Howard University transforms its technology to propel STEM, diversity, research

This HBCU’s network transformation will further propel STEM, diversity, research

By | 5 minute read | February 4, 2020

The Founders Library at Howard University, Washington D.C.

Howard University stretches across 256 acres in D.C. and Maryland, with a main campus in northwest D.C. The university is home to 9,000+ undergraduate, graduate and professional students from 50 U.S. states and territories, plus 66 nations.

Howard is one of the oldest historically black universities in the U.S. Established March 2, 1867, the university has a long tradition of academic excellence as well as social justice and activism.

Today, the university is the top producer of black students entering U.S. medical schools, and has the largest number of on-campus black Ph.D.’s in the world. Alumni include Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings.

Howard University CIO Jonathan Piersol

Jonathan Piersol is Howard University’s CIO. A strong advocate of STEM programs at HBCUs, he believes STEM plays an essential role in preparing black students for a world rapidly transforming through technology.

Piersol is leading Howard’s own transformation, the modernization of the university’s technology infrastructure. It’s a monumental challenge: reshaping the school’s entire IT strategy to exponentially propel forward the school’s academics, research and diversity.

“We want to use technology to assist both our administration to make the right decisions, and to assist students and faculty,” Piersol told Industrious from his Howard University office.

To accomplish that goal, he’s set a 5-year IT strategy, with network infrastructure transformation as its foundation.

“It’s a foundational project that allows us to do important things with the network, and give users an abundance of IT access,” he said. “It also allows us to springboard into other pillars of the IT strategic plan and enable the Howard Forward strategic plan.”

Howard Forward, set forth by the university as a whole, has five pillars, including increased academic excellence, increased research and great discoveries, operations efficiency to deliver better education, increased financial stability (“we want to do more with less”), and outreach to communities in DC and the world.

Howard University graduate students

The university’s current infrastructure was grown organically, which is the case with many organizations with various departments. Schools and deans have their own small networks, for example; the Provost and Chief Operating Officer also have their own.

Piersol is building one contiguous network that is centrally managed and is flexible enough so that departments and research units can work independently while still being in the same network. That one network allows for security control, an important factor in education.

Howard University medical students

The new network is shifting to IBM’s hybrid cloud, an open platform that facilitates flexibility and portability for applications and data built on multiple components from public cloud, private clouds, plus on-premise IT.

The IBM project is bringing together all the buildings on campus, plus the remotes, as one large network. Buildings are outfitted with between 20 and 50 switches on different floors that control the connections and computers.

The other part of the project is the integration of Howard’s business systems: the financial transactions, HR systems, personnel and student systems.

“With a single IT ecosystem,” Piersol said, “data is available to the decision-makers who need it.”

His team is also building a data warehouse and a data lake.

“We have lots of information,” he said—from the lock swipes into buildings to the video captured from public safety cameras, to information coming in through research channels, from the university’s TV and radio stations.

“All of that data needs to be integrated, stored, and used to forecast out into the future,” he said.

Piersol is particularly focused on leveraging data with both AI and BI (business intelligence). His goal is to use that intelligence in areas like enrollment management.

Howard University students | Photographer: Justin Knight

“What students are we recruiting? What are their attributes? Which students have excelled and in what areas? This information can help us advise students,” he said.

A student might be considering engineering as a major, for example. Insights from data may show that this student could excel in medicine, opening up a new set of opportunities.

“We want to use the technology to make the best possible decisions in recruiting,” Piersol said, “and to advise students in the best way we can. Can we guide them down paths they haven’t considered? Can we help them find success?”

The data can also help struggling students, offering information into what has helped students in similar positions in the past. Data can also offer views into what’s working, or not working, with professors and faculty.

“Here’s the last 50 people who took your exam,” he said, “and here are the questions that weren’t understood well. Sometimes it takes a computer with nothing but time to see that type of information.”

Piersol acknowledges that while the university—as much of higher education—may be a bit behind technology-wise than commercial sectors, he believes that the technology will help the university leapfrog into the future.

Piersol’s technology career began when he was in the military. He worked as a Marine Corps communications operator, managing mobile radios and antennas. He also studied, and excelled at, accounting and finance. Leading an IT organization the size of Howard University allows him to combine those skills.

“As CIO, I wear a lot of hats,” he said. He spends as much time with students as possible, which helps him understand how his team can improve user experience.

“I love to talk to students,” he said. “I need the voice of the customer. At Howard, the student is the customer.”

Howard University business students

Those students are already seeing the results of Piersol’s work. In 2019, students were able to watch their homecoming football game for the first time on ESPN. Additionally, IoT capabilities installed into renowned sickle cell research means that that important work can move forward at an accelerated pace.

The school is building up its tech course offerings and tech reputation. Piersol wants to attract an even more diverse student body to focus specifically on technology. He also wants students in non-tech fields to be tech-literate.

“There’s no industry where technology doesn’t enter your life,” he said. “For political science majors, polls are everything. For social sciences and psych majors, data is everything. Having an understanding for business intelligence is huge in everybody’s industry. You have to know what’s going on. You have to validate it.”