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Advancing the Mission While Minding the Bottom Line: How Truly Innovative Institutions Drive Impact While Doing Both

Higher education was forced to turn to technological resources as the pandemic forced them off campus, but evaluating their current and future success depends on how they leveraged technology to support remote learning, and how they are innovating new resources to bring themselves into the future. 

There’s no shortage of credible experts offering plausible theories on how the past year will reshape higher education forever, and their predictions run the gamut from dismal warnings to optimistic outlooks for the future. 

The contrast and range of prognostics underscore how unevenly institutions have been impacted by, and responded to, the most significant and sudden disruptions to their traditional business model in a lifetime. 

For every encouraging example of an institution that miraculously pivoted and maintained steady enrollment numbers, there is another that struggled to adapt and lost students—­­along with much needed tuition revenue. But all of them have two things in common: 

  • How they fared in the past year depended on how effectively they leveraged technology.
  • Their future sustainability will be driven by their technology choices, and their success in evolving to meet changing demands requires strategic and visionary IT leadership.

As the CEO and founder of the leading research and advisory firm focused exclusively on higher education technology, I have had the privilege of working with IT leaders at hundreds of institutions over the past two decades. After the whirlwind of 2020, it’s been gratifying to see so many CIOs and their teams earn much overdue and well-deserved recognition for their immense contributions. 

Too often, however, their role is obscured, and their impact is little understood. It’s a missed opportunity because there’s so much we can learn from their visionary leadership and impactful innovations. That’s why we launched our annual Tambellini Technology Leadership Awards six years ago to honor the remarkable achievements of IT leaders and their teams.

Every spring, Tambellini Group’s Executive Advisory Council, comprised of current and former institutional technology leaders, selects our CIO and Innovative Technology Team Award winners. With a record number of impressive nominations this year, I didn’t envy their task. How could they select only two winners among such stiff competition?

Once the Council chose awardees Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and Alamo Colleges District in San Antonio, Texas, it was immediately obvious to me how their IT leaders and teams distinguished themselves from the pack: by finding innovative ways to overcome stubborn challenges and propelling their institutions forward to new heights in uncertain times. 

Another reason for their remarkable success is that they maintained a laser-sharp focus on serving their educational missions and had a strong, positive impact on their institutional bottom lines.  

How did they do it? By challenging the common assumption that institutions must choose between being mission-driven or running their operations “more like a business.”

Their remarkable achievements prove that when technology leadership is part of top leadership’s inner circle of strategic advisors, institutions greatly increase their odds of not just meeting but exceeding their most ambitious goals. Here’s how our 2021 award winners did it:

Cal Poly: From IT Cost Center to Economic Engine 

When William J. (Bill) Britton, took over as CIO at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in 2016, he was the first in the California State University system, and one of only a handful in the country, to spearhead a shift of all core institutional administrative systems to a cloud environment. 

Many of his peers couldn’t understand why he would voluntarily pioneer an undertaking that would be complicated, time-consuming and expensive. But where others saw prohibitive expenses and challenges, Britton saw an opportunity to flip the script. 

Instead of approaching the big three cloud providers at that time–Google, Microsoft’s Azure, and Amazon Web Services (AWS)—as vendors to provide price quotes, Britton proposed a broader partnership to help advance Cal Poly’s educational mission on numerous fronts. Amazon was intrigued by his idea.

With the help of other campus IT leaders, he drafted a proposal outlining a vision for going all in on AWS cloud and building an experiential learning and innovation center (supported by AWS), so Cal Poly’s pioneering cloud journey could be leveraged to provide educational and research opportunities for faculty and students. 

Soon after, Amazon’s top brass shared Britton’s proposal with none other than Jeff Bezos, and  Cal Poly’s president and cabinet leadership flew to Amazon’s headquarters to finalize the details of what would become the first-of-its-kind partnership between AWS and a higher education institution.

Fast forward to present times, and Cal Poly’s Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub) is thriving, with students and faculty from all disciplines using data analytics, machine learning, visualization and cloud infrastructure development methodologies to solve real-world problems in partnership with organizations including the World Bank and U.S. Air Force. The DxHub model caught on and today includes a collaborative network of twelve cloud innovation centers at universities across the globe. 

Moving the Cal Poly data center to a cloud-based model also saved the university $20 million in capital hardware expenses. Furthermore, by aligning requisite reskilling and upskilling training for IT staff with Amazon’s skills set inventory, staff who completed the training became valuable experts in cloud environments and now generate revenue by serving as outsourced contractors advising other organizations embarking on cloud transitions. 

Pandemic-related disruptions were minimal for Cal Poly over the past year as well, thanks to the speed and scale their cloud-based environment enabled. When all instruction went virtual in March 2020, the IT team accelerated its shift to a cloud-based learning management system and virtualized computer labs from beta to completion in three weeks, enabling a seamless switch to virtual learning and saving courses from being canceled.

Alamo Colleges District: “Do Not Disrupt the Student”

Alamo College District’s five colleges and eight regional centers are located across Texas’s San Antonio region, the most impoverished major metropolitan area in the U.S. The pandemic hit Alamo College’s 70,000 students particularly hard, as many come from low-income backgrounds and lacked adequate access to high-speed wifi and laptops.  

As vice chancellor for planning, performance, accreditation and information systems, Dr. Thomas Cleary oversees Alamo’s technology operations and leads their overall data-driven strategy. He says his role in both capacities serves the same purpose: advancing the institution’s educational mission to improve social and economic mobility for its diverse community of learners.  

When the pandemic hit, the working mantra for Alamo’s institutional response was “Do Not Disrupt the Student.” With that in mind, Cleary’s first move was to survey students and faculty to find out what they needed to continue learning, teaching and living through the pandemic. The resulting data drove his team’s response, and they swiftly launched a ten-point plan to make technology an enabler instead of a barrier for their entire institutional community. 

Cleary and his team distributed 10,000 laptops to faculty and staff through a contactless drive-thru service. On a weekly basis, the free wifi hubs they provided in campus parking lots drew thousands of students. Alamo Colleges typically teaches 90% of courses on premise, so faculty received immediate on-demand training in online learning systems, tools and best practices to continue their teaching. This was vital, Cleary says, because “technology without training only has limited value.” 

By the end of the spring 2020 semester, Alamo Colleges course completion rate reached a record high of 92%. Fall-to-fall enrollment rates for community colleges plunged by 9.4% nationally, and 8.4% in Texas, but Alamo bucked the trend with a modest 1% increase in enrollments. 

The students hadn’t been disrupted, and the outcomes show just how much they thrived against the odds. With increased enrollments numbers, Alamo managed to deliver in spades on its educational mission and preserve much needed tuition revenue, avoiding the unexpected budget shortfalls that stymied so many of its peer institutions.

The continuing budget cuts higher education institutions face will no doubt complicate their ongoing efforts to meet the rapidly changing demands and needs of their faculty, staff and students. But as both Cal Poly and Alamo Colleges prove, these hurdles also create opportunities for truly visionary IT leaders and teams to transform their institutions for the better with innovations that deliver on their mission and keep them financial sustainable for years to come.  

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