Illumination by Modern Campus

Simeon Ananou (Stony Brook University) on Driving Inclusion with IT Leadership in Higher Education

February 08, 2024 Modern Campus
Simeon Ananou (Stony Brook University) on Driving Inclusion with IT Leadership in Higher Education
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
Simeon Ananou (Stony Brook University) on Driving Inclusion with IT Leadership in Higher Education
Feb 08, 2024
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Simeon Ananou to discuss diversity and DEI in the IT space of higher ed and the role CIOs can play within the strategic conversations of their institution. 

Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Simeon Ananou to discuss diversity and DEI in the IT space of higher ed and the role CIOs can play within the strategic conversations of their institution. 

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 Simeon Ananou, who is Vice President for Information Technology and CIO at Stony Brook University. Simeon and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss diversity and DEI in the IT space of higher ed and the role CIOs can play within the strategic conversations of their institution. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:02):Simeon welcome to the Illumination Podcast. It's great to be chatting with you.

Simeon Ananou(00:11):Thank you. Thank you so much for having me join you today to talk about some important topics.

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:17):Well, and that's just it. I mean, you brought this topic to the ED cause conference last year. It's a topic that the concept of diversity and finding pathways for DEI in the IT space, in the post-secondary industry has been a top of mind discussion for a few years and we're starting to really see it emerge. Why is it so important for IT leaders to be more engaged in campus conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Simeon Ananou(00:44):Well, first of all, the notion that somebody is viewed as an IT leader I think is somewhat skewed. IT leaders are also organizational leaders, and I will speak precisely about the higher education sector. For me, an IT leader is one that should also view themselves as part of the institutional leadership and therefore my six steps to create an inclusive environment. And when you ask the question, why is this so important? It is clear that we are now in this knowledge economy where organizations and higher education for that matter depends heavily on IT to operate. Therefore, the leader must foster an inclusive environment and in that process, what the person should be doing is to invite many voices into the conversation so that in the end, many perspectives are infused in the decision making. When we think about technology, there is a conceptualization element, there is a design element, there is a test element, and there is a deployment element and then maintenance element.

(02:03):When we invite multiple individuals into those conversations, what we see is that the design of most technological solutions meet the needs of a broad perspective, a broad audience as opposed to a fairly narrowly defined audience. So for me, for a leader, for an IT leader to be a champion of diversity, equity and inclusion is the right thing to do. One, to be able to serve the right populations, to serve the broadest populations possible, to make sure that our work is one that depends on a consultative process, but also being decisive, being able to invite multiple people to participate in the design of the technology, in the consumption of the technology, and ultimately in the work that the usefulness of the technology. When we don't take those steps though, what we end doing is we design technologies that may not be useful for the broadest communities, and that is unfortunate. Technology is fairly expensive and to me, the expense that the technology brings to the institution must also produce some very important and that fruit can only be delivered through the inclusive process that we have in place.

Amrit Ahluwalia (03:24):Absolutely. You know what, before we move on, I want to touch on a topic that you highlighted there that I think is incredibly important and really central to the discussion we're having today, which is the conception of IT leaders being institutional leaders. This is a topic that comes up in almost every year in EDU's top 10 IT issues is the question of are we seeing CIOs in the strategic role that they truly play or do we still see them as operational leaders? And I'm hoping you can expand a little bit on this idea of why it's so important for the CIO of any college or university to be playing a more central role in establishing and pursuing the strategy of that institution. Because I'm curious as to your thoughts here as well. You've been as a CIO and a senior IT leader for many years. Why are IT leaders so often considered more operational than they are strategic in the operations of the institution?

Simeon Ananou(04:24):I think it is a match. Institutions first have to have their own strategic priorities fairly defined and then decide on the type of IT leader that they're looking for. Having been in this field for about 30 years now, and having spent about 23 years in the C-suite, what I've seen is that, and we all progress through those years, I've seen three types of CIOs. You have your very operational CIOs. Again, nothing wrong with that category of CIOs. It depends on where your institution is at a particular moment and where the institution wants to go. Then you have the very strategic CIOs and in fact, one will argue that occasionally after you hire a strategic CIO to accomplish certain things and when that person's tenure is over, you are most likely to hire an operational CIO to come and just keep the lights on for a few years.

(05:29):And then you go through that cycle of hiring a strategic cio. Again, sometimes you may end up with tactical CIO somewhere in between. But it's important though that when we think about the transformational aspect of it and the impact it can make at an institution and the competitive advantage that it can bring to an institution, to me it is essential for the IT leader, for the CIO, for the vice president to see themselves not as the one leading it, but to see themselves as the convener of very important institutional conversations that will lead to change and that will lead to transformation. It is. So we have to be thinking about the ideas, the solutions, the impact we have to get to understand as an IT leader, we must understand our communities. Who are we serving and what is the purpose of our work? So here at Stony Brook University, I am very, very aware of the fact that we are a research university.

