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Episode 26

transformed: Provost-driven Digital Transformation

Higher Digital has just published the next installment of its new audio interview feature, transformed. Every other week we interview experts on higher education, digital transformation, and the challenges and promises represented by both.

In this episode, our host Joe Gottlieb welcomes Wayne Bovier, co-founder and CEO of Higher Digital, to discuss the provost’s critical role in embracing digital transformation in higher education institutions and propelling traditional organizational structures into the digital era.

Joe Gottlieb: (00:02)

Hello and welcome to transformed a Higher Digital podcast focused on the new whys, the new whats, and the new hows in higher ed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President of Higher Digital. And today I’m joined once again by Wayne Bovier, co-founder and CEO of Higher Digital. Wayne, welcome to transformed

 

Wayne Bovier: (00:52)

Thanks Joe. It’s great to be with you. What are we covering today? 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (00:58)

Well, we could talk about the tournament, which is also starting today, March madness, but let’s talk about the role of the provost in driving institutional transformation. And I, I say institutional transformation, because I want to allow ourselves the latitude to strip our propellerhead role and really think broadly because to do this justice, we have to think broadly about institutional transformation, which we do, but sometimes we fall into that trap, right? After all, the provost is responsible for all academic activities and faculty affairs. So in our minds, they’re clearly the Chief Product Officer at any institution, right? They’re in charge of the chief product, which is education, educating students. And as the digital age has loomed, you know, most provosts have been relatively uncomfortable driving the changes that are necessary that rely upon technology. And yet with the pandemic, as we saw across the board, we’ve seen provosts and other institutional executives get a crash course in strategic and tactical change in the digital age, as their organizations really had to adapt to deliver remote learning, remote work for their leadership and management teams, etc. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (02:13)

And so, I believe that the most progressive provost will leverage this evolved familiarity that they’ve gotten from this crash course. And the confidence with change that is built up as a result. Not just confidence in change, but also confidence in being closer to technology, because that technology has been really, really proximate to that change and maybe utilizing that new confidence, that new familiarity to seize this role of chief product officers and help them lead their institutions to transform and sustain their digital eras. Right. So I know that’s a big one. Are you up to the challenge?

 

Wayne Bovier: (02:52)

This is a great topic. You know, I think everything you said makes total sense but let’s start a little bit by just aligning about the provost because, I think a lot of what you just outlined is very aspirational for the majority of institutions. When you think about the traditional provost role, they are in many institutions the power center of an institution. And when I say power, I mean that in pretty much all aspects. You know, they are the guardians of academic integrity, the quality, they are responsible for the overall academic strategy. What courses, programs, how do we expand what we have? They also are the “chief cat herder.” You know, the faculty in most higher education institutions have a lot of tenure and a lot of, you know, a lot of years. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (03:57)

And so there’s a lot of individual freedom and power that each faculty member has, mostly, at least the full-time permanent ones. And so the provosts play a very, very important role and they are really arm and arm with the president, or the president really is kind of the face of the institution in many ways. They are the main sales leader, right? I’m sure I’m just saying that in this podcast, any academic leaders are gonna bristle at that, but that’s really what they are. They’re out recruiting new prospects, they’re out there fundraising to grow the endowment and a variety of those types of things. And so, the other piece that the provost is on the hook for is accreditation, right? 

 

Wayne Bovier: (04:53)

And it’s always a never ending, looming stressor anxiety for the institution every five to 10 years. And so the provost is very much on that. Now that’s the traditional portfolio. Now, when you think about what we’ve gone through and the awakening that has happened in the industry, and particularly with the provost with the technology, there’s a lot of opportunity. But in most cases, the role has to transition, right? And that is really where we are. So there’s a very mixed internal and external view about what the role of provost should be going forward and how much involvement should the provost have with technology? So does that make sense to you? I mean, I’m curious about some of your reactions to that. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (05:56)

It’s a great starting point. And I think your mention of the cat herding is, I think, important to recognize, right? So the same power that the provost enjoys at his or her level is actually duplicated in their part of the organization structure, meaning the academic freedom that, Hey, this is what we’re all about. This is what we’re here to do. And therefore they have to herd all those cats, but they get to do so in a common frame, they get to do so with the lexicon, the language, the trajectories in industry i.e. academic, whether it be research or prowess, or following, right, that’s what’s going on in that part of the organization structure. And to a degree given they’ve been the most, let’s say, powerful person in the organization, they’ve learned how to exert that power horizontally across the organization as it might involve peers, as big decisions have to be made. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (06:59)

