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Lawson Goes High Tech In The Low Lands

April 25, 2002

Nick Marinello
Phone: 865-5714

mr4@tulane.edu

John Lawson sure isn't in it for the scenery. Come this June, Lawson will say goodbye to Malibu and its bird's-eye view of the Pacific Ocean as he leaves Pepperdine University to become Tulane's new vice president for information technology and chief information officer. If he's trading the California coast and mountains for the low lands of Southeast Louisiana, Lawson doesn't seem to mind a bit.

"It's one of the questions that people keep asking," says Lawson, who currently holds the title of chief information office and associate vice president at Pepperdine. "They say, 'How can you leave Malibu?'" The answer, he says, is simple. "Tulane. Tulane is the reason, because of its strong reputation as a research institution and its good mix of sciences, arts and medicine."

Lawson, who will report directly to President Scott Cowen, says the move to Tulane will offer him the opportunity to support technology use in varied academic and administrative settings. In fact, one of first priorities for Lawson will be to merge academic and administrative computing into the same unit.

"This position does not oversee just Technology Infrastructure Services," says Lawson, "but will encompass both academic and administrative computing. The rebuilding will start at that level." Roughly twice the size of Pepperdine with twice as many schools and colleges, Tulane presents a steep learning curve, Lawson acknowledges.

"It is important for people to understand that I want to take time to learn about Tulane," he says. "I want to take time to listen. But I also want to move forward in a timely manner. The president expects me to have a list of goals and objectives by the beginning of the fiscal year."

Lawson says he expects to gain clear understanding of the universitywide interaction of technology at Tulane after he talks to a broad range of people, from deans to support personnel. Lawson, who led the strategic planning effort for information technology at Pepperdine in 1999, says administrating a unified and comprehensive technology infrastructure throughout an institution with decentralized units presents a challenge.
In recent years, the rapid development of technology has typically allowed decentralized units to develop their own information services when the centralized group could not meet their needs, says Lawson. "That is not necessarily bad," he says, but adds, "The question now to ask is are these units spending time supporting applications or machines that are a duplication of services, and is that hindering their ability to bring technology to the learning processes of their faculty and students?"

And focusing on the learning process will be core to his strategic planning. "It used to be that technology was a way that universities differentiated themselves. It's part of what made Tulane different from other institutions."

Now, however, a more level technological playing field among universities requires them to find ways to start using this technology to enhance learning. "Technology has now become part of the context in which we live," he says. "We need to ensure we find ways to maintain those items that are context, but yet somehow free people up to focus on new things that can make us different and add value to the teaching and learning process."

And as higher education focuses technology on the development and support of teaching and learning, Lawson believes his profession is leaving its infancy and taking bold steps into toddlerhood. Or, using another metaphor from his current home in Malibu, Lawson says information technology "is still being screened in black and white and I'm not sure we're into the talkies yet." It's an affectionate criticism, however, as he adds, "The reason I say that is that I have so much hope for what can be accomplished."

Nick Marinello may be reached at mr4@tulane.edu

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