Keith Cronk – Harding University
Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, has been in operation since 1924. With remote campus locations in North Little Rock, and Memphis, Harding is a private Christian liberal arts and sciences institution and home to approximately 6,000 students. Harding is a big believer in the importance of global education and is widely recognized for its international programs. From London to Athens, Florence to Paris, Chile to Australia and Africa, Harding students are learning and connecting with the campus and digital classrooms all over the world.
It takes major information technology (IT) infrastructure and the right software, programs and platforms in place to connect this diverse institution. As chief information officer and vice president of information systems and technology, Keith Cronk, heads up this hefty job at Harding along with 60 professionals in the school’s IT department.
From Down Under
An Australia-native, Cronk began his career in the military and federal government. “Through this line of work I got into IT and I started working as a university professor, teaching IT and business classes at the University of Southern Queensland,” he recounts.
Cronk planned to take some sabbatical leave and he was drawn to Harding. “I planned to come for a year — well needless to say, my wife and I had a pretty fun year and we decided to stay,” says Cronk. “At the time, the president of Harding sought a CIO position and I was teaching international business.”
Cronk eventually transitioned to CIO in 2000 and his wife is now the chair of Harding’s information systems department. They have both been at Harding for 16 years.
Since Cronk stepped into his role as CIO he has helped bolster Harding’s ability to support its 6,000 students through leading IT solutions and infrastructure improvements. “I think one of the things that sets us apart now is that we offer a solid portfolio of tech solutions,” says Cronk.
Recently, Cronk and his team worked with Ruckus Equipment to install more than 800 access points throughout Harding’s residence halls. The IT staff has also helped facilitate the process of online registration — something that used to be a major tech nightmare with so many glitches in the previous Campus Portal system.
“When registration time came with the old system and 6,000 students were trying to get into the system at once, it was a mess — the system would lock up and freeze,” says Cronk. “We set out to write our own registration process in our own portal, which is pretty unheard of for a school to do. It was developed in 2009 and we’ve been using it ever since. Registration is broken down by class and students can go in and set up their schedule beforehand; they hit a button and they’re registered.”
Cronk says this is a huge help when it comes time for international students to register online. “We have students all over the world and they can all log in and register at the same time,” he says.
Anyone who has been through higher education knows the course selection process is much more than picking and choosing what sounds interesting. There are degree requirements that need to be met and navigating this online isn’t always easy. “We’re installing a new advising system, which will allow for students to more easily interact with their advisory staff and the online course selection system. The goal is to improve the ability to compare and contrast major course requirements with more data,” says Cronk.
Another major project in the last several years has been launching a brand-new website. “We contacted a firm out of Boston called iFactory to help us redesign our website. We consulted with students, faculty and staff via a blog to give our community weekly updates and solicit feedback,” says Cronk. “There’s no magic formula but staying in contact with your community is the best way to connect and to get projects to work out. It’s about keeping the lines of communication open.”
Data-based decision making
Universities across the country are being held more accountable for data-driven decision making, according to Cronk. “This is going to be central to what we’re doing moving forward,” says Cronk.
Cronk says his team is looking for new ways to collect data, whether that’s through dashboard programs or student forums, to help Harding make better business decisions, especially on the admissions side. “We’re starting to explore and ask questions like ‘Where do our students come from?’” he says. “This is going to help us focus our recruiting. We want to know what programs spark a student’s attention so that we can help admissions focus their efforts. We’re looking at things like financial aid dashboards, student debt and more and refining it so we can help students and our staff.”
Cronk says Harding’s IT department also holds a series of informational lunches throughout the year. “This gives our faculty and staff the opportunity to come and voice their opinions and concerns about tech services,” he says. “If we know what they need, we can work toward it.”
By keeping communication open and making improvements so Harding University can collect more data for informed decision making, Keith Cronk and the IT department can be sure they’re not just rolling out new tech services, but solutions that make sense for the institution.