That’s why they wind up being the key to most big decisions, because they’re in that very important position of power. But what they may not necessarily always have is all of the skills required for true collaboration and compromise with peers that change typically requires for effective change with strong alignment and cohesion. That takes, that takes that other superpower. That’s not to say that provosts don’t have high EQ, undoubtedly, many of them have high EQ, but oftentimes when we think about high EQ, we think about the ability to compromise. And when someone is used to having a lot of power, that muscle just doesn’t get developed as much. And so that’s something I think, to keep in mind in this setting as more provosts are finding themselves in a situation where there’s a great opportunity to transcend the challenge and really transform the institution. They’ll achieve one outcome with strong alignment, as a strong leader that can enroll and align and compromise and trade. Right. And there’s a different outcome that will probably occur if just absolute power is exerted. Do you agree with that? Is that off base? 

 

Wayne Bovier: (08:21)

I think that’s right. I mean, I think there are a couple things that just popped to mind. You and I are in the business of growing a company right. And growing a company means hiring people, bringing people in. And you know, what you’ve described in terms of skillset is almost superhuman, right? Like that person, yes, the consensus building is a major part of a provost role, but there’s also a blend between consensus building and decision making. Right. Because at the end of the day, somebody needs to make a decision. And so again, you have the natural, centuries old organizational structure of a higher education institution, which there are many valuable parts of why that is the way it is. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (09:18)

But I’ll just throw this out. The other thing that came to mind is that when you hear the term ivory tower, right. Essentially the chief of the ivory tower historically, is the provost, right? And the ivory tower to me is defined as individuals that look down upon the landscape and make decisions and thoughts that are very removed from the citizens that are on the ground, working the land and things like that. And coming up with high concepts, now that is traditional. That is a very big blanket statement I make. I’ll make it very clear, I’ve met many provosts and almost all of them are not that way. But there is a historical reference of that kind of attitude and to be honest, it’s also come to play with digital transformation efforts that we’ve run into with institutions. So those are two things that kind of popped in my mind as we think about the traditional role and you know, where we are and where this role needs to participate going forward. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (10:38)

So did I come off a little too California for you there? A little too far left into the consensus building. Totally agree, right. That balance is what’s key and you painted the opposite extreme, right? The ivory tower leader that looks down upon the minions and I love the way you phrase it makes decisions that are far removed from the realities of what’s happening on the ground. And so I think you’re right. I identified a superpower skill set combo that would be ideal, but in doing so, hopefully I’m illustrating that at whatever level a provost is operating, being mindful of that combination of skills and how that would be applied in a shifting landscape, I think is important. And in fact, doing this at a time when they were already really busy, you could argue they had the busiest job in the organization for the same reasons that we’ve been talking about power and importance and centrality to the mission, right.

 

Joe Gottlieb: (11:41)

But wrangling changes in the digital era will make them even more busy. And so figuring out how to delegate and understand the way that works will be important. So let’s then step this and really aim it at the sort of digital transformation disruptive trend that we’re seeing happen across all industries, certainly in higher ed and within higher ed, perhaps more dramatically accelerating change in an industry that has had less change relative to others. And now that presents challenge and opportunity, right. For any organization. And in particular for provosts that are having a role that’s evolving rapidly or could evolve rapidly. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (12:29)

Yeah. Yeah. And let’s, you know, I think that’s a, that’s a good kind of transit let’s, let’s start by, you know, just acknowledging the elephant in the room, right. Which is academic freedom. And for our listeners that understand the words, but don’t understand the meaning of what that means in, in higher education, simply put, academic freedom is a kind of, an operating model, that academics fully embrace emotionally. And essentially it says, give me the freedom to teach the students the way I think they need to be taught. And I will tell you, I, you know, coming from a liberal arts, you know, undergrad, I’m a full believer in that. You know, I believe that at the end of the day, teaching and learning is really best done through interaction. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (13:24)

Right. And I think that there’s a lot of really strong qualities to academic freedom. You know, you think about, you know, in, you go back 20 years, right. When in, in the United States with, when, when we had president Bush and no child left behind, one of the big, one of the big debate issues really had was it may not have been, presented as academic freedom. That’s essentially what it was, is, you know, you got teaching in every state, in every community, regardless in, in a uniform way. And having, you know, a very big family of, of, of K12 teachers, and friends as well. There was a lot of pushback about like, this is really not the best way. And, and, you know, and I understand both sides of that story and the tension associated with that, but, but simply put, you know, academic freedom in higher education, I think is one of the qualities, value aspects of, of higher ed. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (14:29)

