The canary in the coalmine

The closing presentation at Educause was from Freeman Hrabowski, the President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He began by highlighting that, whilst technology has advanced and the numbers entering higher education in the States have increased, there are still 65% of white Americans over 25 without degrees. The figures for those of Black or Hispanic origin are worse with 80% and 90% respectively without degrees. Clearly there is a need to get more students into higher education.

He challenged the IT heads to be the thought leaders on the campus – IT should be the catalyst for change and innovation for the sector and change will be the overall theme for the next century. As leaders, there is a need to see the possibilities, to drive institutions forward against the desire of faculty to leave things as they are. Leaders need to be able to ask good questions and listen well. In his opinion, good leaders need to be broad enough to understand the administrative functions, identify the research possibilities, understand teaching issues, be facilitators of change and build strong relationships throughout the institution. A key skill is knowing how to communicate with their president. This very much echoes what we are trying to achieve with the leadership strand of activity with UCISA – to enhance the skills of the senior IT management within institutions so that they can drive their institutions forward.

Hrabowski believed that IT was the canary in the coalmine; ie the indicator that an institutions’ processes and administration are robust. He gave a number of examples of where IT had made a difference in his own institution with the corresponding improvement in performance. One was a Pythonesque guide to the States and the electoral college system – the emphasis was on having fun learning. Others included the use of software to drive group work and a radical improvement in business intelligence to gain a better understanding of where students are going wrong and to take immediate remedial action. This latter initiative found that those students achieving the lower grades were using the learning management system around 35% less – whilst this may not have been a total surprise, what they did was provide tools to help students check their own activity and provided more services to help them.

He concluded with his leadership mantra: Be careful of your thoughts, they become your words; be careful of your words, they become your actions; be careful of your actions, they become your habits; be careful of your habits, they become your character; and be careful of your character, that becomes your destiny. I interpret this as meaning, if you think about the institution and build an understanding of it and the people and the processes involved in it, you will have the strong conversations where you can shape others, deliver strong actions and ultimately become a strong leader.

Overall an inspirational end to the conference.

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