Pratt Institute Wants to Bring Imagination to Education

As Pratt Institute’s CIO and VP of IT, Joseph Hemway is reshaping the way students, parents, and faculty experience technology and higher education

Joseph Hemway knows what people think when they hear IT: “We drop the machines on the desk,” he says. “We walk away.”

But after more than thirty years leading IT departments and initiatives at New York colleges and universities, Hemway remains determined to prove that both technology and higher education are capable of more.

Since 2006, Hemway has been CIO and vice president of IT at Pratt Institute, an art, design, and architecture school with campuses in Brooklyn and Manhattan. A Brooklyn native himself, Hemway grew up hoping to work in broadcast journalism, and his appreciation for artful storytelling is right at home at Pratt.

Today, he considers himself a walking contradiction—a modern technology expert who tinkers with old-fashioned Volkswagens and antique radios. However, when he was a student at St. Francis College in the early 1980s, IT was just starting to become a viable communication tool.

“Those were mainframe days,” he says. “You saw the manifestation, but you never really saw the technology right in front of you.” In 1982, Time selected the personal computer as the “Machine of the Year,” and something clicked for Hemway.

“I probably read and reread that article a dozen times,” Hemway recalls. “The thing I liked from the beginning about personal computing was the democratization of technology. For the first time, it was in everybody’s hands.”

After a brief stint at a public relations firm, Hemway took a job managing research and records in Pace University’s Office of Development. He has remained in higher education ever since, holding several positions at Barnard College before serving as director of information systems at Monroe College.

In 1999, Hemway jumped at the chance to return to St. Francis, teaching in the IT department and managing administrative applications before becoming director of information systems and assistant vice president of IT and chief technology officer. He joined St. Francis’s staff as a new administration arrived with a commitment to making technology intrinsic to its strategic plan.

“Every aspect of the college was being revitalized,” Hemway says. “The students didn’t have e-mail. We had no Wi-Fi. The enterprise system was terribly underpowered and in need of an upgrade. They tore down one of the old buildings and set up plans for a new academic and administrative center that was full of technology. It taught me more than just how to manage an IT operation; I got a real sense of the universal aspects of what it takes to run an administration and work with a board for the first time.”

His experience at St. Francis served him well when he arrived at Pratt under somewhat similar circumstances. Founded in 1887, the school’s technology was in need of renewal. “Technology never quite marched along with the world-renowned art and design disciplines they had there,” Hemway says. “It wound up being cast into multiple areas. It wasn’t so much that there was a need for centralization as much as it was a payoff by having technologies adjacent to each other and building greater institutional muscle.”

Hemway began with a “worst-first mentality,” updating the most out-of-date network and enterprise systems first. “Within the first two or three years, we started to gain some momentum,” he says. “We could start to do more imaginative things.”

The first of these efforts came when Hemway was searching for assets to highlight students’ work on Pratt’s website. After speaking with the chair of the film department about giving students practical experience, the two arrived at the solution of SideLights, a series of 60- to 90-second videos that students would produce about life at Pratt.

“Some people in the beginning questioned the relevance of it: ‘Why are you doing this?’” Hemway says. “Because it’s not being done.”

From SideLights came PrattTalks, a platform that brought Pratt’s videos together in one online location.

“Some people said, ‘Why not just have it on YouTube?’” Hemway recalls. “It was too important as a design school, as a creative hub, for us to have something where somebody would suggest a cat video after they watched something about jewelry making.”

Hemway’s dream of tying together the disparate threads of students’ and parents’ online experience of the school in a streamlined fashion resulted in onePratt. “OnePratt developed a system where people could see what was on their horizon,” Hemway explains. “As a student comes through and gets accepted from admissions, there will be a handoff to only those segments of things you need to see when you need to work on something that moves a student forward.”

Outside of his role at Pratt, Hemway donates time to organizations committed to children with severe illnesses and people who have experienced natural disasters, and that passion for volunteer work gives him a service-minded perspective on what he can do for students, IT, and higher education.

“I think IT should be an enabler,” he says. “It should be a cost-saving mechanism. We should challenge corporations that are victimizing higher education.”

Just as he has in the past, Hemway intends to tackle this and other obstacles by asking questions that might bring additional issues to light.

“If I just did the traditional role of the CIO, the effect would be far less,” he says. “Sometimes by doing what we do, we’ve introduced new problems. But we had to get those problems out of the way to get to the next thing. We’re overwhelmed at times, but it’s a good overwhelmed.”