However, I do think it, it’s, it’s, it’s pushed too far and it’s used as an excuse, a blanket brella, excuse to avoid painful decisions or painful, or, you know, you know, changes, right. A lot of people avoid, they just don’t, they stress, as we know, we’ve talked about this many times, you know, change is hard for everyone. and it’s stressful. And, it adds a lot of uncertainty. And I think, you know, the academic freedom aspect when it comes to digital transformation using technology, is the, there’s an agent that is on one side of the pendulum that, oh my God, this is gonna take away. Technology will take away all academic freedom. we fully know, and, and our position has been that technology. If, appropriately, you know, if you strategy, if you strategize correctly and you align your institution, the technology can be a way to extend academic freedom to extend into communities that maybe your institution doesn’t traditionally engage with. you know, we have some examples, we’ll, we’ll cover it here in a second, but I’m gonna stop here for a second. Obviously you can see, I’m pretty passionate about this topic, but, but I’m curious to get your reactions on the academic and freedom side. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (15:53)

Yeah. I think you’ve hit it right on the head, Wayne. I, I, there’s the, there’s the landscape of this sort of conflict and, and over overused, it can become an excuse for a lack of change, but it turns out that transformation let’s forget digital for a moment like transformation, which you, you, you called out properly, which is change, and that can be painful for people. It’s human nature for change to be hard, right? And so we tend to avoid it unless we’re helped through it by some method or journey or process or mentor guide, you know, set of experiences or even circumstance, right? Which sometimes can just be pure luck. COVID is another circumstance which you know, was unlocked, but was also transformational. But, the nature of this landscape is such that transformation is what’s required to actually optimize what academic freedom should allow. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (16:49)

So doing the hard work of owning, how will we allow our teachers to find the right ways to teach our student body, knowing that there are new challenges, knowing that there are new tools available. And so let us help them find the right ways. And so it’s almost like it’s inc bent upon the organism to learn the new ways that are necessary, like an up, what you provided standardized, testing, standardized delivery that flew in the face of everything that was now being learned about the difficulty in teaching,  you know, black and brown, you know, anything but the white student, right. With our old models. Right. And so here, you had an, an attempt to start to diversify the, of methods or, or even learning disabled or, or, you know, or, or marginal on spectr . You know, people with learning disabilities like D & D or ADHD, there was progress happening. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (17:44)

And the academic freedom you could argue was flexing to address those things. Well, suddenly you roll out a big national system, or even a statewide system that tries to standardize and normalize. There’s no room for that anymore. Now you gotta, like, you gotta check boxes. You gotta, you know, so there’s this, there’s this real difficult conflict between standardization and adaptation. Yeah. And, if we, if academic creative freedom is serving to optimize adaptation and evolution, it’s awesome. If it’s serving to defend against that same thing, it’s bad. Right. And if we are a provost, we are in the perfect position to know the difference and to lead accordingly. And therefore we believe technology and, and digital transformation as a subset of institution transformation, if you’re stepping up and leading is a massive opportunity. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (18:38)

Yeah. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. You know, and just kind of building, you know, just kind of building on that. Right. as we think about, you know, the provost, and, and, and transformation, right. You know, this is a lot of, it has to do with business, product management, you know, education, product management, this concept of product management. And, and what I, you know, what we mean by product, just to kind of define this is, you know, think about a program, right. Institutions have programs that, you know, they actually balance the books, right. There’s revenue associated with it, their costs associated with that. Obviously they’re monitoring the quality of the students and what they’re learning and all this kind of stuff. And so there’s a natural fit. Although I think most provosts or a lot of provosts feel unnatural about it, there’s a natural fit for the provost to take a more leadership role when it comes to technology. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (19:39)

And so building upon some of the things that you and I have already talked about, just a couple examples. So Stanford, right. One of the top institutions in the world, right. re search institution, medical institution, undergrad institution. Right. They kind, they kind of cover it all. And, I know they’re just right. You know, in the next neighborhood, next to you. Yeah. you know, the provost, you know, one of the things that, that, that Dr. Dre has done is established just recently did the education office. Okay. And, you know, this is a trend that we’ve been seeing in a lot of institutions, and it’s essentially interesting in terms of maturity. Like, what’s the, what’s, you know, you start here in point A go to point B point C you know, this office, I think is great ideas and a great experiment. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (20:34)

