bad things. So they have to think in an adversarial where they have to have a strategy that meets the threat from our adversaries while having the right level of support for the institution. So it's a different kind of thinking, and I think it is important, and especially chief Information security officer has to be agile in their strategic thinking because the bad guys are going to adjust as soon as they realize they're being thwarted. So I think the chief Information security officer has to be a strategic thinker, probably even more so than the CIO. And if it's not, I think it will cause a bigger impact on the institution.

Amrit Ahluwalia (10:52):Absolutely. Well, it's interesting you kind of phrase out some of the priorities that A-C-I-S-O needs to bear in mind. What are some of the starting points for CI SSOs as they begin to look at their work through this more strategic lens? Where's a common jumping off place?

Don Welch (11:10):So I think first off, you have to understand the mission and the operations of the institution. So what is it trying to accomplish? And that's the most important thing is that the organization be successful in teaching, research, service, those aspects of its mission. And then I think you have to understand the threats against the institution. Who are the people that are trying to get information, attack information, destroy information, whatever those adversaries want to do to that institution, understand what the realistic threat is. Yes, we can all categorize all the bad things that are out there, but really what are the biggest threats to the institution? And then you also have to understand what regulatory regimes you have to live in and what information that you have, because that's kind of a yes no, if you violate those regulations, there in some cases are criminal provisions, but certainly there are bad implications on your organization whether or not those regulations make your institution any more secure, you still have to follow them and they are a threat to the organization itself. So I think that that's really the starting point. And then you have to think about what resources you have and what resources you need to appropriately address those threats to your institution.

Amrit Ahluwalia (12:53):Absolutely. So I am curious, I think when we talk about the work of the CIO and the CISO in general, these conversations tend to happen at almost an ethereal level. We talk a lot about the concept of efficiency, we talk a lot about effectiveness, but I think it is very challenging sometimes to get a clear sense of how that work really affects key stakeholders of the institution in a direct way, the students, the faculty staff. So I'm just curious, I mean, how do students in the university in general benefit when CIOs and CISOs begin to play that more strategic role in the leadership of the institution?

Don Welch (13:33):So I think information security is one of those things that when it works well, nobody notices. And so if we're appropriately protecting the security and the privacy of all our stakeholders, our students, our staff, and our faculty, then they are generally going to be very happy and really they become unhappy when their information is compromised. They also become unhappy when they've got restrictions that they don't see the value of. Faculty are very smart, students are very smart. Many of them have an understanding. And if we are not using the most valuable security controls and looking at those constantly to make sure that they are in fact the ones that are the most valuable and going out and explaining it to them, they're going to be unhappy. They don't like two-factor. Well, once they understand what two-factor does for them, then that certainly makes it easier for them to handle.

(14:52):And from the chief information officer, obviously those chief information officers are also accountable for protecting the security and privacy of that information. But the CIOs who are able to influence the strategy can help make the student journey an easier one. We want the students to devote their time and their energy into learning and being a college student. And if they are frustrated in trying to navigate the university and the administration and the things they need to do, then that takes away from the energy and the effort they're putting into what we're there for. So being able to have good IT systems that will do what they're supposed to do, that will that make it easier for the students, that reduce the frustration that is important. And that contributes to a student's ability to graduate and to stay with the program. You can read the subreddits for every university and uc under that university, all the complaints about this or that and so forth. But some of those students you see that's like, I can't take it. I go, I couldn't get my financial aid or whatever, I'm going to drop out. And that's really unfortunate. And where we can make things easier, make things more clear to the students, they've got a better higher probability of success.

