University of Montana chief information officer Renae Scott appreciates the way technology connects students to learning.
A remote student taking an online course can participate in the classroom through a "telecommuter robot," for instance.
"They have a presence in the classroom, and that's phenomenal," Scott said.
And technology has made it possible for students who have disabilities to be part of higher education in ways they previously couldn't.
"It tears me up just to think about a little bit," she said last week.
UM recently tapped Scott to serve as permanent CIO after she led the department in an interim role since September. She'll oversee a budget that runs from roughly $6.5 million to $8 million depending on fees, and direct an estimated 55 full-time equivalent staff.
In an interview last week, Scott said the Missoula flagship stands on solid footing when it comes to technology. She said she plans to enhance technology and ensure she and her team are good partners who are listening to the needs of others on campus.
In the most recent school year, Provost Jon Harbor launched an initiative to expand online education at UM, and the IT department will play a role. Updated classrooms at UM already offer "technology teaching podiums," large wall-mounted displays, and videoconferencing capabilities, and Scott said she's excited to continue to augment offerings at UM.
"The modern classroom is all about the technology in there," said Scott, hired at UM in 2017 as assistant CIO.
UM has experienced a persistent enrollment slide, and last school year, President Seth Bodnar restructured units and brought on a vice president for enrollment and strategic communications. Scott said her department has been working to fine-tune the customer relationship management system at UM so prospective students receive communications from the campus.
"It's humming now," said Scott, who worked at Rice University in Houston for 27 years before coming to UM.
Already, Scott has gone on a "CIO listening tour" to hear the technology priorities of deans, chairs and other faculty members. She said the tour was "exhaustive," and she learned invaluable information that will help her team steer UM toward its strategic priorities.
For instance, UM aims to put student success at the heart of its activities, and Scott said innovative technology can support advising and tell students the current menu of the Food Zoo on their cell phones.
"Everything is in the palm of their hand," Scott said of the way students operate.
Accessibility is key
Abbigail Belcher, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana, said the biggest concern for students when it comes to technology is accessibility.
"That can mean anything ranging from usable hardware to reliable email accounts," said Belcher in an email. "Students need access to the correct solutions in a timely manner in order to complete a 21st century education.
"In today's day and age, a significant portion of a student's learning takes place outside of the classroom and on a computer. We are excited to see how Renae Scott maintains and improves services for students on the UM Campus."
Mark Pershouse, incoming chair of the Faculty Senate, said Scott is a "wonderful" colleague, and he appreciates her leadership style.
"She's straightforward. She's honest. She doesn't have any agendas. She just tells you like it is, tells you what she's hoping for. I hope to be like that someday. She's just not going to sugarcoat things," Pershouse said. "We need more of those."
Even in her interim capacity, he said Scott has had a positive effect on the IT department, which experienced some staff departures through voluntary buyouts.
"She's done a great job with a very unwieldy group that was seeing a lot of losses," Pershouse said.
Scott said she does intend to build on UM's network and enhance wireless and wired access for students. Generally, she also said she wants to be sure the IT team is pulling together and equipped to help make decisions on campus.
“Our networking team is working on a road map and plan for expanding the wireless on campus and in the residential areas,” Scott said in an email. “The plan should be completed by early summer and execution of the plan started by late summer.”
In the past, IT people worked more "behind the curtain," but their roles are changing, Scott said. "They lead discussions and bring people from across campus to collaborate."
UM has tapped several women to lead units in interim capacities, and in a news release about the new chief information officer, UM noted Scott is the first woman to be named to the permanent post in Information Technology. In a statement, Bodnar said he's grateful for Scott, and information technology touches "virtually every area of the campus."
"It is integral to our ability to deliver programs, support our students and employees, and enable all of our campus operations," Bodnar said.
UM has experienced significant staff reductions and leadership churn as a result of the enrollment slide, but Scott said she's optimistic about the future of the flagship. She said she's honored to be chosen to lead the department, and she's been amazed at the work and energy of her staff.
"They all have shown so much grit," Scott said.