Theresa Rowe, CIO at Oakland University and long-standing Merit Board member, has announced her pending retirement. She shared reflections on her tenure and advice for the future with the Merit team.
Before joining OU in 1990 as a systems analyst, Theresa began her career in Information Technology overseeing parts bill of material, contract and legal systems for several automotive firms. She was named interim CIO at Oakland in 2002 and was named CIO in March, 2003.
Q. What has been the single largest obstacle you’ve been able to overcome in your role as CIO?
One of the biggest things we still have to overcome is making the profession more friendly and welcoming to underrepresented groups – including women and people of color. I faced those challenges in my career. While I have seen improvements over the years, I once had a senior director advise me to ‘let the boys handle the hardware.. that’s what boys do.’
I could have let that define me, but instead I decided to rise above it and make the journey more positive for those working around me those and who came after. I’m pleased with the progress in diversifying our IT field, but there’s a lot more to do. We have only scratched the surface.
Q. Can you talk a bit about Merit’s journey during your tenure on the board?
My board role was very challenging when I started. There was a vision for the future, but identifying the ways we might pay for that pathway was tense. I recall one impactful message from James Hilton to the Merit board at that time. He asked, “What if bandwidth was never an obstacle to education or research on our campuses?” I took that statement to be an inspiration for the kind of IT environment I wanted to create on my own campus.
Q. What was your greatest accomplishment with Merit?
The board worked hard for the BTOP program – a pair of federal grants that set up the next generation of networking through the state. (It was part of Merit’s REACH-3MC project, a fiber-optic network that provided rural Michigan communities with access to high-quality and high-speed Internet service.) I’m very, very, proud of that initiative, which placed 1,210 miles of fiber throughout the state (starting in 2013).
Q. Any thoughts on the role Merit has played in your career?
I appreciate the opportunity to say something about the value of Merit. They are carrying networking into the future with the Michigan Moonshot rural connectivity project. These goals are noble. We all need more connection to ideals like that.
Q. Any advice or perspective for the person who will fill your seat on the Merit board?
It’s really important for those on the board to recognize that their decisions are bigger than their own institutions. When you are on the Merit board you are committed on another level – beyond your own campus- to networking, communication and community statewide. The challenge for the board member is to step up to that broader vision. We need to stay strong and close as a community, and I applaud Merit for its efforts to build more and more community activities. Merit is a place where we can come together; I hope we can all continue to do that.
For me, it’s been an interesting ride, and while you can’t predict where you’ll land, it’s about being agile and adaptable along the way. That’s my advice to the next generation of leaders.
Q. Why have you decided to retire right now?
Each of us has an end date stamped on us, like produce at the supermarket. I realize I have one too. It’s time for me to move on and let fresh talent move in. I’m proud of the strong leadership team here that’s ready to move up, and they’re prepared to look to the future. It’s just time.
Q. What’s on your agenda as you retire?
I’ve had a great career but it’s I’m ready to move onto the next stage in life. I’m not making any plans – I have been planning for my entire career so I’m going to let every day unfold for a little while.