Richard Maxwell – Alabama A&M University
- Written by: David Harry
- Produced by: Zachary Brann & Gavin O'Connor
- Estimated reading time: 4 mins
Some IT professionals have a college course or video game that inspired them to pursue a career in technology. Richard Maxwell? He had a bad back.
Maxwell was in his 20s when he severely injured his back while working construction jobs in Alabama. A doctor gave him two options: stop working construction or get major back surgery. He opted for the former, going back to school and taking a job as tech support specialist.
That proved to be the right choice not just for Maxwell but also for the students and staff at Alabama A&M University. As a senior network administrator, he’s rebuilt the university’s tech infrastructure with a fiber optic network completed in 2020. Now he’s putting the compliance programs in place that will help the university become a more competitive government research facility.
At AAMU and in other roles supporting K-12 and higher education, Maxwell has learned that managing technology in the academic world requires balancing research, classroom and business environments that have different compliance requirements.
“I’m not one to sugar coat things, I’m very transparent. You’ll see me coming and you’ll know exactly why I’m here,” he says. “My goal is to see AAMU achieve a level of cybersecurity maturity that will benefit the university and reflect my 20 years of experience in IT and cybersecurity.”
To-do’s to become R2
Located in Huntsville, AAMU was founded in 1875 by a former slave, Dr. William Hooper Councill. It’s a historically Black college or university and was designated as a land-grant institution in 1890. It currently offers more than 60 undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs and concentrations and has about 6,100 students and 800 staff and faculty.
AAMU is currently working to become a “research two,” or R2, level institution. As classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Higher Education, R2 institutions must offer a minimum of 20 research programs for doctoral candidates and spend at least $5 million annually on R&D.
To help AAMU achieve R2 status, Maxwell is ensuring its RISE Foundation, which manages the university’s government research contracts, meets federal Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification standards. He expects to meet CMMC standards by the end of fiscal year 2022-23 while also increasing research productivity.
For instance, he’s partnered with ELK Analytics, to build the needed security information and event management solution to collect and analyze potential threat data with artificial intelligence and advanced machine learning.
That includes using ELK Analytics’ security operations center where specialists detect, analyze and respond to security threats in real time. Maxwell says the reporting features on system use will also provide insights for AAMU’s leadership, including what hardware or systems can be repurposed or eliminated.
Varied security requirements
Maxwell is also ensuring AAMU complies with the recent Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act “safeguards rule” revisions to protect personally identifiable information in tuition payment and financial aid records.
By June, he expects the university will meet the requirements including network access controls, configuration management, incident response and risk assessments.
Maxwell adds that cybersecurity awareness and training is one of the requirements of compliance. Training includes helping underserved or non-technical individuals understand why they need to update their devices to securely access their computer and shared resources on the campus network.
“We need our users to understand that we’re not here to get in the way of academic freedom,” he says. “We’re here to provide a way to do it more securely.”
High speed improvements
Before leading these efforts, Maxwell designed and implemented a new campus fiber optic network with more than 720 strands of underground cables.
The upgrade completed in 2020 improved internet transmission speeds from 1 Gbps—which was divided into as many as 60 segments in some buildings—to a maximum of 400 Gbps in specialized research areas.
The fiber optic network was almost completely installed by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Because AAMU had contracts with Zoom and Blackboard, Maxwell says the transition to remote learning was relatively easy when the campus closed.
Maxwell rebuilt and outsourced the residential wireless networks and integrated IPTV services from Comcast Xfinity to residence halls. He also collaborated with Apogee to provide wireless connectivity in AAMU’s academic buildings. The partnership incorporated a platform from Degree Analytics that maps high-traffic and student activity areas, which was crucial to maintaining social distancing during the pandemic.
A needed switch
After that fateful doctor’s appointment, Maxwell, who had learned to program computers in BASIC as an eighth grader, enrolled at Bessemer State Technical College in 2000. He studied for an associate degree in computer networking as he worked as a tech support agent.
In 2002, he tried working as a cable TV installer. When his back problems returned, Maxwell re-entered the IT field in project management and as a network security specialist. And though he didn’t earn his associate degree, Maxwell did earn a bachelor’s degree in information systems security at ITT Technical Institute in 2007. He also earned his master’s degree in cybersecurity and information assurance from Western Governor’s University in February 2023.
Maxwell has worked as a contract employee for companies including Cardinal Health, HP and BBVA – Compass Bank. He founded a consulting firm in June 2010 and provided consulting to AAMU before he was hired full-time in October 2015. Maxwell was promoted to his current role at the university in October 2021.
Now Maxwell is anticipating what challenges he and his team will face in the next decade.
“We’re not a profit generating area, we’re an operational expense. We’ve come a long way in seven years,” he says. “I’m impressed and proud but there’s still a long way to go.”
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