It’s one way, it’s not the only way, but it’s one way, to offer up a Stanford level education to more students. And specifically, as you dig into that particular program, what’s really, really exciting about it is it’s really about extending the, Stanford’s ability to reach, nontraditional students, tr students that can’t afford to come to Stanford, that, you know, for a variety of reasons, whether they physically can’t be a, there they financially can’t be there. This is a way for Stanford to start to offer up, you know, high quality programs to these students at a more cost effective way for, for, for Stanford to deliver that. I’m curious to kinda get your, get your thoughts. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (21:21)

Great, great example. And I think, you know, as we’ve talked a bit about this notion of creating this separate office versus, attacking this new opportunity with your, with your existing leadership structure and organization structure, right. I think what we’ve observed is that oftentimes it’s necessary to create a new office that allows you to recruit a team, to actually B specialized enough to go forge that new pathway for the institution, because it’s just too hard, a to fit it into the daily grind, to build something of that magnitude. A new job is so hard to do when you gotta keep doing everything you’ve been doing in the traditional part of the business. but then also the, the, the, the, the traits we need for the people that are going to build something and build something very new. And sometimes, maybe that’s a bit disruptive. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (22:21)

They’re different people often. And so it’s very not normal for organizations to create these offices. Now, we also know that once there’s some mastery, once there’s some, an achievement, ultimately it would be very nice. And we will see this trend flow through this life cycle, bringing it back home and saying, you know what, we need to do it all we need to, we need to bring this whole back together again, understand what we, how, how we, what we stand for as an institution, knowing that we’ve got this bimodal or different set of methods for how we’re teaching different sort of types of programs, different types of citizens, populations that we’re, we’re educating, et cetera. So at some level you cohere that back again and really reimagine who you are as a more diversified organization. Now that requires structure, growth and evolution, right? So you gotta figure out okay, who is best to lead that, and how do we have specialized folks underneath, but that’s a natural cycle that I think we’ll see. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (23:19)

So, so I’m gonna, can I throw a curveball at you? 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (23:22)

Sure. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (23:23)

So think about the California community college system. And, and for those that are listening, Joe lives in California, if you haven’t figured that out by now. So the California community college system traditionally had 114 institutions. They now have a hundred 15th institutions. The former governor was a big supporter of this and this idea of Cal bright, which was the hundred 15th institution, was a fully online institution. The caveat to this. And I’ll stop. I’m curious to kinda get your reaction about this, because I think this is part of this conversation with provost and academic freedom. And what do you do? You know, I would, I, I would venture to guess that to some degree or another, every single one of the hundred 14 institutions in the community college system of California all had online programs, to one varying degree, some are fully more mature. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (24:20)

Some are not so mature. The whole intent was Cal, right. Was only on. And so what they did is introduced a competitive solution in many ways that through some sand in the gears of, of the operations of the system, obviously it was highly charged politically. and there’s, you know, there’s always debates about what’s gonna happen to Cal bright. But when I think about the provost and at the 114 institutions, how are they reacting to this? Is this a, is this a reaction to the provost? Not, not, you know, responding fast enough? I don’t know, what are your thoughts 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (25:01)

The California community college system is a great case in point for one of the important principles in the matter that we just discussed, and that is there can be no ambiguity about what’s going on. And in the case of the California community college system, you said it right, there was a competing solution in terms of cite as a method of serving online education across the broader population that was indirect conflict, as an alternative solution to something that was also well underway. And at it’s a matter of public record that we’ve been, you know, we’ve been played a small role in helping to, facilitate this, but the, the California virtual campus is a platform that is delivered to all the community college systems, all the call, the colleges in the system, so that they can put their online courses onto a platform and let help students finish faster by finding the courses they need to fit their schedule and their, their program that they’re pursuing. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (26:07)

So it became, it is, an import export system that allows each of the colleges to export their spare capacity to students that are sitting at other home colleges trying to finish faster. So it did multiple things. It addressed the situation where students were sometimes impacted and slowed down. And if these slow students down, particularly the community college level, you have a high risk of a lack of completion, but it, it, it enabled the institutions to participate, right, and ha it was a solution within now that force change and change as hard as we’ve talked about, and it’s not perfect, but there was ambiguity about the methods that the system was using. And it was so big that that caused a lot of difficulty. So the takeaway for any institution is not nearly of that size and, and complexity would be, make sure you stomp out any ambiguity, be very clear about roles and responsibilities, but also be inclusive, be communicative, be inclusive about how this is gonna work and, and how ultimately you’re all gonna participate in that, in that common institutional mission. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (27:11)

