Students Hanging out on StairsIT workers have a tough job. Not only do they need to “keep the lights on” and support the needs of their workforce, but they also need to stay current on technology trends and make investment decisions on topics such as mobilebig datacollaboration and cloud.

With Back to School time upon us, I wanted to recognize what I believe is the most challenging IT environment of all: colleges and universities. The CIOs and staff that support higher education institutions have a truly Herculean task that most industries don’t perform, and this post will showcase how schools are able to educate (not to mention feed, house and protect) their students.

My five reasons why higher education is the most challenging IT environment are based on my experience consulting to U.S. higher education institutions. This was a few years ago, but I think the points are still valid. (Please tell me if my information is outdated.)

1. Students bring their own devices … and viruses

Imagine thousands of students descending on your campus. Each of them brings three to four devices that are not owned by you; they’re loaded with malware and viruses; and will be draining bandwidth from your network 24/7.

Oh, and your IT needs to support all flavors of software and hardware.

This is the situation every college and university faces. And while Bring Your Own Device is still a nascent trend in most companies, higher education had to deal with BYOD for many years in a more complex enterprise.

2. A college campus is like a small city

A university CIO’s scope of responsibilities is broad and deep. It includes everything from ERP systems and learning platforms to campus police, hospitals, housing and dining. These operations are all mission critical and require 24/7 uptime.

Where corporate CIOs require only technical and business expertise, university CIOs also need to be versed in campus operations, finance, law and policy. And they must have excellent “soft skills” to influence and drive change.

3. Universities are decentralized by design

You think your company has silos?

In higher education, each academic and administrative department could have their own IT policies, infrastructure and standards. And large departments, such as the Schools of Medicine, Business and Law, could have their own CIO.

There’s a joke about how being a College President is like running a cemetery: There’s a lot of people under you, but good luck getting any of them to do what you want. The same can be true for how IT is governed in higher education.

4. The future is literally being invented on campus

Saying higher education is on the leading edge of technology is an understatement. Netscape, Google, Facebook and SUN (Stanford University Network) are among the iconic companies started on college campuses.

Students are the earliest adopters of new technology. So imagine trying to keep up with technology while your students, faculty and staff are beta testing the next product that will change the world.

Some faculty are already starting to integrate Google Glass into the classroom. Does your company have to even think about Google Glass in the workplace?

5. Many stakeholders, many metrics

Companies can typically point to profit margins or stock price as measures of success. But how do colleges and universities measure success?

  • School ranking?
  • Graduation rate?
  • Research funding?
  • Whether your football team makes the Rose Bowl?

The answer: All of the Above. As such, the IT organization serves many constituents, including students, faculty, staff, the president, the board and public officials.

Sometimes their priorities are at odds. For example, a board might be mostly concerned about risk management and disaster planning, but those areas don’t support the academic mission of the university. A CIO needs to somehow balance all of these perspectives while transforming the institution.

The Ivory Tower Stands Alone

Every industry likes to say “we’re different,” but higher education makes that claim most substantively. As you drop off your daughters and sons at college this fall — or go back for your class reunion — appreciate how technology enables the college experience, and how tough the job is to make it all work.

To learn more about how higher education addresses its IT issues, EDUCAUSE is a great industry association (among several) and has many useful online resources.

Article originally published on SAP Business Trends.