The leafy hilltop campus of Lafayette College evokes classic notions of liberal-arts education, calling to mind the prestige and tradition the school is known for. But it also belies a new focus on the most modern of enterprises, one spearheaded by John O’Keefe, vice president of IT services and CIO. In 2012, O’Keefe instituted the first phase of an IT master plan for the school, designed to better leverage data and raise Lafayette’s technology capabilities to the same high level as its academic reputation.
“One of the opportunities we identified within that strategic planning process was to really take advantage of what the industry would call a ‘big data concept.’ We have lots of data and lots of transactional artifacts from lots of pieces of our academy that are mostly centrally housed in a single system,” O’Keefe says. “But we’re not leveraging that information in ways that help us understand student retention and success, admissions patterns, alumni development, those kinds of cultivation issues and financial issues in terms of long-term planning.”
Alumnus Turned Technologist
O’Keefe never planned on a career in IT. He is a 1996 graduate of Lafayette, having received degrees in American studies and music, with the hope of becoming a studio musician, producer, or professor.
While at college, he had a work-study job in the computing department and was exposed to the ever-evolving world of the Internet, which gave him a 360-degree perspective on the IT operations at the school. This experience helped him land a few jobs in IT, until finally he returned to Lafayette in 2001 as an instructional technologist. He’s been there ever since.
“I’m really interested in doing things that are a little off-the-grid,” he says. “Not completely so that I put anything at risk in terms of my role and responsibility to the college, but sometimes I like to think about really difficult problems and challenges and try things that may be a little bit different than what has been done in the past.”
To address the problem, O’Keefe established a new group within IT that had explicit control over data-management and data-architecture decisions, working through a concept and design of structure and service, which he walked through with the college’s institutional leadership.
“I took it up to our IT board committee and sketched out a vision for how we would take this ‘dark data’—a really valuable institutional asset that was not being leveraged—and move it in the right direction,” he says. “We started training and we hired a couple of people into the organization to build that out. We also established a data-governance process to think about data collection and stewardship issues, which was new for the college. We implemented that, and now we’re starting to crank things through that mill.”
Fast forward to 2016. Lafayette is now implementing a business-intelligence data warehouse infrastructure. “The first piece was to decide on the operation: how we’re going to build and support data infrastructure and build that capability on the team,” O’Keefe says. “The second piece was how we make decisions about data elements and data governance. And now, the third piece is to create the visualizations and the reporting infrastructure that would allow vice presidents, trustees and others to really get some valuable insight from that data. We’re moving into the last stages of making that real for our institution.”
In addition to his role at the school, O’Keefe serves on the InCommon Federation Steering Committee, where last year he led its programs subcommittee, charged with developing and running the prioritization process for the InCommon Federation. He’s also the new chairman of the board for the Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges.
“When I came to Lafayette, I did not have a good sense of the higher-ed IT landscape, and so to have a cohort of colleagues who were thinking about similar issues, at similar institutions, was a great opportunity,” he says. “A few years ago, I was elected to the board and served as webmaster for a period of time. In that role, I was tasked with finding ways to leverage the web presence and came up with some collaboration tools to help continue to build and sustain that kind of community, which was so important to me as I went through and moved up the organization here.”
O’Keefe believes that learning from best practices at other schools has helped his IT team succeed, which in turn helps the college succeed—Lafayette came in at number forty-four on Forbes’ annual list of top private colleges in the United States. In fact, collaborating with other institutions can be a win-win for everyone involved. To that end, O’Keefe has been working on implementing a shared server that can enable Lafayette and neighboring colleges to collaborate, reduce costs, and leverage tech for all, in what he calls “a collaborative infrastructure amongst a consortium of Lehigh Valley schools.”
“One of the things we’ve been thinking about is, ‘Could we build essentially some sort of private cloud infrastructure that would allow the schools to share data-center capabilities, virtualization capabilities, other kinds of capabilities that, individually, probably none of the six schools could achieve on their own?’” he says. “The sum of us all is greater than the individual.”
The idea does present a number of challenges and questions. If there’s a shared service, who is responsible when it goes down and how will they collaborate across institutional boundaries? What if the CIOs at different institutions have a disagreement about how a certain service ought to be delivered? What will be the decision-making and governance processes of this?
“We’ve started the conversation, and it’s surfaced all of these really intense issues, and now we’re kind of walking through them across institutions,” O’Keefe says. He’s hopeful that the challenges of working together will be dwarfed by the possibilities of combining resources.
“It’s exciting and terrifying, and wonderful because if we can collectively get through that, I think on the other side there’s great opportunity for all of us.”
Photo by Kristen Lopez