Information, Technology & Consulting

An Information-rich Career: Ellen Waite-Franzen Retires from ITS at Dartmouth

Ellen Childhood

An Oshkosh childhood: Ellen, far right, with her siblings (from left to right) Lucy, Ginnie, Bob, and Marty

Ellen college graduation

Ellen with her mother, Margaret Waite, and youngest brother, Bob, after the commencement ceremony at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 1973.

Ellen computer

At UA, Ellen co-authored  a thesaurus of library of congress subject headings relating to women. Close to deadline, her co-authors tied her to the computer.

Ellen brochure

Ellen was featured in the brochure for Loyola University Chicago’s 1990 capital campaign. Building a new library on campus was a major campaign focus.

Ellen visits Richmond

Ellen visits the University of Richmond in February, 1997, shortly before she started as VP for Information Services.

By Elizabeth Kelsey

At a recent Council on Computing meeting, Professor of Music Steve Swayne talked about the OperaX course he taught as one of Dartmouth’s edX courses, and how the experience changed the way he teaches his traditional Dartmouth opera course. Professor of Mathematics Scott Pauls described how he worked with Instructional Designer Adrienne Gauthier to transform an introductory Math course, a “Gateway course,” to improve student learning and retention.  These faculty members shared how they collaborated with specific ITS employees: “Adrienne helped me.” “Adam helped me.” “I couldn’t do it without ITS.”

It’s stories like these that Ellen Waite-Franzen, who retires June 30 after ten years as Dartmouth’s Chief Information Officer, finds most rewarding.

“The elevation of technology and information in what we do in our day-to-day life is just so important,” Ellen says. “As the ITS Chief Information Officer, I feel we need to keep thinking about the next thing we’re going to do with this information, and how we’ll improve knowledge, research, and learning.”           

The chief information officer has to think about the future, she says: “It’s not just the information, it’s also which technologies we’re going to use and how we keep moving forward.” 

Dartmouth is at a cusp where it can now join information from different data warehouses to help offices and individuals improve the way they work—possibly even improve how Dartmouth teaches and how students learn. The data warehouses that support the institution’s Advancement Division have already given those offices more accurate information that can be used to improve their processes. The Finance and Human Resources offices benefit from the technology in similar ways.

During Ellen’s tenure at Dartmouth, ITS developed many new services and improved existing ones.  Most of this work was done in collaboration with partners across the institution—campus offices, as well as individual faculty and staff.

By working closely with a faculty advisory group led by Associate Professor of Computer Science Devin Balkcom and Associate CIO Alan Cattier, Ellen supported an expanded Research Computing unit. With the hiring of Alan Cattier in 2013, client support groups, such as the instructional design team, were strengthened, and more attention has been devoted to improving Dartmouth’s classrooms.

Additionally, Ellen supported Dartmouth’s decision to join the edX platform, which introduced Dartmouth to the world of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs); she oversaw the transition from the Blackboard learning management system to Canvas; and she led the switch from the 25-year old Blitz system to Microsoft’s Office 365. 

Education

“I was just fascinated by what these computers were going to do.”

Ellen grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the third of five children. Her parents, the children of immigrants from Russia and England, hadn’t attended college, but Ellen never doubted she would. She recalls watching Saturday morning television as a kid, when commercials advertised the importance of higher education.  Her mother would walk into the room and say to Ellen and her siblings: “You are all going to college.” 

Ellen attended the University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh, where she majored in English. At first, she hadn’t known what she wanted to study. She excelled at math, but it was the seventies: Even in high school, she had been the only woman in her calculus class and her teacher never called on her. When she transitioned to college, she noticed few women in the upper level math classes.

“It just wasn’t a comfortable learning environment,” Ellen says. “I wouldn’t have said it that way when I was in college; I just would have said ‘I don’t like my math classes.’”

She always loved to read. She explored a degree in history, but since she had friends who studied English, she ended up following their lead.

“You realize when you’re studying English, it’s not just about reading; it’s about understanding and connecting ideas,” she says. “When you learn to write, you learn to make things clear to people and to really put yourself in the place of the reader rather than the person who’s writing it. I always think of that when I’m writing about technology.”

She was accepted into the University of Oregon’s graduate program for English, but because humanities departments were downsizing at that time, she didn’t know whether she would achieve her goal to become a professor of English at the end of her studies. She wanted to make sure she could support herself, so she decided to take a year or two off before deciding on whether to go to grad school. She took jobs managing a restaurant, and later, a Pier 1 Imports store. The long hours took their toll, however, and she eventually accepted a library staff position at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.

She arrived the day computer terminals were being installed. It was 1975, when libraries first started being automated. UW-Milwaukee was the first library in Wisconsin to introduce the new system.

“Some librarians were really excited by this,” Ellen says, “and some of the other librarians thought, ‘This is the end of the world. We’re going to lose our jobs. Computers are going to take over.’ I was just fascinated by what these computers were going to do, and what they ended up doing.”

Even though her position didn’t initially require her to use computers, the head of the department decided to train her how to use them. Ellen was good at the work, which at the time was being done by professional librarians. She cataloged the books, first using data that was already in the national database. Eventually, she advanced to more professional work, where she created the first catalog record of the book that would then be found and searchable in national databases.

