After more than a year on the job, IT Vice Chancellor Vicki Farnsworth is eager to do what brought her here.
by Chuck Wasserstrom
VVicki Farnsworth will be one of the most excited people on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus when the global pandemic is over. Finally, she’ll get to carry out what she came to UTC to do more than a year ago.
After spending almost 25 years at her alma mater, Purdue University, Farnsworth left West Lafayette, Indiana, in January 2020 to join UTC as its first-ever vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer. She was set to hit the ground running, but less than 10 weeks after her arrival, COVID-19 entered the picture. The pandemic forced Farnsworth to learn her IT division and the University during a time of chaos.
the problem solvers
Information Technology has been one of the unsung heroes in maintaining business continuity during the pandemic, and Farnsworth saw firsthand the campus wide emphasis on Mocs helping Mocs. “I learned right away that this is a University that really cares about students,” Farnsworth says. “I never thought we would just be sending out a blanket message ‘Do you need equipment to be able to complete this semester?’ UTC put its money where its mouth is when it came to students and scholarships and making sure students have what they need.
“We shipped so much equipment to students when COVID-19 hit because they couldn’t come back to campus. Being able to get equipment to them, making sure they could log in, being able to connect remotely to be able to support them … they were all important parts in what my team was able to do.”
Farnsworth and the IT staff ensured the campus could run smoothly in a remote learning setting, and that took more than power, Wi-Fi and equipment. They pivoted multiple times as the landscape continually changed. They worked to ease concerns of faculty and students skeptical about online learning, those forced to step outside comfort zones in the sudden shift to online instruction. “So much of what we did was about classrooms,” she says. “We had to spend a lot of time and energy updating classroom equipment, even simple things like making sure there were microphones. We were able to get software like Kaltura and make it available, which allows faculty to tape their lectures ahead of time.”
Farnsworth also points to a much-needed and long-awaited voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) phone system rollout that allowed campus units flexibility. “We have some great stories in Financial Aid where we were able to make it look like the person was sitting on campus by the phone, but they’re sitting at home,” she says. “We took the IT help desk and made it completely remote, all from the comfort of each employee’s home. Being where we were from a voice-over IP perspective allowed us to make COVID go a little bit smoother.”
Then a tornado struck the eastern region of Chattanooga the night of Easter Sunday 2020, leaving damage throughout the region and forcing Farnsworth and her group to pivot yet again. They had to get MiFi’s—or personal Wi-Fi hot spot devices—out to people. “I received a phone call that night because there was a chemistry professor who wouldn’t be able to teach her class on Monday because of the tornado. The team came to campus and figured out a way to get an internet connection to that faculty member and she taught last minute,” she recalls.
Pandemics don’t come with manuals or guides.
“Chaos preparation in IT is something you do work on, and I’ve done some pretty big projects during my work history,” Farnsworth says. “One of the most positive things that happened here was due to the IT team that was already in place. There were people ready to step up. We were in constant contact with each other. That’s how we survived this. There’s nothing like a natural disaster to bring together a team. I think we’re more cohesive as an IT organization because we went through that together.”
Along with building bridges internally, Farnsworth has been doing her part externally to grow the UTC brand. Earlier this year, she joined the board of directors at ChaTech— Chattanooga’s technology council—whose mission is to connect the technology community to help drive economic growth across the region.
In discussing why becoming a director at ChaTech is important, Farnsworth says, “Where I came from, being in the middle-of-nowhere, Indiana, the university was the community. You had a town where the population got small in the summer and then grew in the fall. Here, a whole world exists, and many local companies are trying to do the same things I’m trying to do, so being part of the urban community and being able to make connections is so meaningful.
“In higher education, we are approaching a really weird time where fewer students are going to college, and there will be more places and skills that we need people to be ready for. The ChaTech connection will be huge as we look to expand revenue streams on UTC’s side and find a whole new type of student to connect to the technology groups. ChaTech is a great forum to make sure the entire community is aligning with what we’re trying to do.”
Farnsworth envisions a UTC community partnership with a cybersecurity curriculum provided to students who can then start to work and remain living in the area. Fashioning that pipeline of students and enhancing that skill set, with diversity a vital component, will help create the next layer of IT employees, she explains.
Near and dear to Farnsworth is the use of data. She is eager to change views around data and the potential to pull it all together. “We have to bring together all these different data sources to see what we can learn about students’ success,” Farnsworth says, “and thinking more broadly, how do we help people manage their groups better and lead their organizations? There should be this beauty in management dashboards where every unit and every dean have a layer on their dashboard where they can look at all of their employees and make connections.”
As the pandemic entered its second year, Farnsworth sees light at the end of the tunnel. “Now that we’re almost on the other side of this,” she says, “we have to get out of the operational mode and start to look forward to the things I was hired to bring to UTC. It’s not just about networking and desktops. Those things have to be good, but it’s about that strategic view.
“We brought a lot of innovation in the COVID space. I think we’re now finally getting to a point where we can start to reallocate some of our resources into the more strategic missions of teaching, learning and research.”