Researcher: College CIO shortage on the horizon

Forty-five percent of college CIOs plan to retire by 2020, according to a recent study.
Forty-five percent of college CIOs plan to retire by 2020, according to a recent study.

Wayne Brown’s seven years of research has identified a wide swath of campus technology officials eager to become chief information officers someday. They’re just not quite sure how.

Excelsior College, an online school based in Albany, N.Y., unveiled this month the Center for Technology Leadership (CTL), which will open next October in Silver Spring, Md., and host week-long courses designed to plug the “readiness gap” for computer experts who strive to head their college’s technology office, but need extensive training on how to translate techno-speak for campus higher-ups and allocate responsibilities to staff members.

The lack of guidance for aspiring CIOs, coupled with projections that show nearly half of higher-education technology chiefs plan to retire in the next decade, translates to a potential CIO shortfall for college campuses of every size, said Brown, head of the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies and Excelsior’s vice president of technology.

“They have no one helping them, because they don’t have a network and they don’t have a mentor,” said Brown, whose 2009 survey of 352 higher-education CIOs showed that the majority of people filling campus CIO positions are over 51 years old and plan to retire within 10 years.

Excelsior’s CTL program will host classes for aspiring CIOs and students who already hold the position, but want to improve their interpersonal and management skills. There will be about 25 students in each class, and each week-long session will cost about $2,500, which includes books and class materials, officials said.

Because many cash-strapped colleges can’t afford to send their CIOs to the in-person CTL program, Excelsior will launch an online version of its CTL next January. But hosting IT leadership courses in a traditional face-to-face setting is an important element of the training program, Brown said. Having instructors and aspiring CIOs chatting instead of typing or texting is meant to improve technology officials’ personal interaction with their employees and superiors.

“I think people self-select into the technology field because maybe they won’t have to deal with people as much,” said Brown, although he added: “I’ve met tech people who are smoother than sales people.”

“It’s something that people can use some help with,” he continued. “You should be able to translate from technology to business and business back to technology … while avoiding techno-babble. If you get mired in that stuff, conversations with people could go badly.”

Nearly seven in 10 technology employees who are considered CIO candidates want to pursue their campus’s top technology position, but 38 percent of them said they had no one to help them reach those lofty career goals, according to Brown’s research. Aspiring CIOs also might need to work toward an advanced degree, because 77 percent of current CIO respondents said they have a master’s degree or higher.

Many potential CIO candidates said they weren’t interested in the CIO position, because it involved too much management and not enough interaction with the campus’s computer infrastructure.

“They got into the field to do technology, and my job doesn’t look like it involves a whole lot of technology,” Brown said. “It’s a lot of administrative stuff, a lot of meetings. … But it really is an exciting position. [Because] the role of technology is so pervasive, you can have a real impact on the institution.”

Universities nationwide have launched CIO training programs and degree programs based on a curriculum that would help groom a future technology chief, although most of these offerings are not specifically for higher education.

Carnegie Mellon, for example, has a certification course that focuses on IT management and information assurance, among other subjects. Western Michigan University, Brigham Young University, and Colorado Technical University are among schools with similar programs for aspiring CIOs.

The federal government has its own CIO University, consisting of partner universities offering graduate-level courses that address “federal executive core competencies.” Most of the partner schools are located in the Washington, D.C., area and offer a range of study options, including part-time schedules and evening and weekend classes.

Excelsior officials said grooming the next wave of college CIOs—and spurring interest among technology staff who have never considered that career path—would prove important to higher education, as campuses increasingly rely on computer resources to compete for students and provide a reliable technology infrastructure.

“We expect the Center for Technology Leadership to quickly evolve as a vital resource, both for these technology leaders and for the higher-education institutions that rely on their expertise,” said John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College. “Information technology management is vital to nearly every component of higher education.”


Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies

Excelsior’s Center for Technology Leadership

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