In this episode, Dr. Mary Papazian – former President of San Jose State University – shares lessons learned about overcoming the organizational fear that prevents digital transformation.
In this episode, Dr. Mary Papazian – former President of San Jose State University – shares lessons learned about overcoming the organizational fear that prevents digital transformation.
Joe Gottlieb: (00:01)
Welcome to Transformed a Higher Digital podcast focused on the new why’s, the new what’s, and the new how’s in higher ed. In each episode, you will experience hosts and guests pulling for the resurgence of higher ed, while identifying and discussing the best practices needed to accomplish that resurgence. Culture, strategy, and tactics, planning and execution, people, process, and technology. It’s all on the menu because that’s what’s required to truly transform. Hello, welcome and thanks for joining us for another episode of Transformed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President and CTO of Higher Digital, and today I am joined by Dr. Mary Papazian, former President of San Jose State University, president Papazian, welcome to Transformed.
Mary Papazian: (00:53)
Thanks, Joe. Happy to be here. So what do you wanna talk about?
Joe Gottlieb: (00:58)
Well, I would love to talk about how you help San Jose State University overcome the organizational fear that often prevents digital transformation, and once you did, how you produced award-winning results. But first, tell me a bit about your personal journey and how it has shaped your perspective and passion for the work that you do in higher ed.
Mary Papazian: (01:19)
Well, thank you. And, uh, it is so good to be here. I, I am the child of an educator, and, um, I have always grown up with a commitment to, to ideas and to learning, to debating and to, uh, a real understanding that education is the pathway to opportunity. And so, as I pursued my, uh, education and my graduate education in English literature and took a job as a faculty member, I moved across the country from California to Michigan, and, uh, started my career there where I taught so many first generation students right outside of Detroit. Uh, and it was just an extraordinary experience for me. Somebody tapped me along the way when we were doing a, uh, a tenure accreditation review to help with that process. And that really moved me over to what we like to say in academia as the dark side, right?
Mary Papazian: (02:14)
The side where you move into administration and the faculty sort of wonder if you’re still one of them. Uh, but, uh, no, it was a, it was a great move and I enjoyed very much, uh, serving as associate dean at Oakland University. It’s right outside of Michigan. And, uh, went on to be dean at Montclair State University of New Jersey and Provost at Lehman College of the City, university of New York, uh, which is located in the Bronx. Um, finally, uh, moved to my first presidency at Southern Connecticut State in New Haven, and then out here back to California in San Jose State. And I would just say this, Joan, each of these institutions, uh, reminded me of so many people I knew growing up, people who were looking for opportunity, who saw education as the pathway for success, who had aspiration, but were also faced with many challenges along the way. They may be first generation students, and there’s something about that mission that has always spoken to me. I think it crystallizes the essence of the American dream, and it’s really what drives me every day in the work that I do.
Joe Gottlieb: (03:20)
Oh, that’s fantastic. A great, a great journey and, uh, a great way to think about, uh, that journey and what has, has really triggered in you and, and your passion. I can feel it. So oftentimes when I speak to university presidents, we don’t dive right into technology. But because you have really been through, uh, an amazing journey at San Jose State and actually produced some some award-winning change, we’re gonna, we’re gonna roll up our sleeves and dive right in. So I wanna, I wanna introduce a concept and get your reaction, and that is, in my mind, technology should neither be feared as a foreign object that is misunderstood and rejected, nor should it be considered something that can make us fearless as a silver bullet, but instead has to occupy this, this balancing point perhaps, and even an ideal emotional state in terms of our response, a little bit of mixture of, of fear and fearless, right? A little bit of fight or fight. Um, um, so do you see that, and, and, and how, how did have you grappled with helping organizations reach this point where technology is, is less feared and also less fearless?
Mary Papazian: (04:37)
Well, you know, technology is a stand in, I think, for change. And, uh, very much the kind of change we see in our world today. Uh, San Jose State as, as, uh, I think you well know, Joe is located here in the heart of Silicon Valley. So we’re surrounded by technology, and many of our alums go and work in technology companies. Uh, and so it’s very much a part of the, um, of the fabric of our community. But the truth is change has always been in the world. I come out of the renaissance, I’m a renaissance literature scholar, and, uh, one of the great technological innovations, uh, actually happened, uh, in the development of movable type with the, with the printing press. Um, the problem is that change and that kind of technology took decades and, and really generations to reach its full potential. Um, what we see now today in technology is rapid change, change that is impacting us day to day, that happens within years as opposed to generations.
