When Klara Jelinkova joined Harvard as vice president and University chief information officer in September 2021, the University was transitioning back to in-person activities after nearly 18 months of virtual teaching, learning, and working. The Gazette sat down with her to speak about lessons learned from the unprecedented shift online, the growing threat of cybercrime, and highlights from her first year at Harvard.
GAZETTE: You’re coming to the end of your first academic year at Harvard. What have been some highlights for you?
JELINKOVA: As a new person coming to Harvard from outside, it’s been amazing to experience the overall sense of welcome. Harvard pays a remarkable amount of attention to cultivating a sense of belonging. The spirit of intellectual inquiry here — an interest in the greater world and how things are changing — is wonderful and very rewarding to be a part of.
GAZETTE: Looking to your background, both as someone from the Czech Republic and someone who has been a key leader at other academic institutions, how has that influenced your outlook on education and your priorities here at Harvard?
JELINKOVA: Growing up in the Czech Republic, my mom was a technology pioneer. She had a Ph.D. in mathematics and a postdoc, and she taught me programming. At that time, it was with a ginormous Russian mainframe that would probably fill one floor of the Smith Center — I don’t think I’m exaggerating.
When I was at UW Madison I worked for Annie Stunden, one of the first female CIOs. I distinctly remember seeing a picture of her at an IBM summit in the early ’60s. The picture of the attendees was — I’m not joking — 50 men in suits and then her, right in the middle in a white mini dress, just standing there saying, “I’m here.” We now have far more women in technology, even though it’s still a battle, but we are standing on the shoulders of people like her that came before us, the women that went into this field back when it was really dominated by men.
These experiences, as a woman in technology and coming to this country as a foreigner, have made me think differently about inclusion and the cultural assumptions that we all come to the table with. I think quite a bit about what an inclusive workplace should look like, and how welcoming we can be to people coming from different backgrounds and points of view.
GAZETTE: There’s been a global rise in cybercrime over the past few years targeting both individuals and large institutions. What are some of your priorities in this area as University CIO? And how can members of our community reduce their own level of risk?
JELINKOVA: In my early career, the internet was very small and very open. Now it’s a global phenomenon; there are more devices connected to the internet than there are people in some countries. One thing that’s interesting to think about is where do we want to be on the spectrum from being completely open to being completely closed and locked down?
It’s an important question for a university because of our commitment to the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and to welcoming people from external communities.
That means that we all — each one of us — take on greater responsibility for security than you may have if you were working in a commercial environment. In a digital environment like ours, it’s important that when people see something that they think is not quite right, that they say something.
At HUIT, we’re putting a renewed emphasis on education and training around security and privacy, not just on how to protect Harvard’s data but also our personal data. We want the community to have the tools and knowledge that they need to stay safe online, to protect things like their Social Security numbers, tax documents, all the things that that are top of mind for many people. We just hired Michael Tran Duff as chief information security and data privacy officer to help lead on this.
GAZETTE: The pandemic prompted a shift toward remote teaching, learning, and working. Even as we’ve resumed in-person activities, what lessons have we learned that will inform the future of education and the classroom experience?
JELINKOVA: I wasn’t here when the pandemic started, so I can’t take credit for this, but we should really celebrate Harvard’s digital pivot in 2020. The magnitude of the change that was embraced by the community — it’s just astonishing. Now, as we think about what’s next, it’s a question of how much of these technologies do we retain, in what capacity, and how is it going to inform our work in the future, especially in the classroom.
The report from the Future of Teaching and Learning Task Force has some really amazing recommendations on this, including one that recommends development of a new learning experience platform to address the elements of education that we lost when we went remote, like the serendipitous learning and community-building that makes colleges such special places.
The other piece that I think is interesting is the issue of efficiency versus effectiveness. We have gotten incredibly addicted to being efficient in our online work. For example, scheduling 30-minute meetings back-to-back-to-back: That certainly is efficient, but does it make us effective? Are we losing something in that? I think so, and I think that’s a tradeoff that will be interesting to watch. Technology is just one component of that, and I don’t have the solution, but I think we will figure it out together.
GAZETTE: Looking to the future, what are some things you’re looking forward to?
JELINKOVA: I’m really looking forward to thinking more about how we support faculty and student research. We’re expanding the University Research Computing and Data Office to help our community better navigate resources for researchers across Harvard Schools and units. That could be resources on campus, regional resources such as the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, or even national and cloud resources.
In my role as FAS CIO, we’re doing a comprehensive landscape study to look at how technology can help the FAS’ needs moving forward. And I’m excited to work with VPAL and the Schools on the findings from the Future of Teaching and Learning report.