Managing technology in higher education

The first-ever CIO at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte not only built the school's infrastructure, but she also formulated a single IT vision. Find out why she believes that PCs aren't the tool of choice for the campus environment.

Karin Steinbrenner, associate provost and the first-ever CIO at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte), built the school’s IT infrastructure. A passionate proponent of thin client technology, Steinbrenner insists that thin clients are the best way to manage workstations and protect desktops from potential student tampering. Yet delivering the thin client technology message is just a small part of her job.

I recently spent time talking with Steinbrenner about her role as a CIO of a large state university, the aspects of the job that she finds rewarding, and the frustrations she faces as a tech leader in higher education.

Challenges of a higher education environment

Have you always worked in higher education?
Yes. Prior to my current job, I was CIO at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

TechRepublic: Does working for a university differ from working for a for-profit company?
CIOs face different issues in each environment. In a public company, for example, CIOs have total authority over all IT and IS functions. Their domain is large. At UNC and most universities, CIOs have no direct authority. Instead, all decisions are made by committee. It is a different management approach. If the issue is choosing a PC platform or e-mail system, for example, the decision is made by consensus.

TechRepublic: It sounds awfully cumbersome.
Actually, it is just a different way of doing things. Once you accept and understand the process of getting things done in a university, the outcome you would like to see is more likely to occur.

TechRepublic: Aren’t colleges and universities hindered by bureaucracy?
I do not know if I would describe them as “hindered.” There is bureaucracy for sure. But, bureaucracy also exists in midsize and large companies as well. The larger the institution, the more bureaucracy you inevitably face.

The case for thin client technology

What is your mission at UNC?
I am the school’s first CIO. One of the reasons I was hired was to take information and turn it into knowledge. It is not a simple feat, because we have knowledge and data everywhere. The goal is to optimize and harness it so students and faculty can access it easily. It is gratifying devising plans and strategies that improve UNC’s IT infrastructure. When I came to UNC, I found a distributed IT environment and a centralized computing services department that delivered computing services. But, it was not an IT department, and played no part in university planning and decision-making. Senior leadership realized that they needed a CIO to formulate a single IT vision and common IT strategies for the campus and to coordinate all IT departments and initiatives.

TechRepublic: Why are you so convinced that thin client technology will make a big difference at your school?
Thin client technology allows organizations to expand the lifetime of workstations and simplify administration of the entire PC-server environment. For libraries and computing labs, thin clients are an effective way to manage a large number of workstations and protect them from being tampered with by students. Furthermore, instead of providing students with notebook PCs, which are still too heavy to be carried around, a PDA with a NFUSE (Citrix) client can provide access to CPU-intensive applications and storage when needed. At the same time, students have access to collaborative tools that are part of the PDA's applications.

TechRepublic: So you feel the PC is an unnecessary expense?
Yes. PCs not only take up too much room, but the cost places an undue burden on universities’ IT budgets, especially when most PCs are underutilized. The advent of the browser as the universal human-computer interface, along with a more network-centric IT architecture, has moved many IT vendors to rethink their desktop strategies. Many prominent PC vendors are now offering thin clients that access information and applications on a network server.

The career ladder

To whom do you report?
Steinbrenner: I report to the Chief Academic Officer (CAO), which is the provost equivalent. More and more, CIOs in higher-education institutions are reporting to the chancellor or president, who is the CEO equivalent.

TechRepublic: I would think university salaries are less than those at for-profit companies. Is that true?
You are right. Our salaries are about 20 percent less than equivalent positions at for-profit companies.

TechRepublic: So why do you stay if the decision-making process is longer and the pay is less?
I love being part of a cultural and intellectual environment that thrives on learning and debate. And, I enjoy being surrounded by young people.

TechRepublic: Do you ever see yourself taking a job in a for-profit company?
 No. I did not stumble into working in a university. I chose it. I have never been disappointed.

TechRepublic: Is there much difference between state and private higher-education organizations?
There is less bureaucracy in private universities, and you are on your own more, which means you have more decision-making authority. But, you do not have the collaboration and intellectual exchange of ideas of a state university. Working for a state university can be more fulfilling.

TechRepublic: What do you like most about your job?
The challenge of leveraging all that knowledge surrounding me.

TechRepublic: Is there a career ladder?
There is no precedent for moving up in large universities. CIOs can only become presidents if they are promoted from the academic ranks.

TechRepublic: Does that upset you?
Actually, no. I am happy where I am.


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