Mary Papazian: (05:37)
And so it’s understandable that, um, there may be fear about it. Um, but like everything in the world, it’s really a neutral thing. Um, it’s what we bring as humans, and maybe it’s the humanist in me and how we, and the lens that we create and through which we really, uh, engage with whatever the tools are at our disposal, uh, that ultimately determine whether or not it is something to be feared or something to be embraced. My own sense is that, um, if we bring our values, if we stay committed to the right reasons for engaging in these kinds of tools and technologies, then we can use them to further something that matters more, uh, to us than just adopting something that looks cool.
Joe Gottlieb: (06:23)
Yeah. So you, you highlight a really important, uh, distinction there, and that is the difference between an individual’s fear of technology and an organization’s sphere of technology. And, and so, so when you’re leading an organization that has to leverage technology, it becomes, I think, a challenge in leading that organization, uh, through those fears. And maybe not eradicating them, but creating an atmosphere where that reflex can be harnessed and understood and perhaps, um, and maybe to a degree neutralized so that we can, we can see clearly and, and make some changes happen. Perhaps you can share an example of how you helped your organization there at S jsu, um, to, to, to get through that.
Mary Papazian: (07:09)
Well, you know, fear can be a very healthy kind of thing. Um, fear prevents us, um, just in our day to day lives from sometimes doing things that could hurt us. So it’s a healthy response when it becomes dangerous, I think, on an individual level and also on an organizational level, is when it paralyzes us, when it, um, keeps us from moving forward in any way from trying something new, uh, and, and changing direction. And so the real trick on a personal level as well as on an organizational level is to figure out how to balance those two qualities. And I think, um, the key is really to create the space for meaningful conversation around it, that we have to acknowledge that fears exist, we should listen to them. There could be very good reasons for why those fears should be attended to, uh, or it could be that in the process of conversation that, um, the, those who are fearful actually see benefit and see that their fears may not come to reality, that we should in fact move forward.
Mary Papazian: (08:13)
So it’s a constant ongoing, iterative process of conversation, and I’ll use just one example and technology, um, generally because it can be so powerful and so all consuming can really create some of those modes. Some years ago when we were early in our digital transformation journey at San Jose State, um, it, it, one of the proposals was that we look at some facial recognition, uh, software to address some security issues. And, uh, we began to look at it. Our IT staff looked at the different, um, proposals out there, what might work, and we really created a conversation and shared it with the key constituents on campus. And in that conversation, it was clear, and we have some real experts on our campus who have worked a great deal in privacy issues around technology, and are, are deeply knowledgeable and rightfully skeptical about some of these technologies, and began to raise some questions about whether that really made sense for us. What became clear, of course, in the media after that, is that many of these technologies were, um, very biased against people of color against women, and really had tremendous, uh, downsides to them. We ultimately decided not to adopt that technology, and, and I appreciate, and I was grateful for the expressions of concern, um, by our, our faculty and others, uh, who, who caused us to take a second look and make sure that we were really, uh, adopting something that served the needs of the community.
Joe Gottlieb: (09:42)
That’s a great example. And I imagine that it gave your organization some, some new muscle tissue in, in how it was hearing fears, processing fears discussing through this conversation that you mentioned to establish that, um, that that better shared understanding as an organization. And I like the way you phrased that. You’re absolutely right. The, one of the biggest missing elements in organizational management that that makes technology harder to adopt is a lack of a, of a conversation of a joint conversation that is recurring and is really grappling with the, uh, the opportunities and the challenges that technology presents. And in that lack of conversation, you, you do, you miss the opportunity to, to go through that process and, and obtain that muscle tissue, which as you point out, becomes easier over time, that rhythm, and that’s what what rhythm gives us. And so I know you wound up really leading San Jose State on a, on a journey that allowed you to more centralize not completely centralized, but more centralized it and therefore establishing more running conversation. And, uh, and so tell me a bit about how you did that and what was the driving goal?
