Mission First: A Conversation With Information Technology VP Samantha Earp

Samantha Earp, Smith’s vice president for information technology, takes a big-picture view of her role on campus.

“People tend to think of IT as mainly administrative,” says Earp, who began work at Smith in September 2016. “But information technology is a rich, complex and ever evolving eco-system. I want us to be more expansive and integrative in our work at Smith.”

Earp is responsible for leading Smith’s core information technology operations and services. Her expertise includes 16 years in information and academic technology roles at Duke and Harvard universities, including as executive director of the online learning initiative HarvardX.

Earp also has a background in liberal arts, having earned degrees in French from Berea College and the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon, France, and a master’s degree in French from Indiana University.

Here’s what she had to say about information technology at Smith.

What initiatives are you planning for the near future?

“I’m very much about bringing a vision for information technology into a community discussion process. That’s especially important now that we have a new strategic plan for Smith. We will be kicking off a series of campus conversations and working groups early this year that ultimately will result in a new strategic plan for IT. We want to be listening, sharing ideas and spending time over the summer synthesizing that information, with the idea of holding playback sessions for the campus community in early fall.”

How do you see the role of chief information officer at Smith?

“At a high level, I see the work of the chief information officer as ensuring that the college has the best information technology environment possible to meet its strategic goals. That’s a college-wide role. ‘Thing two’ is the role of the CIO as a leader of the technology services organization, ensuring that group is providing the very best service possible to people on campus. A new dimension I’m working on is having a reflective practice in technology services. We’re a learning organization. So what can we learn from what we did, and how we can make it better?”

How do you plan for future technology needs, given the rapid pace of change in that arena?

“Our work should not be driven by technology first. What we do is in service of the college’s mission, and it’s a wonderful privilege to have that as your starting point. In the past, our work in IT has been grounded in daily operations. I want us to be more aspirational, to expand into more strategic areas. So, for example, we should be thinking about how information technology contributes to helping us recruit the best students possible. We need to be asking questions in every area—what is education going to look like three years out or 10 years out? We need to be thinking proactively about what we want to explore.”

What are some examples of how information technology can advance Smith’s mission?

“One example is in thinking about big data—what tools do people use and how do they learn about those? I also think about digital storytelling as a set of techniques and ways of thinking that are not owned by any one discipline. I’m very interested in connecting with other initiatives on campus, including Design Thinking and Statistical and Data Sciences. We already have a MOOC, which is a marvelous learning opportunity and is unique in the way it has engaged Smith students. We’re going to be working with the MOOC as part of our strategic planning. I’d like to find more ways that we can connect with students. I worked in the computer center when I was at Berea College, and it was an important part of my college experience.”

How is your department involved in plans for a new Neilson Library?

“We are a core part of the library planning team. Provost Katherine Rowe and Susan Fliss, the new dean of libraries at Smith, have invited us fully into that process. We are looking at what library services can be enhanced or enabled by information technology. That’s a conversation that will be going on even throughout the three-year construction period for a new library.”

What are some key challenges related to information technology at Smith?

“I’d like to see us communicate more about the work we’re doing. It’s clear to me that we need to provide more support so people can get the most use out of the tools they have. It’s also clear that we need multiple approaches to information technology tools—no one size fits all. Another major theme is providing access to data that can be analyzed and used in support of initiatives on campus. That’s not just a Smith theme, but one you hear throughout higher education.”

What’s been the best thing, so far, about being at Smith?

“For me, it’s the mission of the college and how involved people are in that mission. One of the things that really appealed to me about Smith is that as an institution, we are ready and willing to go through a process of change. It’s not just about IT, but about what Smith can do in this space that’s unique. And that needs to be a community-wide conversation.”