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WOMEN IN TECHNOLOGY – BIG TEN ACADEMIC ALLIANCE Virtual Conference: Leadership in a Culture of Constant Change

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Disruption is a constant presence in our lives and can stem from forces in our professional and personal worlds. On February 7, 2020, Rutgers’ Women in Technology group—in conjunction with peer institutions in the Big Ten Academic Alliance—hosted a virtual conference featuring seven dynamic women leaders in educational technology who discussed the ways that disruption created opportunities for reflection, learning, growth, and humor in their personal lives and their careers.

At Rutgers University–New Brunswick, 40 attendees socialized, enjoyed lunch, and then participated in the conference along with several hundred other viewers at parties in more than 30 locations across the country.


RU Women in Technology group members and friends enjoyed lunch and great discussions during the WIT-BTAA watch party at Rutgers University-New Brunswick—an event coordinated by WIT members Laura Gordon and Karen Harris.

Session I: Disruption as an Opportunity Panel 

The conference began with a panel discussion featuring diverse, dynamic women in three different decades of their lives, and who hailed from five different states. The panel was comprised of women who were straight, gay, black, white, married, divorced, parents, and grandparents. Audience questions and engagement were an active part of this session.


  • Liv Gjestvang —Associate Vice President for Learning Technology, The Ohio State University 
  • Maggie Jesse —Senior Director, Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology, the University of Iowa 
  • Stacy Morrone —Associate Vice President, Learning Technologies, and Dean for Information Technology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)
  • Jennifer Sparrow —Associate Vice President, Teaching and Learning with Technology, Penn State University 
  • Sherri Braxton —Senior Director, Instructional Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County 

Our group listened intently as each panelist shared her personal story and as panelists reflected on major disruptions that caused shifts in their lives—disruptions that made them stop, reconsider direction, reorganize priorities, explore new opportunities, or alter the course of their work or personal lives entirely. They were particularly candid in highlighting missteps they may have made in their business or personal lives, and shared how sometimes their business lives changed due to personal turmoil. We were all moved by the honesty of their stories

Liv Gjestvang discussed her personal struggles and how she was able to adjust her focus from business to family, yet still continue to succeed as a business professional. She learned that by giving herself permission to offer what she needed to give to her family, her work was able to improve. Her colleagues were also able to step up and lead themselves. 

Stacy Morrone told her story about how an unsuccessful move to a new learning management system (LMS) ultimately gave her the insight and confidence necessary to improve processes moving forward—reminding us that sometimes we learn the most important lessons from our mistakes. Her next implementation of an LMS went flawlessly because she had a better plan in place and better people surrounding her. She imparted that success has a lot to do with the support system that we build.  It is impossible to just do everything ourselves. 

Jennifer Sparrow gave us a great summary of eight leadership lessons (LL) in ten minutes. She discussed the disappointments of not getting a job she thought she would get, of moving to a new university only to learn that her ‘hiring manager’ was leaving, and she then shared how she again found a new position at another university. Each of those steps was important in leading to her current career success. 

Leadership Lessons (LLs #1 - #8): 

  • LL #1: If you’re applying as an internal candidate for a job at your current company, you need to be fully comfortable with whatever the outcome is. 
  • LL#2: Words Matter—what you say can profoundly impact people. Words have gravity, so think before you speak, and choose your words with purpose.
  • LL #3: You should have in place institutional practices that help give clear pathways for career progression.
  • LL#4: You can do all the research you want for a new position, but sometimes there are things you’re simply not going to know or learn until you get there.
  • LL#5: If it’s not a good fit, you should pull off the Band-Aid and make a change.
  • LL#6: Nurture your network.
  • LL#7: Ask for help: It doesn’t show weakness, it shows strength.
  • LL#8: Even in the darkest of times, what you endure will shape how you lead in the future. “Sometimes it hurts and sometimes those lessons suck,” said Sparrow. “But they are all a part of the leader I am today.”

Sherri Braxton discussed her personal struggles and job uncertainty.  These disruptions led her to sadness and depression. But she was able to compartmentalize her personal struggles and business struggles—a separation which helped her keep the bigger picture in perspective. 

Maggie Jesse discussed how she learned the critical importance of availing herself of the resources surrounding her, as well as the importance of building a strong team.  She needed to balance a complicated personal situation with her desire to succeed in the workplace.  She ultimately went through formal leadership training, where she had professional coaching and learned how to become a stronger leader.  She learned that ‘doing it all herself’ left her staff without ways of being able to grow.  She restructured her staff during her personal disruption, and it became an opportunity for her staff to shine. 

Break in Session : Group Discussion 

After the panel, our group led a discussion where we highlighted some of our own disruptions and found common threads between the panelists and our own careers and lives. The most common point was seeing how the women were able to blend home life and work life, and how to achieve a balance would help you in both places.  Focusing on your personal life does not mean you have to ‘downgrade’ your work experience. We found a strong connection between personal and professional life. 

Bottom line: We should all stand up and be proud and accept what our roles are and, with that, we can bring professional greatness. 

Session II: Leadership Superpowers Discussion by BTAA CIOs

This session featured Rutgers’ very own Michele Norin, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and Lois Brooks, Vice Provost for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Topics explored: 

  • What is their leadership superpower?
  • How did they discover it, how have they developed it, and how do they rely on it in their current role? 
  • What leadership skills do they look for in others and why? 

As women in high-ranking positions, Norin and Brooks discussed traits that can be viewed as either weaknesses or a superpowers…and how there is sometimes a very fine a line between how the same trait can be interpreted two different ways. For instance, “calmness” could be seen as a weakness or a superpower: it could come across as nonchalance as opposed to level-headedness. This explanation led to a larger discussion about how to balance calmness and assertiveness—when you need to actively listen and when you need to speak up. Both Norin and Brooks underscored the importance of word choice as discussed during the panel session. They reinforced the gravity of words and the importance of how words are presented, and reminded us to choose our words thoughtfully and with purpose.

Both leaders agreed that they learned many valuable lessons as a result of failed projects or when something went wrong. They also reiterated the importance of surrounding yourself with a strong team whose members have a good mix of skillsets and backgrounds. Both said they are constantly evaluating their team, themselves, and their processes, and that while they are university leaders via their positions as CIOs, they are still just one member of a larger team serving a university; they can’t do everything on their own. They rely on strong teams and significant effort to continue their own success.   

In summary, all leaders shared how they love being in their current positions at their respective universities, and how they feel all of their hard work and life lessons ultimately paid off.

To learn more about future WIT sessions, please visit our website calendar.  We will be holding our next event later this spring.

Laura Gordon
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