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"Retirement Tsunami" of CIO's in Higher Education. What Comes Next?

I remember being at Gartner Symposium in Orlando years ago and sitting in one of Mike Zastrocky’s presentations and listening him talk about the issue of an aging IT demographic bearing down on colleges and universities. Mike’s warning was meant to serve as a call to action to the industry: Colleges and universities need to actively work on transferring technological skills and knowledge, cultivating a new generation of IT leaders, and moving infrastructure forward so that schools are prepared when the “retirement tsunami” hits.

And then last week I read an article in Campus Technology which references a survey that was done by the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies (CHECS), and Mike’s warnings rang again in my ears. According to the survey, 25 percent of higher education CIOs are set to retire within the next five years, and 50 percent are set to retire in the next 10 years. Twenty-five percent in five years! Let’s think about what that means: Within five years, approximately 1,000 schools are going to have new IT leaders in place who will be charged with driving a technological roadmap for their institution. What changes will this bring in the way these schools think about and use technology?

It is without argument that this group of departing CIOs has led the higher education industry through a revolutionary IT timeline. Assuming an average retirement age of 65(ish?), then the outgoing group of CIOs came upon technology during a true IT golden age. (Or maybe even earlier. Twenty-three percent of respondents to the survey indicated they’re either 61 or older. Do the math…). By all accounts this group was wide-eyed when the Apple I was released (1976), when IBM’s first PC came out (1981), and when personal productivity tools like Lotus123 were first introduced (1982). And by the time Mosaic and Netscape and IE and other browsers brought the Internet to our screens and changed the way we would forever think about what computers do, this group of CIOs had already been steeped in IT for 20 years or more. And of course10 years after that, when this wave of CIOs may have already started thinking about retirement, the CMS conversation came front-and-center in the discussion of how colleges and universities can actually use the web for running the business of higher education. And here we are nearly 10 years after that. And this retrospective got me thinking: When the next generational shift happens in higher education after the pending one, what will be its legacy?

Just as the past 30-40 years of IT in higher education can be characterized by how ubiquitous technology has become on campus, the next 30-40 years and more will be characterized by how the technology itself has evolved in an open, free and democratized model. Escalating license fees for large, monolithic software deployments? Proprietary application platforms that require teams of expensive experts to make changes? Closed technology systems that can’t keep up with the speed of innovation? Do we really think that we’ll be talking about any of these things in another 30-40 years? Or, asked another way, do we really think any proprietary software system will be able to keep up with the speed of progress that is prevalent in today’s large-scale open-source projects that are spreading dramatically through the industry?

No doubt the coming IT leadership turnover has the potential to be a disruptive event. The change in the CIO ranks that is coming will help usher in an even greater understanding and appreciation for the strength of technology communities and the sheer power that these communities have in our industry. The future of IT in higher education will be characterized by open source, and in many respects the future is already here. In fact, the successful introduction of open source into higher education is a key accomplishment of this retiring CIO group. In addition to all the other technology revolutions they’ve led the industry through, they’ve also been at the helm at the time when the open source conversation on campus has gone from marginal to mainstream. By way of example, Drupal–the leading open source CMS–has risen from nothing (created in 2001) to supporting over 25 percent of all dotEDU web sites.

I’m confident that the “retirement tsunami” will help us accelerate and grow the open source revolution in higher education. This is a trajectory the current CIOs have set, and is a path that promises to harness the power of purposeful community to define the digital future of higher education.

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