This CIO profile is part of the "Mobility in Higher Education" survey underwritten by Sprint Higher Education Solutions and conducted by the Education Dive editorial staff.
You could easily be forgiven for thinking technology is the silver bullet in higher education right now. But behind the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, online learning solutions and wireless networks lies a very simple fact: none of it would be possible without the people who make the technology work.
Just about every school has an IT department, and Quinnipiac University is no different. Education Dive spoke with Fred Tarca, the chief information and technology officer at Quinnipiac, about the evolution of the IT department and how he and his staff are constantly working behind the scenes to make technology run smoothly for students, faculty and staff.
Here's what he had to say:
EDUCATION DIVE: How did you arrive at your current role?
FRED TARCA: I came here in 1999, so I’m starting my 15th year. When I first came, I initially got involved in many different aspects of the growth of the technology on campus, leading different projects and helping to create what we now have as our current IT organization, so I was in on the shaping of it. In 2009, my immediate supervisor took on a senior leadership role and I was appointed CIO, succeeding him.
How has the university’s IT organization evolved in the time you’ve been there?
TARCA: It was really a deliberate initiative by President John Lahey and he was very aware and cognizant of the need to have a strong technology department – any great university certainly has, as one its components, a good solid IT organization. We were fortunate enough to have the backing of the president and the senior vice president of finance, and we were able to put together a strategic plan with the full backing of the administration. We were very fortunate.
What spurred that decision?
TARCA: It was really the fact that the campus was undergoing an enormous amount of growth in and of itself. The student population was growing, the physical plant was growing and is still growing. Since 1999, we almost doubled the size of the student population. With this great influx of students, they all clearly need technology and the communications and the applications were becoming so much more sophisticated that we really did have to recognize that technology was going to play a key component in education. That’s how we positioned ourselves.
What are the top challenges and accomplishments you’ve experienced since coming on board?
TARCA: That’s a good question. The challenges are almost daily. Since coming here in 1999, we’ve experienced an enormous amount of growth—and in the academic programs as well. For example, we now have a school of medicine and the first incoming class is due to arrive in August this year 2013. We’ve spent the past two years gearing up for providing all of the technology for this incoming class of medical students. We now have a program of engineering; we have a school of law. Other academic programs are growing enormously alongside of the physical growth of the campus itself.
Our brand has been much higher profile than it has been, both nationally and internationally; even our hockey team was in the NCAA finals this year. Our sports programs, the polling institute and many of our academic programs have been fortunate enough to receive some wide recognition, and so the challenges are to keep up with the technology requirements along the way, and it’s forced us to become very entrepreneurial in many ways.
I would say, challenges? Putting together a team that’s a versatile team. One of the things I always say is that when you get hired here to work in the IT department at Quinnipiac, it’s very rare that you’ll be doing something you were hired for because six months down the road things are going to change. So we like to surround ourselves with a versatile staff.
You mentioned taking an entrepreneurial approach—what does that mean to you?
TARCA: We don’t have the luxury of time. For example, the school of medicine, although it was a natural evolution to all of the health sciences programs, we didn’t really have the luxury of time in putting together the technology. We had to work pretty hard over the past few years in working with the dean and his staff. It’s kind of a hectic pace and that’s what I mean by entrepreneurial. The pace is much more demanding than I think you’d find elsewhere.
Especially with technology.
TARCA: Yes, especially in the technology side. We have to be quite organized with all of our various projects that are going on. I mean, you have to be able to juggle so many different projects at the same time.
And how has the rise in smartphone and tablet use changed your university’s strategy?
TARCA: Oh, that’s amazing—just an explosion of growth—undergraduate and graduate [combined] we have about 8,000 students on campus, but if you are to take a look at the wireless connections to our network, we have about 25,000 wireless connections at any one given time. It’s a three-to-one ratio—and you might say, well, what’s going on? Why do people have so many devices?
Students have laptops, they also surely have a phone, many have tablets, gaming devices [that] are hitting our network, we even have wireless communications in our laundry room to tell when the washers and dryers are available. So this big proliferation of phones and tablets as well as the ability of our wireless network to absorb these connections has really changed the dynamic from a security point of view, from an applications support point of view—it’s definitely a different world than it was even five years ago, four years ago.
I read that Quinnipiac recently upgraded its wireless network—can you tell what that was like?
TARCA: We’ve always had an excellent, robust wireless network and what we’re looking to do is move towards a role-based campus, meaning it matters much more who you are as opposed to where you are. This is all accommodated by the wireless infrastructure that we’ve installed—the authentication system and the security and all of that is built in to our Aruba Networks environment.
Does Quinnipiac have a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy?
TARCA: We do not have a formal policy but I will tell you that we are very tolerant of bring-your-own-devices. The fact is we always had a nationally recognized laptop program where you had to bring a very specific machine type model to campus and we would even tell you what that machine type model was--you would buy it from our website and we had a very homogenous model.
The onslaught of the consumer world, primarily with Apple devices and other very cost-competitive laptops and tablets and so forth, really forced our hand and we’ve finally said, listen, ultimately it really doesn’t matter what’s in your hand; it matters if you can connect to our network. So we decided to reinforce and fortify our network.
More importantly, we do have a policy—it’s the student who is responsible for their work in the classroom. We can provide guidance on what devices to choose because we just have years and years of experience on what is more suitable in a classroom, for example, but it is up to the student to decide. So, bring your own device—you will not be turned away at the help desk for any device that you bring and we’re concentrating more on the operating systems and the wireless connectivity. Like I said, if students want some guidance on what laptop to buy, we generally point them to a Dell computer or an Apple.