(06:40):We are a flagship university. We are an R one research one university. We are an A U university, but we are also even with those accolades, we also have a fairly large population of pale eligible students. Almost 40% of our students are pale eligible. So those are specific nuances that I have to be aware of and therefore be able to craft solutions that speak to the communities that I'm serving. If I fail to be cognizant of those nuances, then I'll be implementing technologies that may be useful somewhere, but not necessarily responding to the needs of my institution. So we are in the process of developing an IT strategic plan right now as we speak, and in fact, we hope to roll that out in the next month or so. And the strategic plan speaks directly to the community and the aspirations of the university.

Amrit Ahluwalia (07:41):Absolutely. So I want to talk a little bit more about the concept of equity and creating equity. I'm curious from your vantage point just to ground the conversation a little bit. How would you define digital equity? What is digital equity?

Simeon Ananou(07:58):From a theoretical standpoint, I will define digital equity as the creation of an environment where all members of that community have equitable access to digital resources regardless of their affiliation. Whether you're a faculty member, staff member, student or adjunct, whatever your affiliation might be shown, not define the level or the type of technological resources you have access to. So to me, it has to be an equitable access. Now that's a very theoretical definition. If I was to bring it into something very concrete, I will say that we need to think about the technologies in the hands of the members of our community. So as quick example, I spoke about the 40% Pell eligible students that we serve here at the Stony Brook University, knowing that many of our students may not have a computer of their own just as a beginning as access to resources, we have established a very robust laptop loaner program, which allows our students to be able to have access to those devices to be able to get their work done.

(09:21):Another example is that we have virtualized a number of our software applications to be able to allow many of our students access to those pressures and expensive software applications that they need to be successful in their academic endeavors. We also have a digital accessibility program in place to allow us to force us to require us and to remind us of the need to make our technological solutions accessible to all, especially some members of our communities who may have certain impairments and making sure that they too have equitable access to many of our technologies. Those are some concrete examples that I'll share, and those are very, very important because when we miss those boats, then we make the wrong decisions. But I'll also share that the professional development is very important. We are now in this era where many of our technologies are shifting from on-prem to the cloud, that transition itself, and then we are also moving into the SaaS software as a solution environment, being able to deliver services in that environment, whether it's hybrid, whether it's a complete SaaS environment. Those require different skills. And when we go through professional development, to me, what we are doing by upscaling our IT professionals now is to make them included in the process as opposed to deploying technologies that can displace those individuals. So professional development is also very important to foster this inclusive environment that we're talking about.

Amrit Ahluwalia (11:13):It's interesting to think about that because right, inclusivity lives on multiple frames. And what I like is as you start to transition the vision of software and applications on campus from being largely in-house built on-premise hosted to being vendor partnerships and cloud hosted, there really is a question of having a greater set of skill sets so that you can leverage that human time and energy to where it's best needed as opposed to in manual and repeatable processes that the software can take. I'm curious, as you guys started to build a framework for digital equity and digital inclusion at Stony Brook, what are some of the steps that you took to really create that environment? What are some of the first things that you did to get the ball rolling?

Simeon Ananou(12:01):The first thing is making those who are here. Retention. Retention is very important. Making those who are already part of the organization feel heard, feel appreciated, and feel valued. So that's number one. And one will ask, how do you do that? And to me, you have to create an affirming culture, an environment within which people feel comfortable expressing their opinions. People feel comfortable making suggestions for the betterment of the organization, an environment where we can make ourselves and we should feel comfortable making ourselves vulnerable in the eyes of others so that we are able to see each other as human beings. So that human-centric element is very, very important. We are in the IT business as an IT organization. However, to me, to be successful, we have to ship the focus from the technology to the human being. So that is the first thing. And then that also trickles into our recruitment process, going from retention to recruitment, the types of people that we're looking for, and even where we advertise our positions and vacancies is very important.

(13:19):Making sure that we advertise in those areas where whether we have a large population of underrepresented minorities or areas where we have not traditionally advertised, so that we are also able to attract candidates from those populations. Also, thinking about another large population of potential candidates here, which is our students themselves. Our students also bring a fairly large amount of diversity that we have to celebrate. So those are the first things. Then beyond that, also putting an emphasis on the consumption of the technologies. As I said earlier, the design of the technologies so that having cross-sectional groups design something as opposed to just one unit working on a specific solution, that has also helped us a lot. And we report out on our progress as a group as opposed to specific disciplines just working on one solution. A quick example that I'll share is how I constantly engage our digital accessibility group. That's one example. But beyond that, when we think about our student information system, for instance, we have a fairly large collaboration between IT and nontechnical groups. The registrar's office being one example of student affairs, student services, all those non-technical groups that take advantage of the system. We also invite their input and their feedback equally into the conversations that lead to the designs and upgrades of the system.

