The Role of IT and CIOs During this Time of UncertaintyPaige Francis | CIO and Vice President for IT, University of Tulsa
Working and learning from home puts a strain on any technical support team. Even getting set up at home can be tricky, which is why institutions need to lay out a game plan for every possible obstacle that may come their way. CIOs can help write the playbook. In this interview, Paige Francis discusses the challenges of shifting the institution to remote working and learning, how to leverage the opportunities to be found in this crisis and what it takes to maintain data security when working from home.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): From the IT perspective, what are some of the considerations that you and your team have to make to facilitate the shift to a remote working and learning environment?
Paige Francis (PF): Like many smaller, private liberal arts institutions, we’re fairly traditional in nature. My first consideration was whether or not our faculty were ready for a shift like this, so my primary focus was getting them up to speed. We had 10 –hours of notice to get all classes online. We rapidly started conversations, surveys, began reaching out to faculty one-on-one to not only help get their classes online but to also ensure they had the technology they needed to work from a remote location. It was a very hands-on process, but luckily, we have a very strong academic technology department with close ties and authentic, deep relationships with TU faculty. This was tactical step number one.
The second consideration was our students and their transitions. We didn’t offer a significant number of courses online before the pandemic, so our students aren’t used to a hybrid environment. We were concerned about students being able to safely migrate online but also thinking about equity issues, like students who live in areas without strong Internet access. We needed creative solutions to help our students get the resources they needed to connect at home (hardware, wireless hotspots and more), or develop an exception process to allow them to remain on campus during this time. The third consideration was having difficult discussions with our staff, looking at who could actually work remotely. Did their jobs allow for this or were their jobs on-prem-specific? We gave ourselves and our staff a month to figure this out to avoid rash, unintentional decisions. Once our remote workers were safely ensconced at home, we focused on making sure they had the access to the tools they needed to support university business. Interestingly, about eight months ago, we started to revisit our legacy ERP system’s capabilities and recognized that only 2 to 5% of our business forms were online-ready. That leaves 90 to 95% of university business forms that still needed to be physically trotted around campus for signatures. Flash forward, this entire scenario advocates loudly for every single challenge we already recorded on our IT improvement roadmap. In addition, we haven’t wasted one single penny or effort since COVID-19 hit. Everything we’ve driven was already planned; we just needed to rapidly pivot and re-prioritize our scheduled work and its pace.
Evo: Did the immediacy of the pandemic help to reduce the barriers you were anticipating facing as far as implementing some of these changes and creating new business processes?
PF: Chaos clearly breeds opportunity and, in the face of chaos, we could choose one of two pathways. While we were absolutely not prepared for a pandemic, we deliberately chose to lean into it and embrace it. Any roadblocks or legacy impediments for driving improvement were shattered with the pace that was required to respond to COVID-19.
It’s not that we were excited about it, like at all, but we could either wring our hands in response, or we could run with it and rock it. We chose the latter. For certain, the pandemic absolutely eliminated legacy obstacles.
Evo: What is it taking to maintain data security and compliance with the shift to a remote working environment for business, staff and management?
PF: We have an excellent chief information security officer. I sleep soundly at night not needing to worry about security because he’s handling all the what-ifs. Getting our arms around data management was on our roadmap. In early March 2020, a focus on data management was just spinning up as we were actively in the process of rolling out multifactor authentication. Our new remote work has empowered us to embrace quiet moments and fewer interruptions. Our VPN experience is shockingly seamless. Once a VPN client is loaded, people run with their business access. Our multifactor project got as far as authenticating systems that hold highly sensitive data – which was a win. Immediately, we noticed an uptick in phishing attempts across our campus. While we have good tools in place to mitigate it, we’ve increased our communications on information security and are being more vigilant.
