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Wayne  A.  Brown
Wayne A. Brown

Top 10 Myths About Higher Ed CIOs

Higher education CIOs are doing fine, thank you. Let's dispel some falsehoods.

In the spirit of the numbered list popular this time of year, I thought I would add something from the world of higher education CIOs. 

There has always been a wealth of negative assumptions about higher education CIOs found in the higher education press and technology trade publications. These anecdotes are usually based on a sample size of three or four CIOs or an isolated conversation. The data I'll be using to confirm or rebut these assumptions is based on research conducted by the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies since 2003. Hundreds of CIOs, technology leaders, and institution management team (IMT) members (the other school presidents and vice presidents) respond to the CHECS survey every year.

[In the battle for tech talent, small colleges and universities have a lot to offer. Learn Why Young IT Pros Should Consider Higher Ed.]

Here are my top 10 assumptions about higher education CIOs gathered up over the past decade, along with the survey data that disputes them.

No. 10Higher education CIOs change jobs frequently. In fact, CIOs spent more time in their current position than other members of the IMT.  In 2013, higher education CIOs had been in their position for an average of seven years and six months versus IMT members, who had spent an average of six years and eight months in their positions.

No. 9CIOs must have a technical degree major. There are a few different ways of looking at this assumption. The first is by looking at which degree higher education CIOs actually believe a CIO should possess. The single largest answer, 37%, was from higher education CIOs who did not believe a technical degree major was important for the CIO. However, 51% of IMT members indicated the CIO should possess a technology major. So there's a disconnect between what CIOs and the IMT view as the major needed for the job. But because CIOs actually do the job, I presume they know better.

No. 8Higher education CIOs must report to the institution president in order to be effective. As someone who served as a CIO for a number of years, I think it is important for the CIO to report to the president. However, the results of my own survey research over a 10-year period have not revealed a statistically significant difference in effectiveness – measured through a series of survey questions -- between those CIOs who report to the president and those who do not. In 2013, 32% of the CIOs reported to the president, according to the CHECS survey.

No. 7Higher education CIOs must serve on the IMT in order to be effective. Over the 10 years that the CHECS research has been conducted, there have been three years when there was a statistically significant difference in effectiveness between those CIOs who served on the IMT and those who did not. In 2013, 55% of the CIOs served on the IMT.

No. 6 Higher education CIOs are being hired from the faculty ranks. While this may have been true when the profession was much younger, it is no longer true. In 2013, only 6% of higher education CIOs had been faculty members in their last position.

No. 5 – A large percentage of higher education CIOs have recently been hired from outside of higher education. But according to survey results, this is not some new phenomenon. The wave of non-higher education CIO hiring occurred several years ago. In fact, in 2013 only 26% of CIOs had worked outside of higher education in their last position. In addition, the CIOs from outside of higher ed have been in education longer than those who "grew up" in higher ed. On average, those who worked outside higher ed in their previous role had been in their current higher education CIO position an average of nine years. In contrast, the CIO who had worked in higher education in their last position had been in their current higher education position for seven years on average.

No. 4 – Internal candidates for the higher education CIO position are not competitive. But in fact, 45% of the 2013 respondents to the CHECS survey had been employed by their institution before they were selected as the CIO.

No. 3 – Higher education CIOs are not aligned with the mission of the institution.  Over the 10 years I've surveyed higher education CIOs and their IMTs, I've observed that these two parties are often on the same page about the importance and effectiveness of the CIO role.

No. 2 – More and more frequently, the higher education CIO is responsible for areas outside of the IT department. In 2013, 66% of the CIOs were only responsible for the IT department. Another 12% had responsibility for the library and 8% were responsible for research. The other 14% of the respondents were, in 1% increments, responsible for a wide variety of other areas in the institution.

No. 1 – And 180 degrees in the other direction, the higher education CIO is becoming irrelevant and will be relegated to a maintenance role. In 2013, 68% of higher education CIOs indicated that over the last three years they had spent more time on institution and IT department strategy than any other activity. Seventy-three percent of the IMTs confirmed this assertion.

Dr. Wayne A. Brown is the founder of the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies Inc, a non profit organization focused on contributing to the education and development of higher education CIOs.

These five higher education CIOs are driving critical changes in an industry ripe for digital disruption. Also in the Chiefs Of The Year issue of InformationWeek: Stop bragging about your Agile processes and make them better. (Free registration required.)

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