Crisis as a Catalyst for Change and Transformation

Bill Poirier, UNH/USNH CIO

As a 30-year military veteran, I was a part of teams in a combat environment facing seemingly insurmountable tasks where ambiguity, adversity, heartbreak, and casualties were the norm yet somehow, we were able to overcome these obstacles to ensure mission success. I thought those days were behind me when I retired but the world turned upside down in March of 2020 while our university system was undergoing a major restructuring of technology services.

The University System of New Hampshire (USNH) comprises six institutions: Granite State College, Keene State College, Plymouth State College, the University of New Hampshire (UNH)-Durham, UNH Law, and UNH-Manchester. In the fall of 2019, USNH began unifying its six IT departments into a new organization called Enterprise Technology & Services and creating a system-wide technology enterprise. Our key goals for this effort included establishing an enterprise, creating functional depth and operational resiliency, improving cybersecurity, and reducing operational costs. We achieved those objectives but here is the rest of the story.

While we were in the midst of open-heart surgery on our organization and our core technology infrastructure, the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. While we (like other HigherEd institutions) quickly pivoted to help move the university system to a new hybrid learning and remote work environment for students, staff, faculty, and researchers (UNH is an R-1 institution), we realized our transformation was being tested under fire against the expected outcomes before we even finished the effort.

Some might suggest being in the middle of a major transformation during the pandemic is bad luck. I would suggest we were lucky to be in transformation for a few reasons.

First, the sheer volume and extent of technological and pedagogical change the pandemic thrust upon the academic and research environment was immense. Our institutions would have been hard-pressed to support these significant changes individually because the capacity of a fully integrated workforce was necessary to share expertise and leverage the power of many.

Second, the pandemic provided focus and a sense of urgency to compress timelines and streamline governance. This enabled us to cleave years off the process of integrating all institutions on common technology platforms and services under the watchful eye of a newly unified team. This form of change management was not out of any ‘peacetime’ playbook, and I do not recommend it, but tough times required different strategies. It also required grit. I saw the true mettle of our ET&S teammates: passion for the mission, willingness to sacrifice, literally fighting through disease, and winning the day to successfully reopen and operate in this constrained environment. We also enjoyed the support of academic and research leaders to help shoulder change for the common good; this support was inextricably linked to our success.

We accomplished much with our academic and research partners. We collaborated with the UNH researchers to build a data infrastructure for a newly created COVID Testing Lab which to date has processed over one million COVID tests for students, employees, and other organizations across the state. The daily published results in our public-facing dashboard gave a detailed view into the state of COVID in the communities. However, the real magic is the underlying infrastructure that enabled critical information sharing with health providers, public safety, state officials, and senior campus leadership.

We also consolidated Institutional Research and Assessment across the system, which increased access to curated data, shared analyses, and brought tools to help institutions better understand student engagement and identify trends to improve student success. We also partnered with the NH DoE and our sister community college system on common contracts for video conferencing services, lecture capture capability and the LMS while standing up an organization to support K-12 districts with their new LMS. These contracts saved resources but more importantly provides NH students with a common LMS experience from kindergarten through college graduation. It was also during this time we modernized 190+ classrooms statewide with contemporary conferencing equipment to support hybrid operations and integrated a common learning management system (LMS) across USNH.

No integrated transformation is complete without taking a wrecking ball to core IT services and the underlying infrastructure. We consolidated contracts, virtual environments, and operations. We consolidated our telephone systems, wireless networks, and key customer support software systems. We completed a massive upgrade of the network infrastructure at each campus and tightly integrated the wide area interfaces to facilitate a dramatic increase in its use for hybrid academic operations, a superhighway for our data center consolidation, and student support for the extensive gaming and on-line recreation during the darker periods of the pandemic. We consolidated the 100K+ accounts system-wide into a single Microsoft Active Directory environment to improve collaboration, support, and cybersecurity. We fused eight Help Desks into one, Desktop support from two dozen organizations into one and built an integrated cybersecurity department to counter the increased threats we face today. We did all of this while reducing our technology budget by millions.

What’s Next?

This story has been about technology transformation at USNH but many other functional areas in our system underwent similar transformation efforts. There is still much to modernize and improve with more automation, more cloud services, and artificial intelligence solutions now in our crosshairs. That said, we are no longer operating through a crisis and the tempo and change strategies must adjust back to ‘peacetime.’ However, USNH has been tempered in the toughest environment and this experience managing change served us well moving forward—we understand our limits are further than we thought (there are no insurmountable tasks), we are more comfortable with being uncomfortable, and responsive governance is a part of our lexicon. Despite the demographic headwinds we see in HigherEd, we stayed ahead of the curve by transforming, not just in technology, but across the spectrum of academic and business support activities.