Mary Papazian: (11:03)
Well, you know, when I became president of San Jose State, and i, I, I was president for a little over five years. Um, in 2016, what I saw is a very decentralized, uh, organizational structure, not on typical of higher education. And it was so decentralized in the technology space that different units were buying their own computers at retail price, and there was no use of the economies of scale of a large institution to bring those costs down and perhaps reinvest those dollars in the teaching and learning mission. And so clearly something had to change. This was just not a good use of our resources processes were not, um, uh, very effective, and they were broken. And so there was, there was an opportunity, I think, and people recognized it that we think differently about it. So I was able to hire a vice president for IT, cio, we had a transition at the time.
Mary Papazian: (11:55)
I elevated it to a, a VP position so that we could really think strategically about, uh, how technology can become part of the fabric of our institution. Perhaps it was being in the heart of Silicon Valley, that, that, uh, we, we felt an obligation that we should, we should get this right and be a model and a resource for other institutions. And so we began that process. But I wanna stress here, the key for us is the purpose of why we did it. It wasn’t just to take, make change. It wasn’t just to adopt, um, you know, shining new objects. It was because we wanted to better, uh, deliver on our core mission of teaching and learning. And so whatever we can do to streamline processes to ensure that resources actually supported the teaching and learning mission, then that change became, I think, uh, something to follow.
Mary Papazian: (12:46)
And so that was always our driving goal. And, uh, every decision we made addressed that issue. Um, we, in, in doing that, then we had to think about, uh, what kinds of changes needed to happen. And I, I give kudos to our IT staff in this case. They recognize that they couldn’t really address these kinds of changes, dig digital transformation changes if they didn’t do it within their own operation. So you have to take care of what you do at home before you can start engaging in those conversations outside. So our CIO asked his managers to come up with two areas, two processes that they might, uh, improve performance on. One of our goals was to improve performances in all our processes, and, uh, they can decide which ones they are. And so they did, and they were then incentivized and rewarded for the success they had in those, in those, uh, improvements.
Mary Papazian: (13:41)
But then they also were asked to, uh, come up with a third process in partnership with another user from another unit on campus, and work together to develop a solution. And so to create that teamwork and to see themselves as real stewards and, and in service of other units, and that began to open up a respectful conversation, uh, that ensured that the actual, um, needs of what people had, how could their lives be made better? What could they do that they can’t do now? What are their pain points? What frustrates them? And how might we work together to find a solution? And that was the beginning of what we called one, it, um, it wasn’t to centralize to control, it was to centralize where appropriate to provide better service, more efficiency, uh, on the business side. So again, the teaching and learning side was freed up of needless bureaucracy.
Joe Gottlieb: (14:40)
Wow. There’s so many lessons in that, in that story you just told Mary, you know, not the least of which is the delegation, the power of delegation and, and the, and the harnessing of, of creativity of, of multiple human minds in various roles in the organization. Uh, not just then doing internally what you’ll ask others to do with you, but then extending the exercise to reaching out to, to one or more of those units and, and having a collaboration. Uh, that’s just a fantastic example of how to, how to get that change rolling, right to how to establish some early wins in areas where you think you can make that change visible so that others can see it and maybe model the behavior and, and become a little less intimidated by it. So I know that ultimately what was happening with your, your one IT project then was, was the accomplishment of a more efficient infrastructure for the institution.
Joe Gottlieb: (15:43)
And as you point out, so that more resources could be freed up for teaching and learning for delivering on the student experience. And so, if I’m not mistaken, part of that was saving money, but also part of it was elevating what any individual in a department might be doing from something that might be very repetitive with earlier technology to something that was much more value add with the improved technology. And so you were sa you were, you were saving money, but you were also creating efficiencies and elevating the impact. So maybe you can describe a bit more about that dynamic, because that seems like a, a great, a great recipe for success.
Mary Papazian: (16:23)
Well, let me make a thank you. And let me make a a, a distinction here between the business processes and the teaching and learning mission. I think it’s really important to, to be clear about that. And I used to speak about this a lot. You know, higher education rightfully worries a lot about being conflated with a business as a business and doesn’t wanna be seen that way. And, and the teaching and learning mission is not a business, it is a core mission. It’s what we do. It’s, it’s why we exist. Um, but like any other organization, we have bills to pay and we have processes to develop and we have to secure, uh, purchases, uh, of various items. And so we have business functions. And so it was our philosophy that the business functions should be as seamless as, um, uh, uh, efficient as possible and as oriented as much toward customer service as we could so that it ran well.
