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.

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.

Dossier

Michael McRobbie
Name: Michael McRobbieTitle: PresidentOrganization: Indiana University systemHometown: 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.

Do you think a university system that aspires to be in the first tier research-wise needs IT as cutting-edge as a Fortune 500 company? It is the universitys responsibility to provide a high-quality base level of infrastructure without being bleeding-edge. My philosophy is that base services such as networking or enterprise software licenses are a central responsibility. The life-cycle funding agreements we have in place, which are exactly comparable to what you find in Fortune 500 companies, should be organized and managed centrally. But the level you want to go beyond that is determined by the individual departments or schools.

Do you have any pet technologies that you are particularly keen on? I think open-source software will be very important. I also really think that providing as much connectivity as possible will enable innovation to flourish. Many IT innovations have come out of university environments from students who have a lot of bandwidth available to them. I know that its controversial to say this, and Im well aware that file-sharing is a double-edged sword. But theres pretty much a direct lineage from file-sharing to the iPod and now the iPhone.

We have to respect intellectual property. But the forces of technology are very difficult to harness; one needs to adjust business models to accommodate these forces.

To me, it is very instructive that the company that invented the iPod was Apple and not Sony. I think thats a comment on the sort of the intellectual and technology environment of this countrys universities.

You say youre interested in open source, but under your leadership, IU has been a cutting-edge adopter of Microsoft technologies. Oh sure, but I dont think theres a contradiction between the two. I think there are areas where the best products are the commercial products and other areas where there is still opportunity for innovation. Unless youre a zealot, you understand that and you work within that framework.

What do you think about the preponderance of foreign students in U.S. computer science and engineering departments? I see us as competing for the best brains in the world in this country, but also internationally. You simply cannot shut yourself off from the rest of the world. I think one can have concerns about the impact of a global marketplace. But its very difficult to turn back the clock.

What is your goal for IUs informatics department? Ive just appointed a new dean for informatics, which we merged with computer science. Informatics is really about the application of IT in a specific discipline, such as bio-informatics. It has its own intellectual discipline, its own software, its own problems. You can no longer take an IT person and hope to turn him into a bio-informatics expert overnight by boning up on a few books. You actually need to have a few years of training in both IT and biology. I want our informatics department clearly seen to be the very best in the nation at what it does.

What advice would you give to CIOs trying to make a leap similar to what youve done? IT is not an end in itself; it is a tool. Technology is very seductive, and one can easily get carried away with the latest whiz-bang technology or devices and the ephemeral hopes for what these might be used for and forget to ask the cold, hard questions such as, What is this going to do for the bottom line of my organization?

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