UC Santa Barbara: The pandemic-pivot of higher education

UC Santa Barbara: The pandemic-pivot of higher education

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When Jacob Ofilas joined UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) as the Director of Clients Success, College of Letters and Science, he came from a tenured background in healthcare. His long-term employer, Molina Healthcare, had grown from a tiny startup to a company of over 1,200 people during his time there. While academia was a new realm for Ofilas, he had a lot of rich experience in change management.

That was in 2019. He was about to experience dramatic change once again. In a recent conversation, he described to me the technological pivots his team made during the early days of the pandemic, and how that’s informing the future of UCSB.

Learning under (and because of) pressure

When Ofilas came on board at UCSB, IT within the greater organization was dispersed, systems didn’t really connect, and content was often siloed. The university had already adopted a lot of digital and cloud-based platforms such as Box, Google Workspace, DocuSign, and Salesforce, but the ways in which they were used were not uniform across the organization. A student or employee who wanted to submit a support ticket might go into Service Now for one thing, but use Zendesk for another. 

With process innovation under his domain, Ofilas was already making great progress on updating IT across UCSB, but, he says: “The pandemic forced people in all kinds of arenas, including the academic world, to realize how integral technology is to everything we do.” IT teams scrambled to procure laptops, set them up, provision them, and get both students and faculty ready to learn and teach from home. “There were hiccups,” he says. “But we quickly adapted and shored things up. By and large, last academic year, remote was successful.”

On the other hand, the pandemic also forced previously autonomous IT departments to work together more than they ever had before. “We all had a unique common goal: to get people home,” OFilas says. “This was a huge thing in and of itself.” He notes how in a global pandemic, everyone has to think on their feet, and that “forces you to react differently — it forces you to be creative and work together.”

Do call it a comeback

UCSB is considered “a resort school” because it’s in such a beautiful seaside locale. For a lot of students, not being able to come to campus during the pandemic was a huge letdown. With a return to the classroom imminent in Fall 2021, the IT talent at UCSB is now tasked with how to come back from remote learning. Ofilas shared a great analogy with me about the difference between sending students home and bringing them back:

We were on a plane. We had to take it apart, and  each of us took a piece of the plane home with us. Now, we have to get back together in person and reassemble the plane. Taking it apart was a lot easier.

With mandatory vaccinations required for in-person learning, the IT team also has to prepare for remote learning to continue for some people. Ofilas’ team has purchased a suite of 750 Chromebooks for incoming freshmen who still need remote instruction. The steep and swift learning curve the pandemic enforced means that now, pretty much everyone is skilled enough to adroitly use tools like Box, Zoom, and other remote technologies that saved the day during the pandemic. 

The elevated digital status quo

Ultimately, the goal of Ofilas and his IT team is not to be good at reacting to unique situations and emergencies, but to have UCSB in such a good digital place that the university is getting the most out of its IT investments all the time. When Ofilas came on board, the university was licensed for 25K Box seats, but currently had around 45K in action — mostly because of matriculated students who had left school, but still technically had a Box account.

Ofilas worked to clean up this governance black hole and create an offboarding process for students and faculty as they left the organization. With enormous annual turnover par for the course at universities, they need to have mechanisms in place to close accounts that are no longer in use. Otherwise, around 5K new accounts are added a year. Ofilas has managed to pare the number of Box seats being used down to around 24K+. He says, “Box has been very helpful in creating offboarding measures.”

Secure university content in the Content Cloud

An important aspect of Ofilas' job is overseeing cybersecurity. Another University of California, UCSF, was hit hard in a ransomware attack in 2020, when hackers extorted well over $1 million. Now, other universities in the system are extra cautious. “That put all of the CSOs at the UCS on alert,” says Ofilas, “and that's why we're trying to protect as much as possible, utilizing cloud services as much as possible, with multi-factor authentication (MFA) as part of it.”

MFA is now in place for a lot of processes, including the applications that prospective students submit. But what Ofilas has found is that incoming generations are so used to MFA that it doesn’t seem like a barrier to entry to them, and that’s important, because IT works to create a frictionless experience without risking content security. “Trying to find the right balance is tough,” Ofilas admits. “You want to protect, but you don’t want to put so many barriers in front of people that they become frustrated.”

Thriving in the academic ecosystem

This balance of making technology easier and the learning experience better — without compromising data security and content governance — is why Ofilas looks forward to continuing the partnership with Box. The Content Cloud enables UCSB to envision better learning and research scenarios for the many, many stakeholders in a thriving university ecosystem.

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