Mary Papazian: (17:16)
So that, again, the focus could be then on the teaching and learning mission. And that was key for us. And one of the goals in our, uh, we had about seven different areas we were focusing on in the digital transformation journey. Um, and one of them was process improvement. And people talk a lot about that. Uh, we set as a goal to actually automate all of our business processes with by 2024. And we were well on our way by 2020, uh, to automating over 65% of those processes. I’ll give one example, um, to, to your point about how it frees up staff. We have amazing staff. We never have enough staff. They work really hard. And when we, um, uh, burden them with repetitive processes where things fall through the cracks that they then have to chase down, um, they are not freed up to engage in more creative, uh, strategic work that they’re fully capable of and actually creates a more engaged, I think, more productive staff.
Mary Papazian: (18:18)
And, and so one example, the one I really like to use is of, of these many processes we developed and automated, is the process around, uh, uh, the, uh, application for the educational opportunity program, the e o P program. It’s a great program that really I think gets to the core of creating opportunity for students from underserved communities who might not otherwise have it. The application process for that in the old system involve multiple, um, databases and technology systems that had to be consulted. And because of its complexity, it took about 49, 50 days to, for a student to, uh, to apply and then to receive a, a decision, uh, through the automation process. And you can’t automate a process without active engagement of the end user. So the staff who work in E O P had to be part of the conversation. What is it that would make it easier for them? What do they need to have be, uh, built in? What could be changed? And, um, through that iterative process, um, we got that down to 15 days. So from 49 to 15 days, those students who are our most vulnerable students, now, were put in a place where they can be successful. And of course, that, that just removes a lot of burden from the staff as well, who can spend those extra 30 days now working with those students on real student support.
Joe Gottlieb: (19:43)
Wow. Which, and given the, the, the, the nature of those students, and as you mentioned, they’re most vulnerable students, um, that you may serve, the, the, the need to simplify that process so that there are endless opportunities to be disconnected from the process or fall through the cracks, uh, is greatly diminished. That’s a great example. So you were, you were in the thick of this even before covid hit. And so the timing for San Jose State, thanks to that effort, that was more, that was proactive, uh, one could be argued was a bit diminished. You were, you had a lot of things rolling that in a, in a timing that was, that worked well and, and perhaps minimize some of the impact. Can you talk to, to that a little bit in terms of your efforts to, um, to, to deliver on the, the need for remote work and related items?
Mary Papazian: (20:36)
Well, we knew starting, um, this journey really started then in 2017, and we had tagged it as a, a three year process that was constantly renewing because these are processes that never really end. And, um, we really had hoped to, to, uh, put together a better security system. For example, um, cybersecurity is a huge issue. The way, um, we describe it is we often have one lock at the front door. What we created were layerings where there were multiple locks within. So you can get in the front door, but then you have multiple locks within it. But then we also had to work on, on human behavior, because the human side is the weakest link in any cybersecurity initiative. It’s not just technology. So there’s a lot of education that goes on and engagement and, and, um, you know, really involving the community in some of those changes.
Mary Papazian: (21:24)
You know, we did, did a lot of work with our data center, with cloud computing, with our, uh, uh, we, we added, um, wifi six, um, in our outdoor spaces so that our students who couldn’t, who didn’t have wifi at home when covid hit, could actually draw on, um, on and take their classes from, from the campus, but from outside and outdoors where it was safe. And the beauty of all of this is that by, by March of 2020 when we fully went remote, um, many of these systems were already in place. Duo authentication was already in place. Uh, VPN networks had been vastly improved. Um, we had created a, a desktop as a service, uh, mod module, which means that we could then transfer all of our labs into virtual labs, you know, in, in a matter of minutes. And this meant that we could, from just functioning as a university to delivering on teaching and learning, we were in a far better position when Covid hit, um, than many other institutions that hadn’t gone through the journey that we had gone through. But I would just wanna stress here, we started this not because we knew a global pandemic was coming, but because we saw change all around us, and we knew that we needed to, um, that there was great gains to be made from an organizational perspective. If we created more seamlessness in the digital side, if we utilized tools that were around us again, so that we could invest what we had in a far more, um, effective teaching and learning environment.