I would add just build upon what you know right. Build upon what your experience, right. And, and the, and it’s logical desire to establish your own online department like Stanford did. And, and one of the things that I wanna, I wanna highlight that I absolutely love about Stanford’s approach to this. And, you know, for the most part, you know, the, you could, the Cal bright example also fits into this is it, it provides the institution or the system an opportunity to learn. Right. And that’s really fundamental what the provost really needs to do, going forward right. It really embraces continuous learning in their role, 1, because the institution has to try some of these things out. Right? Yeah. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (27:59)

Yeah. So I wanna, I think we’re heading closer, I wanna throw out one more example back to that earning point you just made. I was listening to Jay Akridge, the provost at Purdue, and he shared that in the big 10, he’s part of the big 10 provost group, of course. And he was sharing that typically they would meet twice annually, but during COVID they met and, and that he spoke about that as just such an important opportunity to lean on peers and to share learnings and findings. And here, we’re talking about the big 10, right? No competition amongst the big 10, but, but in this case, particularly given the disruptive situation at hand, they really, they really relied upon their network to, to help each other learn and to get through it. And I would just, I would, I would call that out as digital transformation is another great opportunity to learn and lean on your network. And because if, if it’s uncomfortable and if it’s new and it’s challenging, it’s a great opportunity to look outside and, and find your sources of, of learning and development and, and, and peace of mind and reassurance and right. These things that we all need when we go through change, all right, let’s bring this to a close. So, Wayne, what guidance can you give our listeners, particularly provosts that are experiencing all this change and strategy strategizing on the opportunity that lay ahead. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (29:32)

Yeah. There’s, you know, a long list of things, but I think at a, at a, at a high level, you know, provost, you know, provost needs to be, you know, fine comfort and change. You know, that’s a, that’s a personal, you know, move, for them. You know, you can’t do it all. There’s an enormous amount on, on their plate, but I do think they need to prioritize really leaning in and, and, and being okay with not having all the answers, to technology. so I think that’s an important part. I also think that provosts need to build a deeper relationship with the IT leadership. You know, there’s a transition going on in pretty much every single institution where it is moved, moving from an operational department to one that’s more strategic. and I think the provost needs to participate actively in understanding how best to support that with CIOs. 

 

Wayne Bovier: (30:36)

I also will go back, you know, so for CIOs and all that, I also would encourage you all to, you know, move out of your silo thinking and really engage and try to understand what is on the provost plate. really what academic freedom is, and, and, and, and truly understand the priorities, the needs of the institution from that lens. Because I think that lens, once you understand, like the president and obviously the provost and things, once you understand that you can actually do a much, much better job as part of it and supporting the overall mission and the tactics that are necessary to accomplish the overall strategy. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (31:22)

I love it. You, you, you brought it down to one of our most important themes, right? Look, technology is unique. Technology is specialized and the best, the, the most effective organizations in terms of how they use technology have gotten there, because there’s a trusted relationship between the people that know about technology and the people that don’t, and it doesn’t matter which part of the organization you’re in. Right. But for that to happen, there has to be some dialogue. There has to be engagement. And so both the guidance to the provost, learning more about it, establishing relationships, establishing trust, understanding the way things work to a degree, not needing to know all the details, being comfortable, delegating to specialists that are, are paid to focus and track and be, be current with those details so that they can be your partner in that endeavor. 

 

Joe Gottlieb: (32:11)

Same thing, true CIOs, really understanding, relating to what’s on the plate of the provost, because that plate’s getting, getting fuller. Right? And so those are the conditions that can enable the trust that is required for change to happen. And then what that unlocks is velocity. Once you get that trust, that allows you to start to be better at change, you get to go faster and, and that, and it, it comes back to another great principle, right? Go slow to go fast, right. Slow down to speed up. and so I think we should land the plane there. Wayne, thank you so much for joining me today. And of course, thanks to our guests for joining us as well, have a great day. And we’ll look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of transformed.


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As president of Higher Digital, Joe supports customers with strategy development, change management, and strategic operations. He is energized by the complex challenges and profound opportunities facing higher education and is motivated to have and share discussions around these topics.

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