When one of the head librarians suggested Ellen apply for a Master’s in library science, she ended up enrolling full time at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Library and Information Science while working at the library full time. She finished her studies in one year.

Career Path

“IT things kept gravitating towards me.”

Now that she’d been trained in the latest library computer technology, Ellen received many job offers. She eventually became head of Marquette University’s catalogue department before taking the same position at the University of Arizona a few years later. It was 1983, a point where technology was being centered in the library, and Arizona had an online circulation system. While there, Ellen participated in multi-library projects in which her team joined those at five other universities to catalogue old English books for the first time into what became a national database. “That took me to another level,” she says.

At Loyola University, where she became the University Librarian and then the Vice President for Academic Services, the library implemented an online catalogue.

“I’ll never forget the day we opened all the terminals to everybody on campus,” she says. “The president of Loyola sent me a message that he had come over to the library in the middle of the night —he lived right next to the library—and said, ‘I walked around the library and I looked at all these computer terminals and I’m just worried nobody is going to use these things.’”

The next day, all the seats at the computers were full. It was a huge success that led Ellen’s team to embrace the next phase of library automation—online article indexes. At Loyola, the academic technologies group was part of computer services. The library collaborated with them, and with a faculty support group that focused on instructional design. Ultimately, that group reported to Ellen, as did institutional research, the registrar, the museum, and even the daycare center. She eventually became the key stakeholder for the student information system.

“IT things kept gravitating towards me, and I kept picking it up and loving it,” she says.

By the time she went on to her next position as Vice President for Information Services at Richmond, she managed both the libraries and IT. She went on to be become Vice President for Information Technology at Brown University, and then arrived as the Vice President of IT and CIO at Dartmouth in 2006.

Leadership

“One big organic organization.”

According to Ellen, the most challenging aspect of being a CIO is that everybody thinks they know about technology, without appreciating the complexity of implementing it.

“We have technology at our fingertips all the time, so many people ask why isn’t Dartmouth doing this, or doing that,” she says. She compares Dartmouth to a city, rather than a business, when it comes to technology support: “It’s students living here, eating here. It’s all the buildings, the utility systems, security —everything we have in a city, we have here.”

ITS is a highly competent organization that doesn’t want people to be afraid to perform because they’ll get disciplined for making a mistake. When mistakes do happen, sometimes it’s the fault of ITS, a vendor, or a user. So, Ellen’s philosophy for running the organization?

“Stay calm.”

And when plans go awry: “Let’s get through this, let’s figure out how it’s not going to happen again, how we’re going to keep moving forward,” she says. “I think that’s one of the things that a leader in a technology organization must believe because there are so many things that can break at so many different levels.”

She recalls a huge systems outage that occurred about six years ago. The infrastructure, network, and systems groups met to figure out what went wrong. When Ellen walked into the room, she sensed everyone was afraid, but she just sat down and started talking to them, and asked them what was going on.

“You could just see the pressure in the room going down,” she says. The staff realized she wasn’t there to yell at them. She had shown up to help them think through how to address the situation, and how they would communicate about it.

Ellen says her proudest accomplishment at ITS is that all its teams are much stronger: “We now have a solid infrastructure, we are able to implement new services, we are experimenting with new technologies, and we have a more collaborative organization.”   

“I could go through every single team and name one accomplishment I’m really proud of for each one of them,” she says. “There are so many things that they have done in the past 10 years: it’s not just me who’s done this work, it’s the leaders, the managers, and the staff. It’s all one big organic organization that I get to be head of.”

After Dartmouth

 “A lot of information to share.”

Ellen says she’s still not entirely sure how she’ll spend her time after retirement. She has an artistic side, which she hasn’t had the chance to express in many years. Sewing tops her list of plans.

 “I used to make all of my own  clothes, and I stopped doing that when I went to Loyola,” she says. “I actually look forward to creating my own clothes again. That’s so much fun. It’s like building something.”

She’s also always wanted to write and she may start a blog, although she’s not yet sure of the topic. And photography is another strong interest that she has not pursued seriously for years.  “I used to work in a darkroom; now, I will be in the digital darkroom.” 

She does not want to cut her ties with higher-ed completely, either, and considers doing some consulting. “It’s easier to go in and give people good advice and then leave them to actually have to implement it,” she says with a laugh. “I think I’ve had a lot of experience to share with different kinds of colleges and universities.”

Many positive changes have occurred in Dartmouth’s technology environment during Ellen’s tenure, from the infrastructure on up. The institution no longer worries about major outages. Research Computing is up and running. A high-performance computing cluster supports the data-intensive work of research faculty across Dartmouth. ITS has improved business systems at Dartmouth, not to mention the institution’s web presence and how it supports faculty and academic offices.

When asked about her favorite memory these past ten years, Ellen mentions the recent Council on Computing meeting—her last. It was probably the best meeting ever, she says.

“It highlighted all this work we’ve done with these two faculty members. It’s work that we do with other faculty members, but it was so in our face, it was great. These two guys were really great about talking about what they’ve done, and what they’ve learned, and how it’s moving forward and its impact: Technology is impacting the faculty in how they teach and it’s impacting the students and how they’re learning. It was really powerful.”

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