What has it done? It’s helped us recognize legacy gaps. One thing that I’ve always prided myself on is being a communicative and facilitating leader. I want everyone’s job, where appropriate, to be made easier through the use of technology. COVID-19 uncovered a gap in accessibility. When we initially started sending our staff and faculty home, we found that if they had not yet logged into any new devices while on campus, it was almost impossible for them to connect from home. Why is this? The way it worked was everything was set up to work assuming you logged in using your credentials while on campus at least once before heading off-campus. This was an absolute gap in service for our users, and our IT team was unable to support our newly remote workforce. The issue kept users from being able to install something as basic as a VPN while also blocking out IT support from remotely accessing their device to help. We made a quick shift. We solved the problem. We now have a new and better method to deploy technology. It’s a new world! My team truly needed to see and experience our historical barriers. What we’ve previously done to secure systems has been an impediment to supporting individuals working or learning remotely. It’s been a continuous learning experience, one that we’ve documented every step of the way, so we can learn and grow from it. But again, securing our campus with the airplane on the ground felt solid. Now we get to do it mid-flight. And we are cautiously and diligently finding any gaps and responding at a rapid clip with smart, long-term solutions.
Evo: Are there any lessons that higher ed institutions can draw from the 2008 recession or do you think this experience is fundamentally different?
PF: I think it’s so fundamentally different, and the biggest issue we’re seeing right now is that people are going to make a lot of assumptions based on what happened in 2008. In my experience, the 2008 recession drove more students to the community college level. People were needing to up-skill themselves, so they flocked to the community colleges because they are affordable, and they teach real-life skills in either trades or specialty areas.
Now, I’m in a completely different environment, and I’m seeing it through different eyes. In 2020, I’m thrilled to be serving a small, highly regarded, highly respected four-year institution in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s hard to guess what will happen in two years, three years, or even twelve months based on our experience in 2008. It’s best to get everyone on board for every single possibility. It’s such unusual territory that every institution out there is damaging themselves if they aren’t starting at worst case scenarios and planning up from there.
Evo: What kinds of programmatic and operational innovations do you think could be leveraged to help these institutions in this sector weather the storm of a recession?
PF: Either we can be defeated over this and go back to business as usual, or we can embrace our new reality and take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that it presents. With fewer than 5,000 students, the University of Tulsa hasn’t held a deep long-term focus on savings and efficiencies in the past. Part of the reason that I was brought on was to help drive some change to be able to dig into administrative improvement. We are uniquely positioned to thrive in and absolutely survive this environment.
If we get back to being on campus soon, I’m sure there will still be some level of social distancing. Our primary pain point in delivering our curriculum remotely are the specialized hands-on labs. How do you replicate that experience online? It’s difficult to impossible without transforming your entire curriculum, and some courses just don’t lend themselves to an online environment. If we need to socially distance ourselves, we have enough classroom space to be able to follow the norms with a student every six feet in a lab. In higher ed, we need to identify how we want to position ourselves. If we have fewer students enrolling in the fall, that’s going to hurt our bottom line. However, from a safety perspective (which is priority one) we have enough apartments on campus to provide singles to residential students. It’s about finding where we can address the primary concerns that we have right now and starting communications about our strengths. In the end, students will receive the same level of education on or off campus. Our primary goal? Safety and security for all students, faculty and staff. Beyond that, we will ruthlessly seek areas of improvement to ensure our past 125 years of investment in empowering critical and creative thinking carries on.
Evo: What role can CIOs play in helping institutions shift to the agile and scalable model that’s needed for a recession environment?
PF: What’s interesting is that my position within the university has elevated. Overnight, I began reporting directly to the president rather than following a hierarchal structure. I’ve been handed an entire university-wide project of which I’m now the executive sponsor. For many CIOs helping to advocate for and act on good and smart change, we’ve been doing this for years, and this is just another challenge. Every single step that we’ve taken has been preparing us for this very moment.
For the newer generation of CIOs, this is our time to shine and make an impact. The secret is in developing meaningful and authentic relationships with colleagues across campus. They know who you are and what your strengths are. If you’re not being recognized as someone who can help really drive success for your institution right now, you need to dig deep and ask why. Especially as every single piece of university business relies on technology; no one is doing anything without technology today. This is a CIO’s time, more than ever before, to positively impact the university’s bottom line in everything they do.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 22, 2020.