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The Grill: Michael McRobbie on how to go from CIO to Indiana U's president

The university leader talks about moving up from CIO, balancing open source and Microsoft, and enabling innovation.

By Eric Lai
October 15, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Long renowned as both a basketball powerhouse and a party school, Indiana University has in recent years begun to get noticed for its IT initiatives. Newsweek called IU its hottest big state school in 2005, saying that features such as its I-Light broadband network were helping it attract out-of-state students. Envisioning I-Light and getting it built were among Michael McRobbies many achievements as IUs CIO. Later, he helped to establish the first informatics department at a U.S. university. Those wins propelled a meteoric climb that culminated with his selection over 200 candidates in March as the new president of the nine-campus IU system. The 56-year-old Australian now oversees 100,000 students, 15,000 faculty members and a budget of $2.6 billion.

How did you work your way up from an IT managerial role? I didnt jump from CIO straight to president. I went from CIO to vice president of research, to provost, to president. Though it was relatively quick [McRobbie was named CIO in 1997], it was also a fairly normal progression, as many college presidents are provosts first.

Michael McRobbie
Name: Michael McRobbie
Title: President
Organization: Indiana University system
Hometown: Born in Melbourne, Australia, but considers Canberra his hometown.
Renaissance man: Holds professorships in computer science, informatics, philosophy, information science and cognitive science.
Perks: After taking over as university president on July 1, McRobbie, who owns a home in Bloomington, got the use of two additional official residences.
Family: A remarried widower; he and his wife have six children.
Hobbies: Travel and reading (history and the arts)

Was there any bias against you for being an IT guy? An IT background alone is probably never enough for a top position. But it gives you a lot of important skills, such as being a strategist. If its a big institution and youre the CIO, you have a pretty big span of control. That teaches you to think in ways that are helpful if you are aspiring for a position beyond CIO.

So your big leap was from CIO to VP of research? Yes, that was very important. Research is a very different world. Its not centralized; it depends largely on the independent faculty member. My job was to help that faculty member get their proposals done more quickly, ensure that all the compliance issues are taken care of, that they can get seed money to start on proposals, etc.

Whats the IT connection there? IT is absolutely fundamental to research and education in every academic area  whether that be anthropology or zoology. This has been true for decades in the sciences; now it is just as valid in the humanities and the arts, too. You want IT to add to the intellectual productivity and educational capability of an institution. But you dont want it to be obtrusive. You want it to be a tool that always works, like electricity or the telephone.

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