Interview with Mark Clements, 01/07/2022

UW Oshkosh Campus Stories
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´╗┐GL: This is Grace Lim interviewing Mark Clements on Friday, January 7, 2022. For Campus COVID Stories. Campus COVID Stories is a collection of oral stories from students and staff at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh about their experiences in the time of COVID. Thank you for sharing your stories with us. Before we get started, could you please state your name and spell it for us?

MC: Mark Clements, M-A-R-K C-L-E-M-E-N-T-S.

GL: Now for the purposes of getting good audio recording, tell us again who you are and what your title is here at UW-Oshkosh.

MC: Sure. My name is Mark Clements and I am the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer.

GL: Before we dive into your campus COVID story we'd like to get to know you a little better. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up.

MC: I grew up on a family farm about an hour south of town here in between Random Lake and West Bend.

00:01:00

GL: And where did you earn your degree or degrees?

MC: Yeah, I have a degree in computer science, bachelor's degree in computer science from UW Platteville and an MBA from Western Governors University.

GL: And where's that?

MC: It's actually an online university.

GL: And how did you come to work at UW Oshkosh?

MC: I was working at UW Platteville. I was a PeopleSoft manager for several years, about 15 years. And I took a job here as the Director of Information Systems, we manage the PeopleSoft environments. And then when the last CIO left, I assumed her responsibilities.

GL: When did you first come here? What year was that?

MC: That would have been September of 2011.

GL: Okay. And when did you take over as a CIO?

MC: That would have been 20 Going way back 20 the early 2019, I believe, yeah.

00:02:00

GL: Okay. And then, pre COVID. Tell me what your responsibilities were as the CIO?

MC: Yeah. So you know, I was fairly new that position. We have campus CTO as well, Victor Alatorre, who. So he and I helped manage the team, we have about 43-45, staff members, and then an equal number of students at a time. And we are responsible for all IT operations, everything from campus infrastructure, networking, wireless telephone systems, the student information systems, email, you name it, it falls under our umbrella.

GL: So you have you know, like you said, 43 to 45, staff members, and then in about equal numbers about 90 people under your purview. And when you say everything IT related, I mean.

MC: Yeah. So as Chief Information Officer, and information security officer is 00:03:00one of my roles as well, basically, any data or any type of information system falls under IT. So.

GL: That's a lot.

MC: Yes, it's quite a bit. So yeah, you know, classroom tech, you know, reporting, information security and compliance. That all falls under us.

GL: Wow.

MC: Yeah. So we have quite a broad range of responsibilities around IT.

GL: Okay. All right. So let's move to the early days of COVID. When was, do you remember the first time you actually heard about this COVID-19?

MC: I'm, I'm pretty sure it was early January. And it was shortly after I think it was discovered in China or was reported in China. And then we started getting reports of, you know, it's starting to migrate around the world and things like that. I don't know if it had, I'm pretty sure it hadn't come to the United 00:04:00States. But by the time I first heard of it, but it didn't take very long.

GL: What I mean, initially, what were you thinking about it?

MC: Well, actually, when I first heard about it, I was thinking it was going to be similar to SARS, you know, because that was just a couple years before that, and that, that stayed pretty much in Asia and Europe, and it didn't really have a huge impact on the US. And so I was kind of hoping it was going to be similar to that.

GL: At what point did you realize that this is something that we actually have to think about or be concerned about?

MC: I think COVID hit pretty hard on the West Coast. We started seeing it in Washington State and California and places like that, and we saw that the symptoms were very severe and people were already starting to die from it even you know, in in January and February, and it wasn't long before other schools 00:05:00and you see other institutions that we're starting to talk about. Okay. Do we close down or not? Already in in February, the conversations are starting on the West Coast. And on the East Coast.

GL: You are a member of the Emergency Operations Committee.

MC: Yes.

GL: When how long have you been on that committee?

MC: Whenever it was formed, I want to say it was probably formed in 2018. I think somewhere around in that time frame.

GL: Pre-COVID.

MC: Yeah, pre-COVID. I, when the, the previous CIO, was on during the last pandemic we had, I can't remember which disease it was, that was the last pandemic,

GL: The H1N1 maybe?

MC: H1N1. Yeah. And shortly after that was done. She's she told me that, you know, this makes sense for you to be part of this group as well, even though I wasn't CIO at the time. And so I got involved in it more from the technology 00:06:00standpoint, because communications and documentation and data are so important during an emergency, and so they wanted somebody with those types of skills on the team.

