To recap Apogee Technology Seminar 2018, I have to start by talking about the seminar venue. The JW Marriott Orlando was a beautiful escape from the cold weather in the Northeast, with sunset palm tree vistas and all the luxuries of an upscale hotel. I had to finish some taper runs before my marathon the next Sunday and had a blast circling around the scenic golf course and, fortunately, not seeing any alligators. The social events were on point with fantastic food and plenty of games too. And I could write an entire book about the fun I had at Harry Potter world following the seminar, but I’ll leave that conversation to another time with all the Harry Potter nerds. Just saying though, Diagon Alley was magical!
This year, the seminar contributed even more strategic conversations around technology through sessions that were primarily driven by Higher Ed leaders in finance, technology, and housing. Venerable speakers including John M. Lutz, Vice Chancellor for Information Technology at Vanderbilt, and Eric Monday, Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration at the University of Kentucky, taught us how to be effective leaders for guiding our organizations into the future. Lutz emphasized that “people solve problems, not software,” reiterating the cultural basis of any technology solution. The culture discussion lent itself well to the session from Rajiv Shenoy, Apogee Chief Technology Officer, Megan Cluver, Senior Manager for Deloitte’s Higher Education team, and Bill Dillon, Consultant/Senior Advisor to the President of NACUBO. The three speakers covered Jim Collins’ ideas about going “from good to great” and their applications to Higher Education. Shenoy, Cluver, and Dillon argued that with proper strategies, leaders can enable institutional greatness through technology. Dillon also disrupted the Higher Education understanding of “silos,” arguing that with correct leadership, colleges and universities can create “spheres of influence” to share responsibility for innovation.
Tuesday’s keynote, “Rise Up and Lean In: Empowering Women in Leadership” featured Pam Cain, Interim Senior VP for Finance and University Services at Iowa State, Andrea Ballinger, Associate Vice President and CTO at Louisiana State, and Sarah Steinberg, Former Executive Vice Provost at Johns Hopkins and CEO of Frogstone Strategies. I was enthralled by their discussions about career paths that led them to their current leadership roles, and encouraged by Steinberg dispelling the “pipeline myth” that there aren’t enough women in the tech pipeline to fill leadership roles. I was also struck by the truth in their statements that women tend to be stuck in middle management roles. The panelists emphasized that women need “sponsors and mentors” to both pull them through the pipeline and push them onto greater positions. Afterward, I vowed to be as productive of a sponsor and mentor to my cohort of student ambassadors as possible.
Speaking of student ambassadors, my favorite session was obviously the one featuring two students in a discussion of “Data Driven Student Engagement.” Nancy from the University of Mary Washington and Alaa from the University of Texas at Dallas spoke with Anna Billingsley, Associate Vice President of University Relations at UMW, and Celeste Granger, Assistant Director of Residence Life at the College of Charleston. Alaa and Nancy did a phenomenal job sharing their perspectives as students, and I was especially impressed by their abilities to tie anecdotes to larger challenges in Higher Education. Alaa had a truly impressive dialogue in which she described the pitfalls of social media on students’ mental health, challenging administrators to support students in need. Nancy emphasized the importance of driving creativity in the age of automation, preparing a changing workforce for jobs that may not even exist yet.
Tying it all back together was Marc Booker, Executive Director of Student Housing and Dining at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In a stroke of genius, Booker related Anthony McCarley’s keynote speech to institutions’ responsibilities to their students. McCarley had spoken the previous day about his adventures swimming the English Channel, emphasizing acceptance of failure and constant communication with a team as necessary functions for achieving a goal. Booker described swimming the English Channel as the student experience; students have the same path to swim to complete a degree, but their experiences may differ based on past experiences. In the same way that McCarley’s second attempt was more likely to succeed because he learned from mistakes during the first one, some students may be prepared for the pressures of life as a college student while others, notably first generation and other at-risk students, may not be. McCarley emphasized communication as he discussed the crew on the boat and their misinterpreting of erratic swimming behavior as hypothermia indicators, when in fact McCarley was not experiencing hypothermia and seeking a time goal he hadn’t communicated prior to launching the swim.
In Booker’s metaphor, college administrators are akin to the crew on the boat. We can see the actions students take as they make their “swim” through college, but not necessarily the underlying reasons for them. To drive student success, we must constantly communicate with students in an attempt to understand the pressures they’re undergoing, and personalize the student experience to accommodate the factors that may affect a student before they begin the swim. Booker’s summary was a perceptive view of the handshake that must occur between departments to support a student throughout the entire journey.
Applying the swim to a support team of administrators reminded me that my favorite part of the Apogee Technology Seminar is always the variety of opinions represented. One interesting piece of feedback this year was that some attendees felt more comfortable voicing their criticisms of other departments when they knew there weren’t leaders from their home institution present. So, the housing officer from institution X could criticize the business officers to a CFO from institution Y. The CFO from institution Y now has more fodder to understand the housing priorities at her institution when returning from the seminar. No Higher Education conference or seminar brings together officers from housing, finance, and technology – plus students – under the same roof. It provides a fascinating opportunity for leaders to understand their counterparts’ priorities and concerns in a safe space.
This feedback was extremely encouraging, as our goal is always to enable “spheres of influence” on campus, as Bill Dillon would say, and bring together groups that are traditionally separate to drive a more meaningful student experience. We’ll be using techniques from the seminar for years to come, and I’m ecstatic to say that the seminar atmosphere was in no way “salesy.” Yes, future technology is enabled by a reliable network, but the cultural discussions we had provided insight into the paradigm shifts that can occur at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of technology when we use the right strategies to collaborate with teams.