Joe Gottlieb: (22:55)
That’s fantastic. I, you know, just listening you talk, Mary, I, I’m, I’m gonna throw a bonus question at you here. We didn’t talk about this before, but, but your background is not in technology, but you’ve, you’ve developed a very, um, comfortable relationship talking about technology and, and I’ve, you know, observed in a variety of contexts. So what, what, what advice might you give other leaders that are perhaps looking to become more comfortable with technology? Cuz it is pretty unique, uh, in my experience, and it, some of it comes from the original reflex that, that people might have that’s fear related. Like, I don’t, I don’t have a background, therefore I don’t feel comfortable participating in that kind of dialogue. Um, but you clearly made an effort some point along the way to become more, more familiar. How did that work for you and what would advice would you give others?
Mary Papazian: (23:51)
Well, you know, I, um, I I think it goes back, uh, to my background as a Renaissance scholar. Actually, I, I was asked when I first took the helm at San Jose State, um, back in 2016, why is the campus that, that prepares the workforce for Silicon Valley hiring and English professor? And, um, and I said, well, that’s a really good question, ask the trustees. But no, the answer I came to was, you know, the last great age of innovation was actually the Renaissance. If you think about all the foundational discoveries that took place there, you know, from, from realizing that the sun revolves around the, um, the, uh, the earth and not vice versa, for example, that, uh, the circulation of the blood William Harvey, right? That happened in the Renaissance. Uh, the whole understanding of perspective that also developed there. You think of Leonardo, uh, and I can go on and on navigational tools, um, the, the advancement of learning by Sir Francis Bacon and the scientific method of inquiry and hypothesis mm-hmm. .
Mary Papazian: (24:48)
So all of this is really a part of the way I engaged in learning and ideas from a very early age. And probably goes back to my father, who was not a technologist, but was an ideas man. He could come up with ideas and he loved ideas. Well, the new ideas are really emerging. The creative economy is coming out of the world of technology. And so if you take it that way, I don’t expect ever to be an expert in AI or machine learning or be able to do any of that. But what I can do, um, and what any of us can do, because we’re, we live in a, in, in the world and we are all engaged in ideas, is ask questions is, and to see what the impact might be, and to recognize that the most important part of technology today is how it’s impacting the human experience.
Mary Papazian: (25:34)
How does it help us solve problems that we care about? And, and, and then, you know, we, we talk a lot as, as university leaders about, uh, lifelong learning and how important that is. Um, and we should embrace that ourselves. And I think many of my colleagues do, honestly, I think you, I think they’re, they’re more apt than you, than you give them credit for, um, to, to jump into this space. Um, but the one I’m most interested in now, actually, and I think it’s ripe for extraordinary possibilities in the learning space, is the new immersive, immersive technologies. What my friends here in Silicon Valley like to call the metaverse. Um, you can call it what you like, but augmented reality and virtual reality, open up possibilities in the psychology of learning, in the experience of learning, that I think can be transformative. And, um, you know, that’s the next space that I hope my colleagues, um, you know, uh, uh, engage actively.
Joe Gottlieb: (26:29)
Well, it’s, I like the way you phrased that, and really, you’re, you’re right that this is a, a process of evolution and, and everyone is grappling with more understanding of technology. But I like the way you phrased it in the context of, look at the Renaissance, look at all the things that came outta the Renaissance. And, um, when you think of it in those terms, it’s a little less intimidating, you know? Right. Like to think about the technologies today, even though they have, they have been coming on at a rate rate of, you know, at a pace that is much higher than we’ve digested in the past. And we’ve already talked about how that can be disruptive and also an opportunity. So before we close, I, I do want to, I want, I want you to, uh, share a little bit about the award that you, you won at San Jose State, because I think it’s instructive just to, to see how, how your accomplishments were recognized and, and, and for what reasons, uh, you were recognized in, in, in your efforts here.