GL: Prior to the COVID, what were your biggest challenges as a CIO?

MC: I think staffing in we've the campuses had budget issues for years and years and years. And we had slowly but surely been losing staffing due to budget cuts, you know, in luckily, we didn't have to fire anybody. And usually what would happen is it would timeout that we would have somebody leave, and then a budget cut announced and we were able to absorb our budget cuts through staffing decreases, we just wouldn't rehire. So we were pretty lucky for that. But 00:07:00unfortunately, when you don't rehire that means somebody else has to pick up the slack. And so our staff were just getting more and more over extended. And we didn't have budgets to rehire or give them any, any break.

GL: What, why were people leaving other than the people who are retiring?

MC: I think, you know, I want to say in that timeframe, many of them were just simply retiring, we had the early retirement programs that were going on. And people were taking advantage of that. We did have a couple of people that were just leaving for, you know, they got a different position at a different institution or something like that. That was a career advancement for 'em. And so we're always happy to see people leaving on terms like that where it's, you know, they're leaving for something good. Not that they're trying to escape or anything like that. So.

GL: Well, I was just wondering for you're able to keep them, if we're losing 00:08:00them because we can't pay them like industry rates.

MC: Some sometimes. Yeah, sometimes that's definitely the case. We yeah, no one's gonna get rich working in IT at the university. That's for sure.

GL: Okay, so were you part of the conversation when the university decided to send everybody home?

MC: Actually, no, I was not involved in those types of decisions. I actually did not get involved in pandemic response until a little bit later in in the campus response.

GL: But when the campus was sent, we were sent home a week before spring break, correct?

MC: Correct. Yeah.

GL: And how did that affect you and your department?

MC: It was huge for us. So you know, as I mentioned earlier, we are responsible for technology, classroom technology, instructional technology, things like 00:09:00that. And we understood that, okay, we're going to be remote for a while. And so now, we had this huge rush to figure out how are we going to get instructors the technology they need, get them training that they if they needed it, get them, you know, equipment, things like that. And so, we had people that, you know, I have an amazing team, and everybody just jumped into action. And seemingly people knew what they needed to be doing. And we were able to do it. We did have to make some changes in IT operations for instance, we put a pause on all purchasing because we didn't know what we were going to need to buy. So it turns out we needed to buy you know, a whole lot more document cameras and laptops and things like that to allow remote instruction. And we immediately started facing 00:10:00all kinds of challenges in procuring a lot of these things. Because all of us all, you know, elementary school, through universities, were all looking for the same equipment. And so immediately, inventories depleted. And we struggled a lot to try to find things like document cameras, and microphones and webcams and things like that became really scarce. So our team, we had, you know, different groups of people, obviously, in our teams. So we had the classroom and instructional support, people that were scurrying, trying to procure all this stuff and get people set up so that they can teach remote. And then we had our infrastructure teams that were, we upgraded our VPN, that would allow secure internet access, when people were off campus that they could remote back into university resources. And we, we did things like we created our first full scale 00:11:00virtual lab, so that people had access to all the specialized lab software from home.

GL: So when people were sent home, I mean, when the administration said, okay, we're sending all the students home, we're sending home the non, you know, essential staff home, were you among those people that were sent home or your department?

MC: Yeah so most of our department was sent home, and I think, luckily, and to be in, to be honest, a large portion of our staff have not come back, even after we've reopened the campus, simply because they don't need to anymore. A lot of the work that they're able to do there can be just as effective at home, if not more. And so there are some, especially like user support staff, and the people that have to maintain physical infrastructure and stuff, they obviously have to be on campus, and they're here. Our help desks are open, our user support staff 00:12:00are here, classroom Support staff are here. But folks like our networking team, our enterprise application development team, they are still remote.

GL: How many? You know, you had about 100, that's rounded off to about 100 people.

MC: Sure.

GL: Okay. How many of those people were still on campus? During the early days?

MC: A fairly small number is mostly just the, the essential staff that needed to be here for maintaining infrastructure. And a lot of times it was that they, they weren't necessarily here full time. But if something came up that they needed to be on campus, they would come in, do what they need to do and come back. I want to say maybe, like 10 people, none of our students, all of the students are, obviously were gone, they were all home. And there wasn't a whole lot of other people on campus, it's pretty much it ghost town here for a while. 00:13:00And so we didn't have we didn't need to have a lot of people on the ground.