And what do you think are students’ most pressing technology needs on your campuses?
TARCA: I’ve thought about this a lot and I think their most pressing needs are connectivity all the time. I really think students were tolerant of downtime here and there several years ago, but now you need to be connected online all the time. So I think the first pressing need is connectivity and then customer support is extremely important. We pride ourselves on providing good customer support through our client services.
We also want students to feel comfortable with the technology in all of our classrooms and, in that regard, another pressing need is we have three physical campuses here and we strive to provide the same computing experience on all three campuses. We don’t want students to have different experiences with connectivity, applications, internet speeds and all that. The blend of consumer applications to the enterprise is just growing so rapidly that we’re seeing so much more video and social network apps finding their way into the enterprise. It’s no longer enterprise consumer; it’s really all just one big blend.
Quinnipiac offers a few online degree programs—when and how did that come about?
TARCA: We’ve had an independent unit—Quinnipiac University Online (QU Online)—for many years now and it is a very, very important component of the university and it’s growing leaps and bounds. QU Online does a great job at offering new academic programs and traditional academic programs online. As you can imagine, it emphasizes this need to have this connectivity anytime, anyplace, anywhere, 24/7. Its really is very challenging from a technology point of view but the fact is this university has a very strong requirement to provide these resources.
You said QU Online is an independent unit—what role do you play in that?
TARCA: We provide the underlying technology for QU Online courses. For example, they use the learning management system we provide [and] they use our email system and other enterprise applications. . Now, there are certain applications that they may use independently depending upon their particular needs but, by and large, we benefit from each other—we benefit from the students attracted to online learning and I would like to think they benefit from the technologies that we provide.
How have you helped the faculty adapt to the medium of online learning?
TARCA: As I mentioned, QU Online has a set of instructional designers, so they reach out to faculty to help build courses to maximize and to leverage online technologies. We also have another group of academic specialists that work with faculty on ground and online to maximize the technology in the classroom and bring technologies in the classroom. We have a very dedicated and focused unit called Academic Technology, which is an IT department dedicated to providing many technologies into the classroom experience.
Who is your LMS provider?
TARCA: Blackboard. We use Blackboard and we’ve been a Blackboard customer for a very long time. In general, they’re able to satisfy most of our requirements. For us, it’s very important to have very strong vendor relationships since we do not have a very large IT staff and resources. So it’s more beneficial for us to use a company like Blackboard as opposed to some open-source, where we have to provide a lot more programming and integration.
We depend on our providers for great support and we’ve certainly watched Blackboard mature as a company and we feel they’ve done a good job responding to our general needs. As you know, there’s a large number of LMS providers but, from our point of view, its important not to get hung up on the features of each one of these providers but just to become comfortable using an LMS in general.
How are you able to adapt to the constantly changing nature of technology? For example, how can you help
TARCA: Quinnipiac plan long-term when we don’t what the technology will look like three years from now?
What it really boils down to is the people in our organization, within IT. We are so blessed to have such an amazing, extraordinary group of men and women who thrive on these new technologies and they adapt incredible well as they come along.
For example, as I mentioned, several years ago we had no idea that there was a school of medicine that was going to be established here and yet our folks, because they’re versatile, really were very inspired on learning new applications and learning new technologies. We’re very proud of the work that they’ve been able to accomplish on campus. It really boils down to adapting to the constant changes in technology—you have to have people who can change, who understand change is a way of life, at least in our business.
What is the best investment technology investment you’ve seen Quinnipiac make since you’ve been on board?
TARCA: It sounds somewhat patronizing, but it really is the people. Underneath all of this technology, and underneath all of these wires, underneath the hardware and underneath all of the phones and underneath all of the tablets, there is really a good group of people that support it. What we try to do is hire the best possible employees and have some fun. Clearly, the best technological investment has been in the people that support all of this technology.
Is there a big project you’re working on right now that you can tell me about?
TARCA: The med school, but there’s still an awful lot of construction going on, so we’re refurbishing several older buildings. We also have a pretty steady, progressive initiative rolling out Virtual Desktop. We have an extraordinary VDI solution, our labs are virtual, our library is soon to be virtual desktop—so that’s been a multi-year initiative but nevertheless it’s certainly consuming a lot of our energies. We’re doing a couple of application conversions [that are] absorbing a lot of time.
What do you think will be your school’s greatest technological challenge over the next decade?
TARCA: I think security. I think increased need for security—and everything we’ve talked about depends on a really secure network. Just look at what’s happening in the news at the national scale—people are worried about protecting proprietary information and we worry about this all the time. Security is just becoming such an enormous aspect of what we on a day-to-day basis. I truly believe that is the biggest challenge over the next decade.
And what has Quinnipiac been doing to boost security?
TARCA: We have a wide variety of forensic tools, we have beefed up our firewall systems, our role-based security, we have continual education, we have a very talented information security officer, who is constantly bringing us up-to-date on the latest security awareness programs, working with us to roll these out. Really, it’s just something we try to put on the front burner and not on the back burner. It’s hard. It’s very, very hard because most people are quite casual about computing and yet it’s still the wild, wild west out there.
If you could change one thing overnight to make things easier on campus, what would that be?
TARCA: I guess if I had the magic wand, I’d really come back to my staff and I’d clone every one of them. I really would. They make my life easy now, but it would be so much easier if we could do some sort of cloning of everyone.
Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more CIO profiles from Education Dive as part of our 2013 "Mobility in Higher Education" survey underwritten by Sprint Higher Education Solutions. Download the full survey results here.