Denison University Delivers Quality Through Collaboration

CIO Dena Speranza works to upgrade and enhance nearly every aspect of technology at the Ohio liberal arts school

A major aspect of staying relevant and effective in higher education is leveraging the power of technology. At Denison University, that responsibility falls to Dena Speranza, chief information officer. “IT is no longer about back-office processes and keeping the lights on. Today we have strategic partnerships with our administration and academic colleagues to reenvision business processes, identify priorities, and determine the types of services that will enable advances in teaching and learning,” Speranza says. “That’s how we deliver quality experiences for our students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and other constituents.”

When Speranza assumed her role, Denison had just finished upgrading the wireless network in its residence halls and was beginning to migrate administrative and learning systems to the cloud. She admits that while these were certainly important improvements, they were slightly behind the curve in a wireless environment, where students arrive on campus each year with a few wireless devices each.

The university has a 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio and highly emphasizes interpersonal relationships. But students still expect to be able to manage all aspects of their academic lives via their mobile devices—everything from registering for classes, requesting roommates, paying bills, and submitting assignments to checking lunch menus in the dining hall and weekly extracurricular activities. “Students today have grown up in an online, on-demand world, and have Amazon-like service expectations. Many of us on smaller campuses need to focus on retooling processes and technologies to keep pace with those expectations,” Speranza explains.

As a result, Denison—which has a total enrollment of about 2,200—typically spends close to $1 million each year in capital projects just to keep up with the pace of changing technology, not to mention meeting the needs of faculty and staff and staying competitive in attracting new students.

Ongoing Initiatives

In addition to meeting student expectations, Speranza and her team are also in the process of improving technology for staff and faculty. Her information technology services department is about to complete a pilot project for a cloud-based telephone system that will replace the university’s ancient PBX phone system. She is not only excited about the prospect of finally introducing call-waiting and caller ID, but also about making digital workplace capabilities possible, such as remote access from any web-enabled device and integration with solutions like Google Apps for Education.

Beyond administrative benefits, Speranza anticipates that the new system will help increase workplace efficiency, professional collaboration, and employee engagement, and facilitate new educational opportunities. The project also will create internships for student ambassadors who will learn the system and help with the campus roll out.

“Today we have strategic partnerships with our administration and academic colleagues to reenvision business processes, identify priorities, and determine the types of services that will enable advances in teaching and learning. That’s how we deliver quality.”

Drawing on her past consulting experience, Speranza has partnered with the IT governance committee (ITC) to assess the university’s existing learning management system, a platform that was designed before online social components and capabilities became so ubiquitous. Speranza is working closely with the ITC to identify multiple stakeholders’ priorities, trial vendor solutions, and gain faculty participation in the process.

Many professionals dread the bureaucracy of committees, but Speranza embraces the opportunities they present. “I really enjoy the chance to understand the challenges other members face and how we can help meet their needs,” she says. “Working toward consensus on a solution is a shared experience that will result in better decisions, more transparent decision-making, and better buy-in in the long run.”

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As they enter college, students expect and demand a full suite of digital services, even at small institutions. Denison lives up to those expectations by offering Wi-Fi throughout its campus, 10 GB of network storage and unlimited cloud storage, and even access to a range of media equipment like digital cameras, audio recorders, and microphones.

Student Work Experience

Denison has a long-standing student work program that includes opportunities in a variety of technology activities. They range from manning the help desk and desktop support to networking, media services, and student laptop repair. And participants are not just computer science majors. A sampling shows that they also come from the English department, as well as biology, philosophy, psychology, and geology.

The program has, in fact, opened the door to technology careers for many who have not considered them previously. It’s not uncommon for the university to hire these “converts” as full-time technology employees. “Even if all we do is teach students about what it means to have a job, provide customer service, and work as part of a team, we are still providing valuable skills that will benefit them long after they graduate,” says Russell Sharp, lead desktop support specialist.

As Speranza reviews all the priorities she has to juggle (increasing awareness about information security and developing analytics and reporting capabilities were not even discussed here), she notes that she also is focusing on encouraging more continuous improvement and operational excellence. “Higher education has traditionally been a very siloed environment, so I want to facilitate a transition to a ‘team of teams’ approach that will build stronger relationships, increase trust, and create partnerships that help accomplish our shared goals.”