Opinder Bawa of the University of San Francisco

In his role as CIO at the University of San Francisco, Opinder Bawa is continually asking, what do you teach the next generation of technology leaders?

Opinder Bawa is continually pushing his university to ask tough questions about teaching tech. Photo by Gino Luigi Mascardo & Hanna Hegnell

Opinder Bawa does not distinguish between his roles as an executive and an educator.

As the University of San Francisco’s (USF) vice president and CIO, he places equal importance on finding innovative solutions and sharing them with the university and students. His comfort with multiple roles stems from his childhood—during which his father’s diplomatic responsibilities from India took his family to a new country every few years—and from his appreciation of the Jesuit tradition, which has long sought to build a more humane and just world. USF’s 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students learn from a diverse array of faculty who, like Bawa, bring real-world experience from industries ranging from technology to the nonprofit sector. Sync spoke to Bawa about the transformation of higher education.

Sync: Do you consider yourself first and foremost a CIO or an educator?

Opinder Bawa: Inherent in working at a Jesuit university is that each one of us is an educator as part of our jobs. Of course, we have outstanding full-time and part-time faculty, and many of them come from the industry or from backgrounds with technical skills. In my case, I just happen to lead the technology environment at the university, but I’m able to help students and faculty do some amazing things by trying to create an innovative environment for them.


IT has changed radically over the past thirty years. CIOs that report directly to the CEO or president and help drive business strategy are steadily growing. Here are three must-have traits for future IT executives.

  1. Business Acumen. The CIO of tomorrow must differentiate between being a business partner and a service provider. Organizations will continue to value a more integrated approach to technology and appreciate a CIO who can understand and help solve business problems.
  2. Strategic Vision. As technology continues to play a major role in the transformation of lagging industries, a CIO will need to articulate a strategic vision to help steer organizations through these transition periods.
  3. Industry Collaboration. Isolation from the high-tech sector will starve a CIO of the technological innovation happening around the globe. Teamwork, collaboration, and the ability to build partnerships, both within an organization and with outside industry partners, are vital.

Sync: You employ a number of students. What opportunities exist for them on your team?

We hire a substantial number of students to help us conduct the daily business of technology support at the university. I’m also often asked to speak to students about careers, technology, and working for a technology organization. On another level, we educate students on entrepreneurship and share with them contemporary high-tech industry trends. As part of that, we’re considering launching an innovation center where students and faculty members can come together with local businesses to work on new ideas that could be turned into startups.

Sync: This focus on entrepreneurship is obviously influenced by the Bay Area’s tech community. What are some ways you engage with that world?

Part of the education we’re giving students is that technology is not just coding; it’s about being able to see a business problem and then utilizing technology skills, business planning skills, and project management skills to help resolve that problem. This is the education they need to work in the real world.

In thinking about the university’s future and how we can best engage our students, a large part of that conversation is around engaging the business and technology communities. Last year, and perhaps the year before, San Francisco received more venture funding than Silicon Valley, which on the surface seems like an anomaly, but it shows you how important this environment is. We’re very fortunate to be right in the middle of an amazing opportunity.

Sync: Was this open engagement something you brought to the university when you stepped into the role last year, or has it been the legacy of the university?

I’m fortunate to be part of a new emerging leadership team at USF, with great partners like provost Jennifer Turpin and president [Paul] Fitzgerald. A few of these concepts preceded me while others I’ve brought in, and I’m very lucky that we have some amazing leaders who are coming in at the same time, such as several of our deans. So we’re thinking about the next generation of the university and asking ourselves what’s that going to look like.

Sync: You haven’t always worked in academic settings. What drew you to higher education?

About nine years ago, I observed that two industries were ripe for transformations: the health-care industry and the higher-education industry. These transformations usually take place over a twenty-, thirty-, or forty-year period. One of the core realities of these periods is that technology plays a substantial role in ensuring that the transformations are successful.

The other thing that’s true about these transformations is that they’re periods of consolidation, mergers, and acquisitions—and [they include the question] of how do we improve the value to our end customers? I’ve found USF to be the perfect combination of good leadership and a set of factors that would help us be successful during this transformation, including our size and the fact that we’re a Jesuit university—our mission is much more than providing education to students. We encourage students to ‘change the world from here.’

Sync: I imagine being in San Francisco could create pressure to implement the latest technologies. How have you responded to the recent pace with which technologies have developed?

A university traditionally has not changed very quickly. That’s one reason industries come under pressure to transform: major changes in external forces that force an industry into a transformation period. What’s amazing about this period is that we’re now able to use technologies that have been proven very useful over the past twenty to twenty-five years by being matured in the corporate sector. And the adoption of startup technologies is much easier. The pressure universities feel now is to make changes quicker than what they’re used to—we’re fortunate that technologies like Salesforce and ServiceNow allow us to do that.

Sync: Your role is to help shepherd this transformation at the university. What are some ways you’ve done that?

One example is systems integration, so that people don’t have to input duplicate information into multiple systems. But some of the most important projects that we’re working on are things like transforming our admissions processes, our data analysis systems, and implementing a CRM system so that we can better support our faculty, students, and administrators in a much more synchronized, consolidated manner, so that we have information that we’re sharing rather than have silos in individual departments.

Sync: How will this data integration be used?

In multiple ways. We have several systems, as most universities and corporations do, so to be able to integrate the data between two systems is important to reduce data entry and reduce the workload on our staff. It also provides better information to the right people at the right time. It allows us to do more analytical work on the information we have so that we can make better business decisions—ultimately in the interest of our students.