Why Higher Education Needs More Chief Innovation Officers

Only a quarter of top higher education schools across the country have established Chief Innovation Officer roles, which may leave you wondering if colleges and universities need CIOs.

This senior leadership position not only works closely with the university president but must also reach out to all the departments at the campus to foster collaboration, collegiality, and innovation. These outreach activities can include encouraging incubators, identifying funding opportunities for research and scholarship promoting discoveries, and improving the culture and rapport between departments.

The Chief Innovation Officer is integral to overall university success by assisting with funding, building collaboration, and promoting innovation.


Although tuition costs have gone up in the last decade, universities and colleges have suffered severe budget cutbacks. Unfortunately, the student who can afford to attend college will experience fewer academic opportunities and have limited access to students services once taken for granted.

One way to offset funding crises in higher education is to seek support through other sources. Departments have had to become creative in finding ways to develop sustainability. Agriculture and horticulture programs, for example, may offer services or products for a fee.

The CIO can further assist by seeking out interested donors and investors who want to be a part of the university’s work.


One of the most essential duties of the CIO in higher education is to encourage collaboration among departments and colleges.

The demands on professors can prevent them from looking outside their department for assistance. They may trudge on, wondering why they can’t outsource part of their workload, when outsourcing opportunities abound across the university. For example, the engineering department may need writers to complete their technical manuals; they could tap into the strengths of students in the English department to write their technical manuals, and the assignment would give writers real-world experience.

In a sense, the CIO becomes a project manager, making sure each department or college involved has the resources it needs and can meet deadlines.


The Chief Innovation Officer is not only responsible for encouraging innovation in others, but this leader must also be a natural innovator himself or herself. Higher education campuses can be fertile grounds for testing new ideas. The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) developed after the economic recession of 2007 were the product of an innovative response to declining university enrollment. Innovators found a way to make advanced learning scalable.

In summary

Every chief innovation officer needs one thing for job success: time. CIOs often take a year or more to understand the higher education milieu, and during this period, they often develop their own metrics measuring success in innovation.

It is also during this year that one thing becomes clear: the position of Chief Innovation Officer is a necessity for higher education.