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Opinion: The Multiplying Roles of a Higher-Ed CIO

The growing scope of a university CIO’s job necessitates a deepening relationship to an institution’s business interests, digital transformation, cybersecurity and development of internal talent.

A man wearing a business suit reaching out to tap on the word "CIO" in front of him. Arrows point from the "CIO" to other symbols like a cluster of buildings, a bar graph, a lock, a clipboard and a set of cogs and wheels.
(TNS) — While the pandemic may be in the rearview mirror for some, it’s still having a profound effect on the relationship between technologists and college administrators. In a 2021 survey of administrators by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 86 percent of the 665 respondents said, “the pandemic required closer collaboration between the president, provost, CIO/CTO, CFO, and other senior administrators to make strategic decisions about technology.” Whether a CIO or CTO, having a seat at the decision table has become paramount for daily IT operations and prudent strategic planning, and I expect this sense of closer collaboration to continue as a guiding principle on many campuses. As higher education navigates the remainder of 2023, I have thoughts on a handful of potential new roles and challenges for CIOs that may require a keen focus.


In many ways, today’s CIO must be able to have multiple competencies beyond a technical background. A 2022 article in the business publication EnterpriseTalk, “Five Must-Have Skills for CIOs in 2023 and Beyond,” made the case for being a “blended executive”: “The CIO of today must understand how the business uses capital. As a result, IT leaders must develop into blended executives that are passionate about and knowledgeable about both the business and technology, as well as the potential that technology has.” This is true in the business sector as well as in higher education.

The CIO of 2023 will need a diverse skill set. There is increasing evidence that “soft skills” — among which the marketing company TechTarget counts “grace under pressure, empathy, self-discipline, coaching and being a visionary” — can be as important as technical skills. While the skill list could be longer, these core areas can help ensure a CIO will be a longer-term success.


Traditionally, the role of a CIO has been described as managing and operating an IT department and implementing technologies in an institution. A CTO (chief technology officer) could be defined as someone who oversees technological needs, with a close connection to business. These CIO/CTO monikers have been used interchangeably in some cases, and today both terms have a close connection with the business perspective of an institution. In higher education, there has been a general trend for CIOs to report to the chief financial officer (CFO) or CEO. According to a 2019 survey by the Educause Center for Analysis and Research, “A plurality (29 percent) of CIOs currently report directly to the president, chancellor, or CEO of their respective institutions; a majority (56 percent) of CIOs think that they should be reporting to the president, chancellor, or CEO.” The thinking here is that “CIOs who report to the president, chancellor, or CEO have greater authority and influence to communicate the strategic importance of IT to the institution’s mission and serve the entire institution equally.”

The business role of a CIO is expected to intensify in the business and educational sectors. A 2023 study by the marketing-tech firm Foundry confirmed this with nearly 1,000 responses from IT leaders and line-of-business (LOB) executives. Interestingly, 77 percent agreed the CIO role has been elevated by the state of the economy, and this visibility within the organization is expected to continue. Thirty-eight percent of LOB respondents viewed the CIO as a strategic adviser, proactively identifying business needs and opportunities, and 25 percent viewed the CIO as a consultant who evaluates business needs and technology choices.


A digital transformation requires an organizational change through digital technology, coupled with a specific business strategy to improve and enhance institutional success. The CIO can play an integral role in this process. As a leader and manager, the CIO can identify appropriate and effective technologies for digital transformation and assist in campus adoption by administration, faculty, staff and students. The concept of digital transformation pervades the entire campus whether in face-to-face, hybrid or virtual learning. This transformation can be seen throughout campuswide software and cloud applications, as well as in financial payments and procurements. In a 2022 blog post for the digital adoption tool Whatfix, tech writer Leah Zitter said, “Digital transformation refers to any sort of technology that helps them become more productive, efficient and effective. It does this by eliminating barriers to education imposed by space and time and by expanding a student’s access to quality learning.”

The CIO and their staff would be involved in both academic and administrative campus functions. The task of the CIO is not only to ensure these applications, processes and technologies work effectively and efficiently, but to look toward future innovation.


Any discussion of digital transformation requires mention of the protection of the data and privacy of the campus population. Cyber attacks in higher education have dramatically increased, and higher education has become particularly vulnerable. In 2022, the cybersecurity software company Sophos commissioned a survey of 5,600 IT professionals in K-12 and higher education titled The State of Ransomware in Education 2022. As Inside Higher Ed pointed out in 2022, the report found that “[n]early three-quarters (74 percent) of ransomware attacks on higher-ed institutions succeeded. Hackers’ efforts in other sectors were not as fruitful, including in business, health care and financial services, where respectively 68 percent, 61 percent and 57 percent of attacks succeeded. For this reason, cyber criminals may view colleges and universities as soft targets for ransomware attacks, given their above-average success rate in encrypting higher-education institutions’ data.”

CIOs in higher education need to continually work on changing campus culture to educate clientele about the dangers of potential cyber attacks. They need to provide clear communications on how to keep data safe and engage administrative leaders as close IT partners to ensure proper cybersecurity investments and policies.


The CIO of 2023 needs to be continually on the lookout for potential roadblocks, pitfalls and external opportunities. The task can be overwhelming and may be related to why the average CIO tenure is just three to five years. In a 2020 TechTarget article about state CIO tenure, tech writer Mary Pratt wrote, “CIO tenure is one of the shortest stints within the executive suite, hovering around four years on average — but talent and search experts said the turnover remains high as CIOs have their pick of top positions in this era of digital transformation.” The great migration of many technologists from higher education after the pandemic has exacerbated the challenge of recruiting qualified CIOs and the associated staff. CIOs cannot accomplish all the tasks mentioned without qualified, adequate staffing levels.

Today’s CIO may not only need technical and business acumen, but also play the role of a generalist, solid communicator, partner, collaborator and visionary. CIOs may increasingly look outside their traditional IT structure to position their campuses for future innovation. A 2020 article from McKinsey about the relationship between CIOs and IT providers pointed out, “CIOs are eager to accelerate their businesses’ digital transformations. After years of allocating external IT spend to legacy systems, the leaders we surveyed signaled an ambitious desire to allocate more than half of their external IT budget to next-generation services within three to five years.” The task for future CIOs may be challenging, but at the same time may provide opportunity for developing new talent, capable of tackling future challenges and opportunities for IT in higher education.
Jim Jorstad is Senior Fellow for the Center for Digital Education and the Center for Digital Government. He is a retired emeritus interim CIO and Cyber Security Designee for the Chancellor’s Office at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He served in leadership roles as director of IT client services, academic technologies and media services, providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. Jim has experience in IT operations, teaching and learning, and social media strategy. His work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR, and he is a recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow and was chosen as one of the Top 30 Media Producers in the U.S.