As the influence of technology rises, at some major universities the influence of the people in charge of it seems to be seeping away. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, the top technology official had long held the rank of vice president, until last year when the position's title was changed to "head of information systems and technology." That put the chief information officer on the outside of the president's cabinet, looking in. The University of Chicago downgraded the rank of its top technology official last year. Cornell University plans a similar move.
One longtime technology leader calls this phenomenon "the incredible shrinking CIO." The chief information officer seems to be diminishing in importance at some institutions even as more chores, like running emergency notification systems, are added to the job. This downgrade in rank is going to hurt universities, some officials tell me, because it will make strategic management of IT services harder and that kind of management is the only way to keep costs under control.
Technology leaders are, in a way, victims of their own success. Just about every aspect of college life now relies on computers and campus networks. But the men and women leading campus technology are no longer seen as mysterious wizards who must be consulted about anything with a circuit board. As a result, technology is now seen by some college presidents and administrators as "operational"—on par with providing electricity—rather than strategic.
"CIO's are not as likely to be at the senior-level table," said one top official quoted in a recent report by Educause, an educational-technology group. "If the CIO role is more about operational issues, then the position will decline."
One person who sees trouble in that decline is Bradley C. Wheeler, vice president for information technology and professor of business at Indiana University at Bloomington. Sure, the biology department and the physics department might be perfectly happy to buy their own high-speed computers for their research, he told me, but a CIO involved in top executive meetings would see that the institution would save money by building one much larger supercomputer to serve both departments—and other departments that might not have asked.
"There is a lot of concern about what's happening with the role of the CIO in higher education," he added.
The number of institutions making such changes is hard to determine—much of the concern is over whether the moves at MIT and other universities will be copied elsewhere.
The logic behind the changes seems to be that since technology now affects every part of the university, maybe more top executives—and even faculty members—should be making software and networking decisions, while day-to-day operations should be handled by lower-ranking folks.
Many colleges already form committees to handle decisions like which course-management system to buy—a choice that the CIO once largely controlled.
Maybe it is time, once again, to hit the reset button on how colleges organize their technology operations.
An Ever-Changing Job
Perhaps no other role at a university changes more often than that of the top technology leader. Every few years, some new technology service comes along that nearly every college adopts, while other functions become obsolete.
Coming in: Managing emergency notification systems based on text messaging. They were unheard of at campuses just a few years ago. Now 87 percent of institutions have them, according to the Campus Computing Project, which tracks technology at colleges.
Going out: Running e-mail services for students. This once-fundamental function of the IT department is increasingly outsourced to Google or Microsoft. That's part of a movement called cloud computing, in which institutions set up services that operate on faraway servers rather than on individual campus computers.
The general trend, though, is more, more, more, as new mission-critical services emerge while many older ones remain. And one slip-up in safeguarding student records can lead to embarrassment for the college and potential economic harm to students who become victims of identity theft as a result.
"The scope and complexity of the role has really grown," said H. David Lambert, chief information officer of Georgetown University, during a talk at the Educause annual meeting in November. "It's easy to feel some days like I'm not the CIO but the risk-management officer for the institution, because every element of risk management comes back to IT."
Some worry that CIO's are getting so loaded down with maintenance tasks that they no longer have any time to sit and dream up new services.
It's the equivalent of asking professors to spend all their time checking papers for plagiarism and rewriting grading policies, leaving no time to improve their teaching materials.
That's the fear, anyway, and I'm hearing it grumbled by more and more college CIO's as I visit campuses and attend conferences.
As one CIO noted in the Educause report: "What I used to love about being CIO was getting the chance to be directly involved in small, cool projects led by faculty; now I find myself spending most of my time talking with security auditors and those involved in regulatory compliance."
The Rise of Small Colleges
The CIO is not shrinking (or maybe, drowning) in all sectors of academe, though. At some smaller institutions, the role is actually getting bigger.
For instance, the first college to give iPhones to every student was Abilene Christian University, a private institution with about 4,800 students, and the institution's top technology leader, Kevin Roberts, was named as one of the nation's top 100 leaders last year by CIO magazine, one of only six college CIO's to make the list.
Innovation in education technology is no longer just for the elite. Now that universities often find themselves adopting off-the-shelf technology rather than building everything themselves, "it is more difficult for any one university to be a leader in everything," said MIT's former CIO, Jerrold M. Grochow, who retired last year and is now a technology consultant. He calls it a "democratization" of technology.
Since colleges can no longer excel in all areas, CIO's have to pick their battles—at MIT, that now means focusing on research computing so that professors can do things like get access to the atom-smashing Large Hadron Collider (something Abilene Christian spends less energy on).
Mr. Grochow said that for him, personal relationships were always more useful than the title on his business card when it came to getting things done. He argues that the best way to keep a university's IT at peak performance is to persuade vice presidents and provosts—as well as professors and student-affairs officials—to think about technology even when the CIO is not in the room.
"IT leaders can't do that balancing act alone; academic leaders can't do that balancing act alone," he wrote in an article in the January/February issue of Educause Review. He noted a few ironies of technology spending on many campuses: IT departments spending millions on wireless networks, only to have many professors ban laptops from the classroom; or professors applying for research grants that require high-speed networks without the university making the necessary upgrades to meet the grant requirements.
Some CIO's even argue that there are plenty of ways for leaders to be influential even if they can't whisper directly in a president's ear. "Whether you report to the president is egoism," said one technology leader who asked to remain anonymous.
That means today's college CIO needs different skills—and different personality traits. "In the past it took strong, assertive, very traditional leadership," said Tracy Mitrano, director of information-technology policy at Cornell University, when I asked her the formula for success in today's technology departments. "I think a CIO of the future is going to have to be a strong team player and much more of a negotiator, not only within the university but with the vendor community."
Call it "cloud leadership" to go with all that cloud computing.