Amrit Ahluwalia (16:32):Absolutely. I mean, I think that's one of the things that's always resonated with me is something like only about 72% of students who drop out do so, or about 72% of students who drop out do so because of non-academic reasons. And we know how important a consumer experience is in any industry. The same is true in higher education. I am curious, one of the things that we've been seeing more and more discussion around, and in fact in a podcast that will have been published, I mean we're recording here in late January, so probably a week or two ago from our recording date and maybe a month or two ago from our publish date, it was with Josh Callahan at the CSS U system and formerly at Cal State Humboldt. And one of the things he talked about was sort of managing the digital jungle hall, managing the array of technology providers, service providers and vendors that are active on any campus at a given time. When you're thinking about the range of services, the range of technologies available on campus, how important is it to balance the need to meet the demands of every office to every stakeholder, every end user, against the need from the CIO's perspective and the CISO's perspective to manage risk in the number of vendors that are operating simultaneously? And what are some of the factors you use to make those decisions?

Don Welch (18:00):So I think what you're asking gets to this idea of strategy, right? Yeah. So in my mind, you have limited resources and your strategy, you put those resources against your highest priorities. And so I think when you've got all those competing resources, it is very important to have multiple perspectives, especially in a university of do we update this system because it will be more efficient and we can therefore don't have to hire an additional five people and we can help keep our costs under control? Or do we put that money into modernizing the student information system so it's easier for students to check their graduation requirements and so forth? And the CIO alone should make those decisions. The CIO should have some group of leaders. Typically, it's an IT governance board that brings multiple perspectives into those decisions to make sure that we are investing in the right systems.

(19:20):One of the other things that we were kind of getting into in the previous question that kind of fits into this one is the question of things that we can do that the students aren't necessarily asking for. So for example, if we want to make sure that students are successful, we have access to tons and tons of data, not as much as Google or Facebook, but lots of data about them. And we can get indications when things are happening outside of the classroom that may affect their ability to graduate. And so we have to navigate our privacy values with our ability to step in and help students. We are in local parentis and we have a certain obligation, especially resident universities and also students come to us and they give us tuition money and they hope to come out with an education that is worthwhile when it's over.

(20:26):And if they don't graduate, then they have invested money and have gotten not as much out of it as they had hoped for. So being able to contact students, help them if they have problems outside, a number of students may have food insecurity or shelter issues and so forth. And we have programs for that, but not every student knows about them, and not every student will necessarily seek help. So I think those are important strategic decisions too, of where do we draw the line between students' privacy and their autonomy to make their own decisions and our ability to help them to succeed in our institutions. And I think that's a really interesting question that we're wrestling with now because we've got lots of data and what do we use as appropriate as almost every company is wrestling with now.

Amrit Ahluwalia (21:33):It is funny how quickly we went from not enough data to too much data to do anything with it. Yes. Well,

Don Welch (21:40):And even being able to do with it, it's like, should we do it? So yeah, I mean, we can talk about some companies that will do whatever they can with they can universities. Hopefully we're a little more balanced than that, but still, I think it's a really an important and not an easy question to answer. What's the right level?

Amrit Ahluwalia (22:05):Absolutely. Well, Donna, I mean that pretty much does it on my end, which means we're going to make our pivot from being a pretty decent higher education podcast to being a pretty excellent food podcast. So I'll ask you if someone's out to dinner or going to dinner in New York City, make the incredibly difficult work of recommending somewhere for them to go,

Don Welch (22:25):I will cheat and I will recommend two places, but they're next door to each other. So on a street there is Emily, which is a French wine bar, and most mussels are one of my favorite dishes. And they do it really well. And of course, since it's a French wine bar, they have a great wine to compliment that. And next door to that is the A street wine cellar where they have great food, but they have a great selection and it's really this homey kind of place where you go in and talk and have a glass of wine. So my suggestion would be to hit Emily and then go to the a street wine cellar.

Amrit Ahluwalia (23:11):I mean, that sounds like a pretty decent night out. And those are just for anyone who is listening. Those are in Greenwich Village. Don, it's been an absolute pleasure chatting with you. Thanks so much for your time.

Don Welch (23:23):Nice talking to you. Thanks for the opportunity. 

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