GL: So that that those two weeks where everybody was sent home, the instructors were sent home, and they had to learn how to flip their classes online.

MC: Yeah.

GL: What were some of the challenges that fell on you and your staff?

MC: Yeah, I think the biggest one was technology access. You know, many, many people didn't have the right equipment at home to be able to do that. And so they were reaching out to us to get the equipment they needed, or they needed to figure out how do I, you know, use teams? Or how do I use, you know, the other tools we had at the time? That maybe they, you know, they had access to before, but they didn't necessarily incorporate into their classes. Now, they were pretty much forced to. And so they had that learning curve. And very quickly.

GL: What about the students on, were you getting any calls from students saying, 00:14:00hey, I don't have Wi Fi. I don't have good internet. I don't have.

MC: Yeah. And we would get those secondhand, usually from the Dean of Students Office or from other academic organizations like that. We did have some students that said, hey, I don't know how I'm going to do online classes. I, you know, we have one computer in my household. And there's, you know, and it's not just me home, it's my little brothers and sisters that are there for elementary school and high school, and we're all trying to share one computer. So there were many cases like that. And sometimes we were able to supply them with loaner laptops. And other times we weren't.

GL: What I personally know somebody who had who lived out in the country.

MC: Yeah.

GL: And then what did you do with those people?

MC: Yeah, that was a real challenge. We had several instructors that, like you said, lived way out in rural areas, and they didn't have broadband Internet access available to them. And, and oftentimes, just cellular service was really 00:15:00spotty as well. And so one of the things that we were able to do is we reconfigured our wireless networks, to point to our parking lots out in front of like the Nursing Ed building, and in the high street parking ramp. And we were able to boost up our Wi Fi range in those areas, and we say you drive, excuse me, drive to campus, and sit in your car and, and use your laptops. And it was not ideal, but it got the job done.

GL: So if you had to look back at your, you know, the, from the early days to say, the end of fall semester, that first chunk of COVID, what were your greatest challenges other than that, you know, you said you mentioned that getting the equipment that that was needed? What else.

MC: I think that that was probably our biggest getting the right equipment, getting our virtual labs and, and things like that set up to allow for remote 00:16:00work and then getting people the information they needed to be able to do it getting all of our help documents and training materials up to up to speed and posted online.

GL: And then what describe to me your day to day activities. I mean, were you were you just fielding like angry callers, frustrated calls, or what were you doing?

MC: I feel pretty blessed. I think most of the time, people were very understanding of the situation that we were all in. And when I said you know, I'm sorry, I don't have any more laptops for you, or sorry, you know, we're not doing WiFi hotspots, things like that, people were for the large part very, very understanding. Everybody was just kind of figuring out how to make things work. And I think we did an amazing job at it. And it's not just IT, it's the it's the the faculty members and the students and the people around the campus all just 00:17:00kind of said, okay, you know, what do I need to do to make this work? And we did.

GL: And then how has COVID changed the way you do your job?

MC: Yes, dramatically. I think 2020 was the was the a transformational year for Information Technology. Like I said, we had we were forced to work remote. And so we all kind of knew that remote work, remote learning, things like that were important. But they weren't necessarily highest on our priority list. Well, that got changed pretty quick. The second week of March, that was our number one priority. And I don't think we're going back. I really believe like I said earlier, I have many of my staff members that are never planning on returning to campus again. And the culture in IT, and around the country has really shifted 00:18:00to remote work first. And I think we will continue that trend, not only in our day to day, work and operations. But I think as we start looking at the future of education, the future of instruction, we're going to have to have that mindset of remote first, kind of like we had with the switch to mobile devices when we're doing like web development and stuff. It used to be used to have everything on, you plan on your end users being on desktop computers. Now you plan on all your end users being on a phone, and they might happen to be on a desktop, right? And I think we're going to need to adjust the way we view education and instruction to that mindset.

GL: Have you had to have any hard conversations with instructors who are I would 00:19:00say like they're luddites? And I mean, yeah, I know some of them myself.

MC: Yeah. Um, I don't spend a lot of time talking one on one of the faculty. I think of our folks like Brian Ledwell, who spends, you know, that's his job. He does that very, very well. And I don't know that, you know, everybody's different. There's a million different personalities, right you from your work, you know that. And so there's always going to be curmudgeons and luddites. And but then there's also people that are just genuinely curious and they want to see what's next. And they want to be part of what's next. And I think I'm lucky enough that that's where I get the focus, I get to focus on okay, what are we going to be doing in five years? And what do we need to do today to be ready for five years from now?

