University of Alabama at Birmingham: VP and CIO Dr. Curtis Carver Jr. transforms the experience of higher education with digital innovation

University of Alabama at Birmingham: VP and CIO Dr. Curtis Carver Jr. transforms the experience of higher education with digital innovation

Empowering greatness in others is at the heart of every technical solution the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) has made, and this could not be more evident from the technology transformation that has taken place over the past four years under the leadership of Dr. Curt Carver. It is no surprise that the University of Alabama at Birmingham was keen to enlist Carver to spearhead IT operations with his impressive career history and dedication to student and staff wellbeing. Carver previously worked as the Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and CIO at the University System of Georgia. Prior to that, during his time at the US Military Academy at West Point, he rose through the academic ranks from instructor to full professor, before becoming Vice Dean, serving as deputy to the Chief Academic Officer. Whilst in this role, Carver also participated as an American Council of Education fellow at George Mason University, visiting 40 other universities across the United States, gaining a holistic view of task management across various universities.

He has been with UAB since 2015 and, under his leadership, the university has had over 420 ‘wins’. Carver defines a ‘win’ as a concern raised by the community, which is met with solutions that are validated as successful by staff and students, while in line with the strategic plan. Averaging around 100 wins a year, Carver could not begin to list all of the achievements, but shared with us some from the 2017 and 2018 reports. This year marks the university's 50th anniversary, which has seen the University of Alabama at Birmingham ranked number one amongst young universities (those under 50 years of age) in the United States and 11th in the world.

"We are trying to empower greatness in our students, faculty, and researchers and clinicians," explains Carver. "That means removing obstacles preventing them from accomplishing their research and teaching tasks, and trying to figure out mechanisms to co-author solutions to not only achieve their goals, but to create a competitive advantage for them compared to other universities." Carver emphasizes the need to build strong partnerships with students to create solutions that do not only "comply or satisfy, but delight their expectations.” “These are solutions that they feel that they are a part of,” he comments.

Another motivation of the company’s technological transformation is the goal of easing the workload of both staff and students. "Some of the ways in which we have achieved this is by moving to unlimited email, creating passwords that don't expire, and having unlimited storage, as well as creating the fastest networks and research computers in the state. When you're working with genomics and personalized medicine, these small factors make a great deal of difference."

Carver cannot emphasize enough the importance of listening to a variety of people when devising a business strategy. "On my first day as CIO, we created a crowd-sourcing site, and we had some 800 meetings in the first 100 days. By creating a voice for everyone, you can work towards the best possible solution and provide each aspect of the university with its own competitive edge." This level of communication enabled staff and students to be receptive to the technical changes, because they were solutions requested by them.

For example, one goal was to leverage the faculty's disciplinary expertise. "We can’t treat faculty as the most expensive typists on the planet," jokes Carver. At the end of each term, staff are tasked with the movement of student records from the learning management system to the student information system. "So if you're teaching 300 students, that's about 900 clicks to complete this task, taking hours. And if you make an error, the staff member then has three different permissions and five forms to complete to rectify the mistake," explains Carver. "So we built a button, and all of the information is transported across systems in about a second, eradicating the previously arduous process.

"If we're going to change the world, let's be serious about changing the world, and that means empowering people and taking some of these bureaucratic tasks off their plate," Carver continues, with reference to the university’s students. “When students were scheduling, they would go into the student information system and they would download the schedules into Excel, and they would try to build a schedule. So we worked with the registrar and enrollment management and deployed a tool where the students could input their desired classes, when they are working or when they would rather not be on campus, and it automatically builds multiple schedules for them, and they just pick the schedule they want."

Carver notes that part of the success of the strategy is to be a servant leader, and not a Napoleonic one. “It's not about control. It's about empowerment." Carver believes that it is important to hire people smarter than himself, as it empowers employees, instilling within them a sense of responsibility to find a solution. He commends his team of staff, who are particularly committed to the improvement of cybersecurity. Carver reflects on how cybersecurity has improved: "When I started in 2015, it took us about 800 minutes to close out a phishing attack. Today we do it in 11." He returns to the topic of passwords, sharing another solution that was deployed. "We gave students and staff a mobile-enabled platform that tracks passwords and generates strong unique ones, strengthening security further.”

Of the many wins, Carver said his favorite was the movement of 1,250 undergraduate classes into the learning management system. “This cloud-based solution enabled students to push one button, and all of their undergraduate classes, all of the requirements then transfer into their mobile device calendar." This is a drastic change from the previous organization where staff either handed out paper timetables or posted them on their own websites.

Looking ahead, Carver notes some of the solutions that the university is currently piloting. "We're working on building a navigation system that automatically locates free parking space for students." Carver and his team are working toward a new strategic plan that, in the true spirit of his ethos, is a compilation of stories about those who will benefit from the technology solutions. "This puts customers at the center of the conversation and it focuses on digital moments that delight them. So we're very excited about the future and what we're going to be able to do with this kind of customer centric approach." In a time where technology and AI is considered to be detached if not impersonal, Carver is subverting this with his leadership, and using technology to improve the lives and relationships of staff and students. With any hope, his innovation will spread to other universities, with the University of Alabama at Birmingham leading the way.

Curtis Carver