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Rob Lowden – Indiana University

A university CIO juggles contact tracing and tactics

When Rob Lowden started working at Indiana University in 1998, his work was very relevant to today’s world. 

He started over two decades ago by advancing and developing online learning systems and course management, which made the transition to remote learning smoother when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year.

Rob Lowden – Indiana University

Rob Lowden | Vice President and Chief Information Officer | Indiana University

Lowden’s experience has informed the current IT plan, as well, and has led to him being named CIO of the university, which includes a seat as vice president in the president’s cabinet. Promoted last July after being the CIO and executive vice dean for the Indiana University School of Medicine in 2019, he saw the opening as a chance to take on a role that was “bigger in scope and scale.”

“The opportunity presented itself and my history and skills put me in a unique position,” he explains. “It has the ability for greater influence and impact compared to my previous roles.”

Tracking the data

Indiana University serves more than 90,000 students across seven campuses and two regional centers, with the flagship campus located in Bloomington.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the university sent students home for remote learning for the remainder of the spring semester. When Lowden became CIO that summer, he started planning for the upcoming academic year.

“There’s no existing playbook for this,” he says. “It’s just about keeping our heads above water, but we’re floating now.”

Lowden and his team started by increasing the frequency of the university’s communications to students and staff using its customer relationship management tool. They also developed a plan for contact tracing, COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution, and how they’d use technology to track each of those efforts.

With some students back on campus, the university has coordinated with the Regenstrief Institute to track who has been vaccinated against COVID-19, as well as the flu. It’s also gathering additional data, such as test results and where and when students quarantine, through a program custom-made by the IT department.

“We avoided spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money by rolling up our sleeves and building it ourselves,” Lowden says.

Tangible change

On top of tracking COVID data, Lowden is busy working on the university’s IT tactical plan, which was put forth in May 2020. Since he was already involved in IT before becoming CIO, he “walked in knowing the plan and knowing it well” when he started in July.

The plan was developed by the 17 members of the IT cabinet and includes 70 goals with a total of 400 action items, and it ensures a strong IT foundation for the incoming university president. The aim is to complete the plan before December and Lowden says, as of February, it’s already 85 to 90 percent done.

The plan is broken into sections, such as cybersecurity, communications, learning technology, networks and more. Goals vary from specific— retiring the use of Box and migrating to Microsoft One Drive and Google Drive—to broad—finding new resources to support remote learning.

A focus is leveraging the IT department’s expertise in cybersecurity, especially with the increased risk during the pandemic. Although students are on campus, many of the university’s 8,000 employees are working remotely, using different networks and routers.

Indiana University is in a unique position as it works with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in partnership with other universities via the REN-ISAC to provide IT security and expertise. This responsibility, coupled with the sheer volume of research and data stored at the university, makes cybersecurity a priority.

“Our ability to protect our end points and keep our faculty, students and research safe is a critical differentiator for us,” Lowden says. “It’s an everchanging landscape of risk and COVID has catapulted us forward.”

Hoosier at heart

With 1,600 IT employees in his department, Lowden can’t work directly with every person, but he tries to encourage growth and leadership development. He leads by example and trusts his team to do their work.

Much of Lowden’s leadership style was influenced by his time in the Navy in the early to mid-90s. Being in the military allowed him to travel the world, experience other cultures and learn from different perspectives. The experience made him realize how much he valued education and the diversity of thoughts and ideas possible in higher education.

Lowden says he feels fortunate to have made a career at the namesake university in his home state where he’s been given numerous opportunities to grow.

“At every point in my career when I was ready to try something new, and apply my skills, my experience and my abilities, IU presented opportunities,” he says. “The caliber and reputation of the IT organization always represented opportunity to me.”

Published on: March 5, 2021

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