GL: What do you see as your primary, you know, prime directive, I guess for for 00:20:00your department? Is this is the same pre-COVID as it is post COVID? Or we move toward a post COVID World.

MC: Yeah, I think, you know, obviously, our focus has changed with COVID. And the way we operate is different with COVID. But I think our mission and our and our goals are largely the same, which is, of course, be a resource for the university, a strategic resource for a university. And like I said, it's, we need to be the ones that are looking ahead. In, you know, what are we doing in five years? And what are we doing in 10 years? And, you know, what are we seeing for trends, and then start building out projects and making requests to start getting a stage so that when we have that faculty member that says, hey, you know, what, I really want to implement, or I really want to use augmented 00:21:00reality in my classroom, that we have a solution for them, or at least we're familiar with it enough that when they come to us, we know what they're talking about. And we know what we're going to need to do to get there.

GL: I want to get back to the fact that many of your employees are working remotely, do you get any pushback from other departments say, hey, we need you guys on campus, we need, you know, bodies on the seat. So we can see that they're actually doing work?

MC: No, usually not very much. Because we do have such a, such a great user support team, that those are the people who are usually working with the people around campus anyways. And so they see them and when they're, when there's problems, they're the ones that are showing up and doing face to face work with them and helping them out. The people who are working remotely are typically the people that wouldn't be seen anyways. So I have not received a lot of pushback 00:22:00from that.

GL: What would you say, what are you most proud of as far as your COVID response for your for you and your team?

MC: I think I think what I'm most proud about is the attitude to which people responded to it on my team. And we had some really great out of the box thinking. And going back to Brian Ledwell and our document cameras, Brian actually had to go to Lowe's and buy PVC pipe. And he built, you know, stands for people to use their cell phones as document cameras, when we couldn't get actual document cameras. And it's that kind of thinking in that kind of, okay, what you know, what are we going to do to make this work? You know, this isn't the ideal solution. But it's what we can do today, and we're going to make it work. And it was that attitude, and the creativity and the dedication that 00:23:00really pulled us through, we would never have been able to, to work to be able to go fully online without those people, you know, putting a shoulder to the wheel and just pushing and making it work.

GL: How many of those stands to he actually make?

MC: Oh, I don't remember anymore. It's quite a few I want to say something like 30 or something like that. It was it was it was cool. He was sending me pictures. And he built these jigs that, you know, said he could saw all the pieces up and then they had like an assembly party. And yeah, it was it was wild, it was pretty cool. You know, another thing I want, I want to make sure that we talk about too is that summer of 2020. We had a lot of staff that were furloughed, I was trying to find the word we had, you know, quite a significant number of people that were furloughed. That was very, very difficult for both 00:24:00Victor Alatorre, CTO and myself, because we were approached by you know campus leadership and said, we need to get X number of people. You know, we need to save this amount of money. And so we need to figure out who we're going to furlough who's our non-essential folks, and give them that bad news. And that was very, very challenging for us. And it's something that we definitely did not take lightly. Because we know it's like, it's people's livelihoods and people take, like I said, we have this great team who's who really loves their job and they're dedicated to the campus dedicated to university. And it was really tough for us to say, you know, we need let you go for a couple months.

GL: And that was because of the, you know, we had a shortfall of funds.

00:25:00

MC: Huge. Yeah, big shortfall and we weren't on campus. And so when we start talking about, you know, classroom support and user support, there are no classrooms. You know, there's nobody here to support. And so what are you going to do? And but it's so it's one of those things where we understood and we get, we got the reasons why and it, you know, it kind of made sense. But it still was really challenging. And what was really impressive to me was those people came back. And I think, you know, there were some people that that kind of had some hard feelings about it, which I totally understood. But for the most part, they came back and we're like, let's do this again, let's get right back on it. And again, it's that the attitude that the people are coming with, and their love for the campus and their belief in what we do.

GL: How many people from your department were placed on furlough?

00:26:00

MC: I knew, you were gonna ask me that as my next question. I don't remember the number anymore.

GL: While you're thinking, everybody had we all had to, I think that everybody had to have some sort of cut.

MC: Yeah.

GL: And including you.

MC: Yep. I want to say like 10 people, but don't you know, don't hold me to that.

