Although University of Massachusetts Lowell’s (UMass Lowell) Michael Cipriano is charged with leading the institution’s IT department, the CIO would rather keep his focus on student success. “I’ve never been in an IT organization where I felt as connected to the mission of the organization as I have to this one,” Cipriano says. And with more than eighteen thousand students enrolled at the public research university, enabling students’ education through the IT department requires innovation, collaboration, and a commitment to the university.
UMass Lowell’s mission to provide a high-quality, affordable, and accessible education is guided by its pillars of excellence. The school’s strategic plan is informed by five pillars: transformational education, global engagement and inclusive culture, innovative research and entrepreneurship, leveraging legacy and place, and entrepreneurial stewardship in higher education. These principles help eliminate ambiguity for faculty and serve as a springboard for Cipriano and his IT team’s plans. “We’re on a mission to meet as much of that strategic plan as possible and to position IT where it’s indispensable for the university,” he says.
To align the IT team’s goals with the university’s, Cipriano began by identifying four focus areas: infrastructure, IT services, academic technology, and enterprise applications. He built a strong foundation by upgrading the campus network and emphasizing cybersecurity.
With the infrastructure updated, the department shifted focus to academic and enterprise technologies by establishing virtual labs (vLabs). According to Cipriano, students in STEM classes were traditionally required to complete lab assignments using expensive computers that ran high-end software. Students either had to wait in line to use a computer or purchase a costly workstation themselves.
In September 2016, UMass Lowell launched its vLabs: Workstation for the College of Engineering and became one of the first institutions in the world to offer students virtual access to high-end lab software that could be launched on various personal devices. “It is truly computing anytime, anywhere,” Cipriano says. Today, the IT department offers more than ninety pieces of demanding software via the virtual desktop. Next year, Cipriano hopes to expand the project across campus.
“I’ve never been in an IT organization where I felt as connected to the mission of the organization as I have to this one.”
The Student is Always Right
“For us, the customer is the student,” Cipriano says. To that end, the IT team introduced Salesforce’s Connected Campus customer relationship management (CRM) software to streamline the way the university tracks student engagement. “Our design was that the center of the Salesforce universe would be the student,” Cipriano says. The CRM tracks each touch point the university has with a student, starting from recruitment.
Previously, each department had its own tracking database. Cipriano’s team brought many of those databases together on Salesforce to facilitate communication among departments. This streamlined management system provides administrators and faculty a complete view of the student. For example, if a faculty member notices that a student has not registered for classes, the academic affairs office can then contact the student and offer assistance.
Cipriano hopes to soon leverage predictive analytics in partnership with the university’s institutional research and admissions teams. Already, the IT team has introduced data visualization software from Tableau, which delivers easy-to-read data reports instantly to university personnel, making decision making easier. Predictive analytics upgrades would be able to anticipate the most effective decision.
Learning to Talk Before We Run
Ultimately, Cipriano attributes much of his success to his team and UMass Lowell colleagues. “It starts with five highly experienced leaders that compose my direct staff,” he says. “Each has identified and delivered on multiple initiatives to optimize the university’s strategic plan. If I didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be getting anywhere. All I would have is talk.”
Talk is, however, a major part of how the IT team accomplishes its goals. In addition to a biweekly meeting with the senior IT management team, Cipriano meets weekly with each of the five IT directors to review ongoing projects. Cipriano is also the cochair of the UMass Lowell Academic Technology Committee, which meets monthly. This group brings technology-positive faculty together with IT and library staff to determine ways to bring tech into campus classrooms, which are already equipped with state-of-the-art systems such as Lecture Capture.
“The committee meetings are a highlight of the academic calendar for IT, as it provides a collaborative forum to advance innovation,” Cipriano says.
Throughout all of Cipriano’s duties, innovation is key. “You can’t be content with the status quo,” he explains. “A healthy IT portfolio should be balanced between old and new, with the true higher education innovators more leveraged to capitalize on modern advances. It is not easy to stay current, but I believe the UMass Lowell IT team is a true innovator in IT.”