Amrit Ahluwalia (15:10):So interesting because so much there's a policy question and then there's a people question, and you seem to have really worked to build policy that lasts and then create a culture around it to really ensure it is successful.

Simeon Ananou(15:25):Yes, it's, it's a concerted effort that we have to have in place. The people aspect is one that I have found to be essential because the technology, I often joke that the technology depends on the people network. We have to have that coalition of the willing and for the CIO also to believe in inclusivity, to believe in the positive impact of IT throughout the organization, and then making sure that we have policies in place, but not try to codify everything either. I often hear that, which policies can we have so that we can engage each other? And my reaction is we don't need permission to engage each other. That is something that we have to do as human beings. But I'll also add one more thing. I've only been at Stony Brook for almost six months now, and an environment that I'm really, really enjoying.

(16:33):And when we think about inclusivity, a few other things that we are doing that I'll share here. In fact, for those listening to this podcast, they can also borrow some ideas from it. We have a town hall meeting. Again, we are fairly large as an organization. We have about 200 IT professionals in central, IT about 200 students. So you add those two groups together, that's about 400 people. We also have IT partners throughout the university and in other parts of the campus. So on a given day you have several hundred IT professionals at this institution. So we try to have IT town hall meetings periodically. That is one way to bring us all together to celebrate our accomplishments, talk about some of the things on the horizon for all of us, so that there is again, a sense of inclusivity in the knowledge sharing and the conversations and the communications. That is something that I've really, really enjoyed. So I'll encourage many other CIOs or IT leaders to think about an IT town hall periodically, quarterly, or something like that.

Amrit Ahluwalia (17:42):Absolutely. Well, I'm curious, I mean, as you think back on some of the lessons learned as you've implemented policies of digital equity in various roles throughout your career, what are some of the lessons learned that you would share with other IT leaders who are trying to get similar initiatives off the ground at their own institutions?

Simeon Ananou(18:02):You have to first expose your own humility as a leader. Don't pretend that you have all the answers. So that sense of humility allows others to want to help you accomplish this work of DEI. So that's the first one. The second thing though is to rely on your team members to get you there. And the third one is making it clear. As a leader, you have to have the sense of clarity in the communication that you have. That DEI is part of the mission as a leader. That sense of clarity is one that must come from you and not almost making it a requirement so that everyone can also participate. Because if you make DEI optional, then people see it as such. But when it becomes a requirement and becomes part of the culture, people also see it as such. So words are powerful. Words mean a lot. Words matter, and the way the leader communicates that is exactly how people will follow and will follow through. So that is the number one message that I'll share as a leader. Make it very clear that diversity, equity, and inclusion is indeed part of the IT operation and your culture.

Amrit Ahluwalia (19:28):Well, SI mean, that pretty much does it on my end, which marks the transition of this podcast for being a higher ed podcast to a food podcast. So I am curious if someone's out to dinner on Long Island, where do they need to go?

Simeon Ananou(19:42):Wow, good question. I call myself a food curious. I will try just about anything. I love ethnic food. Something that again, I've come to enjoy around here. I've been to a French restaurant, I've been to an Italian restaurant, an Indian restaurant, Chinese restaurant, Japanese restaurant, all those. Being in an area where within 15 to 20 minutes I can get to a fairly decent ethnic restaurant is something that I'm also getting to enjoy. So the question that you asked is an intriguing one. Instead of just telling someone to go to one place, I will actually encourage the person. If the person, if you were to have the time to explore Long Island, we have a D, diverse diversity. So we're talking about diversity in it, but that also takes me into diversity of enjoying foods and cultures. So that's the way I live.

Amrit Ahluwalia (20:46):Absolutely. I'll vouch for that. The diversity, I mean, this is one thing is my wife and I used to live in Toronto and the sheer, you could walk down one street and there'd be an Ethiopian restaurant, a Jamaican restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a Mongolian restaurant. The diversity is unbelievable. I will a word of caution for anyone who's trying to do multiple restaurants in one night though, because I've made this mistake, don't get too excited at your first restaurant. So if you order too many things, you'll never make it to the next spot.

Simeon Ananou(21:15):Well, I have never tried multiple restaurants in one night, in part because I don't know if my taste buds will actually well, to allow me to appreciate everything I'm consuming.

Amrit Ahluwalia (21:27):Oh, man. Well, Simeon, hey, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much again for taking the time.

Simeon Ananou(21:31):Thank you so much.

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