GL: Sure. The, during from the from March till the end of 2020, were you on campus? Or did you work remotely?

MC: I was largely remote, there were some times I needed to be on campus, one of the one of the big projects we had started before COVID was our multi factor authentication. And so during this time, I was handing out multi factor fobs to 00:27:00people who were unable to use their mobile devices. And so I would come onto campus and help distribute fobs, things like that.

GL: And are you back on campus in person or are you still working remote?

MC: I'm largely remote. You know, most of my day is spent on meetings, and I just used just use teams for that. Every once in a while I still come on campus, check things out, I still need to get my mail. And every once in a while I'll have like a computer hardware issue or something like that. And I'll bring my stuff in, but I'm probably on campus, maybe eight hours a week.

GL: And how, how close to normal, are we? I mean, are we even there? That normal?

MC: I don't even know what normal means anymore, or normal used to look like anymore. You know, and I don't think so I think we have a long way to go. I 00:28:00mean, we're sitting across this table, six feet apart from each other. Right? And you got your mask on. And that's not normal. I mean, I hope it doesn't ever become normal. I worry that it might become normal. But I'm really hoping it doesn't.

GL: How are you and your staff doing morale wise?

MC: I think in general, we struggle a lot. I don't know how much it's because of COVID. I think it's mostly just because I think we are still understaffed. And we're dealing with a lot of projects that are given to us that are that are outside of our control that are mandated that we don't necessarily agree with or want to do sometimes. You know, there's been information security has been a huge thing over the last even like five years. And there's been a series of 00:29:00policies handed down from UW system that, that have changed the way we manage workstations and users and you know, password policies and things like that. And they've been challenging. They've created unique political and user challenges, technical challenges sometimes and it wears on it wears on team.

GL: And what has you know, working and living in a time COVID taught you about yourself?

MC: That's a that's a great question. Um, well, it's been the last few years for me. I'm going to kind of put things on it. switch it over to a more personal level, I think right now. Right before COVID hit I was in the middle of a 00:30:00divorce. And my divorce was actually finalized on March 10, 2020. Like, the week before, right? And so right at the beginning of the pandemic, when we're home, and we're, you know, we had all these like, emergencies and things that we needed to get done. I was going through a lot of personal troubles I get, you know, and I'll say it that way. And, and so I think it helped reinforce, to me that that I'm stronger than I thought maybe I was at the time. And we're able to do a lot. And it's the people that we surround ourselves with that allow us to do that. And, again, I am so lucky to have the team that I have and the people 00:31:00that actually care so much about their jobs, and about the people that they're serving. And, yeah.

GL: Who did you work most close closely with, during this time?

MC: On the EOC team, or in general? Well, I, I work side by side with Victor Alatorre, our CTO, you know, every day we go through all of our operational and strategic problems and planning. So he's definitely the person I work closest with during that time. When we start talking about what we need to do, from the emergency management side, I worked really closely with Kim and Kurt, to figure out what we needed. One of the things I think, that I'm personally most proud of, is how we helped with the testing centers and the vaccination clinics, we actually, you know, went in there, we helped set up the workstations, the 00:32:00laptops and printers and the wireless networks. And were able to make that make that work. And then I wrote a lot of the, the forms and the data tracking that we use for tracking the vaccinations and testing and ensuring compliance with those rules.

GL: God forbid that we have another COVID-19 coming our way kind of thing. But well, let's go back this way.

MC: Yeah.

GL: If you what, what you know now, what, what did you wish you knew now know now that you did back in March of 2020?

MC: Hmm.

GL: Is there anything you would have done differently?

MC: No, I really don't think so. I think one of the things that we really had going for us was, over the course of the last 10 years, a lot of the lot of the 00:33:00tools that we're using are all cloud based. You know, we move to Office 365, for email, and we've got canvas, and we've got all these things that are that are all hosted out in the cloud. So when it was time for us to work remotely or in get instructors setup remotely, a lot of those tools were already there, there wasn't anything special that we needed to do for that it was mostly just getting them the right hardware, getting on the networking and things like that. So I don't know that I would really have done anything differently than the way we did it. I think the team really gelled and made it happen.

GL: Is there anything that you'd like to add that we haven't touched on?

MC: No, I don't think so.

GL: All right. Well, thank you for sharing your stories with us. We appreciate 00:34:00your contribution to the Campus COVID Stories at UW-Oshkosh.

MC: Thank you.