Mary Papazian: (27:26)
Yeah. And to the, the last question before I go into the award and, and thank you for that. Um, the other piece is we as, uh, in higher education, uh, and yes, our student base has gotten older, right? We have a lot of adult learners, a lot of, uh, students who come from a variety of backgrounds. Um, but many who come out of the Gen Z experience. I mean, the younger students who, and it doesn’t matter what community they come from, they’re very much attuned to all the possibilities of technology. And it would always behoove us. And I always try to listen to them and to learn from them, uh, because, uh, we learn, uh, at all stages in our lives. Uh, as we went through this process of digital transformation and the digital journey, um, I was sitting at my desk one day and I got a email across the desk for nominations for the business transformation and Operational Excellence Industry Awards.
Mary Papazian: (28:17)
So these are industry awards. They are really focused on this kind of operational excellence and transformation. And so I asked my cio, I said, what do you think? Do you think our digital journey would fit under this? And he said, absolutely. So they put together a, um, a wonderful nomination package, which really outlined and documented a lot of these changes and all of these areas, uh, that we had made over the previous three years and submitted it. And we were thrilled to learn that we were a finalist for the, um, digital transformation award for operational excellence. And so, uh, we went to that, um, that award, it would would’ve been in December of 21, so almost a year ago in Orlando. And, um, we’re just thrilled that we had won in that category. And, um, we’re moving on. And, uh, there is a platinum award that they, they offer that is the, uh, judges look, you can’t nominate for it.
Mary Papazian: (29:11)
Looking at the top, uh, 10 award now, the winners of each of the 10 categories. And we were really, uh, uh, shocked and honored to have been awarded the Platinum Award. And I would just say this wasn’t for higher education institutions, digital transformation. This was operational and business transformation for industry. And we were competing against the likes of Microsoft and Amazon and other big companies and smaller companies. Um, and so again, taking that business side of what we do and doing it with excellence, uh, and with change, uh, it was really wonderful to see that, um, to see that recognized and a real kudos to so many people on our campus, uh, who engaged in the process, who led the process. But it really took everyone, because none of this change could have happened without everyone being involved in some way. And I think that’s really the key. It was a university, um, success and, uh, it has served us well, uh, in terms of the, the changes that have come from it.
Joe Gottlieb: (30:14)
Well, congratulations. I know, um, well earned. And, um, and the best part about it is that you, you’re focused on the organizational velocity and, and, uh, and, and musculature that comes out of that kind of joint effort, really, really important. So in summary, president Papazian, what three takeaways might you offer our listeners that, that might be confronting this organizational fear that prevents digital transformation?
Mary Papazian: (30:43)
Well, I would say first, number one, that digital transformation is clearly cultural transformation. And it requires clarity, transparent leadership, people have to feel that they are heard and that change can happen that makes their lives better. And so creating an environment and a governance structure that ensures that voices are at the table, um, makes all the difference, I think. So that’s, that’s number one. Uh, number two, when you’re bringing about this kind of change, it’s important to realize that it’s not a task that starts one day and is completed another day. This is a cultural change. So it’s an ongoing way of doing business. Now, presumably, once you’ve done the first range of process improvements, there’s less of that to do, but there’s always improvements that we can make. And I like to use the example of painting the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m here in the bay, um, you know, they start on one end and they paint all the way to it, and by the time they get to the the far end, they come back and start all over again.
Mary Papazian: (31:45)
And so it is an ongoing process and you have to be in it for the long run as part of the way you do business on the campus. And the third, I, I think is the simplest. You don’t have a choice. If you don’t engage in this, you’re going to be left behind. You have to embrace it because I don’t know of any technology world that, where technology has gone backwards, and I’ll just say this, the students who we serve, uh, our communities, um, they see what, uh, good technology looks like. They see what bad technology looks like, and so they, um, appreciate when we do it right. Um, so jump in the pool. It’s, uh, it’s, uh, it, it may be scary at first, but the rewards are tremendous. And, um, it, it’s a way to empower, uh, so many on the campus.
Joe Gottlieb: (32:32)
Well said. Pro President Papazian, thank you so much for joining me today.
Mary Papazian: (32:37)
Well, it was a pleasure and, uh, very much enjoyed, uh, having the conversation. Joe. Thanks for all you’re doing
Joe Gottlieb: (32:42)
Well, and thanks to our guests for joining us as well. I hope you all have a great day, and we’ll look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of Transformed.