3 Questions With Higher Ed CIO Raechelle Clemmons
Any person who calls her blog, “Some guy named Rae: Musings of a female CIO” is going to have some interesting opinions. Raechelle Clemmons, Vice President and Chief Information Officer at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, didn’t disappoint. She joined St. Norbert in July 2012, after serving as Chief Information Officer for Menlo College in Atherton, California, and previously was the Director of IT Relationship Management and Project Services at California State University, East Bay. Clemmons was named one of "20 Rising Star CIOs on Twitter" by the Huffington Post, and her blog was included in EdTech Magazine's "The 2013 Dean's List: 50 Must-Read Higher Education Technology Blogs."
You recently developed the college’s first IT strategic plan. How did you get management buy-in on that, and what resources did you use to create it?
Our leadership recognized how important technology had become to higher education in general and to the college specifically. That led to the decision to elevate IT leadership to a Cabinet-level position, reporting to the president.
I was hired into this new CIO position and was charged with helping the college use technology more strategically. So there was already a fair amount of buy-in for a strategic IT plan.
In my first year, my team and I spent a lot of time information-gathering, trying to understand the various needs and priorities across the college. We used that information, the college’s strategic plan, and a planning session with ITS staff to draft our initial proposal. Then, we solicited feedback from our Technology Advisory Committee, President’s Cabinet, and Board of Trustees before finalizing the IT strategic plan.
In our second year, we asked our Advisory Committee—which has college-wide representation—to provide us with their priorities and proposed projects in advance of any updates. We used this input to update the plan for the current academic year (14-15), so it is now truly a document that reflects college-wide input and priorities.
You say, that there is a fundamental difference between ‘mission-critical’—what is needed for universities to do business—and ‘core’ technologies—what is needed to educate students. You believe we need to focus more on what’s core. Could you elaborate? Why do we need to shift the focus?
I would love to take full credit for this, but it’s built on an idea that my good friend, mentor, and former boss John Charles shared with me a number of years ago. The concept is fairly simple, but can be incredibly profound when used to govern how we think about and manage our IT spend. There are technologies that we need that are absolutely critical to how colleges and universities do business—things like student information software (SIS) or email systems. We simply cannot function without them, but they aren’t directly relevant to what we do as an institution—educate students—and don’t serve to differentiate us. No student has ever selected an institution because of its student information system. Yet we spend of a lot of IT resources in support of these types of technologies. At many institutions, in fact, most of the IT dollars are spent supporting IT infrastructure that is important, but completely irrelevant to our core mission of educating students.
As IT leaders, we need to do what we can to minimize the resources needed to support these technologies so that we can focus our time, energy, and budgets on those things that have a more direct and positive impact on our students. This may mean changing models of service delivery—like cloud or outsourcing—or even considering doing away with services altogether.
It’s interesting that you want to enhance the role technology plays in support of teaching and learning on a liberal arts campus. People typically think of technology in the context of STEM. What role does technology play in the liberal arts?
Well, that’s the million-dollar question, and one that I think many institutions are grappling with. We tend to think of liberal arts colleges as providing students with small class sizes and lots of student-teacher interaction—a very “high touch” experience. When we think of technology in education, particularly where it is changing education most dramatically, we tend to think of MOOCs and other forms of online learning. That is often viewed as quite the opposite of a liberal arts experience—large classes where students work fairly independently to complete specific online “tasks” and assignments, rather than ones that are collaborative and project- or team-based.
For some people, it is difficult to see where those two things might be able to fit nicely together. Yet we know that our students want and expect some level of technology use in their education. In fact, over 60 percent of St. Norbert College students said that they both “learn more” and “prefer” courses that have online and in-person components. The key in the liberal arts, then, is finding the right mix—most likely a “flipped classroom” or blended/hybrid learning model—where we can take the best of a liberal arts education and technology-enabled teaching and learning, and pair them to enhance student engagement.