Rob Lowden had quite a career even before stepping into his latest role as vice president for IT and CIO at IU. But when asked what he considers his greatest achievement so far, his answer isn’t about his own success.
“I’m most proud of my ability to play a part in developing the careers of the people who work for me, and they’ve gone on to great things,” Lowden said, who came back to OVPIT as CIO after about 18 months as the IU School of Medicine’s first-ever CIO. “Especially some of the women that I’ve worked with. When I came into IT, to say that it was a male-dominated industry was an understatement. I’m very proud that when I was associate vice president of Enterprise Systems, 50 percent or more of my leadership team was not that stereotypical past.”
Shipshape start to adulthood
Lowden learned the value of workplace diversity as a young man in the Navy, where all five of his commanding officers happened to be women. He enlisted soon after the Persian Gulf War began, determined to get to the action and do his part even though he was attending Rockford University (then known as Rockford College) on a leadership scholarship and playing on the soccer team. Much to his parents’ dismay, he put his education on hold and began a five-year journey as a U.S. Navy sailor. (Spoiler alert: He makes it back to education.)
When talking with Lowden, you get the sense that his time in the service was formative, fun, and life changing. His first goal was to become a Navy SEAL, but early on he realized he was not fully prepared for the rigors of that calling and he was eventually handpicked to become a member of the Navy Ceremonial Guard, the official honor guard of the U.S. Navy. In that capacity, he lived in Washington, D.C., and performed his duties at ceremonies such as President George H. W. Bush’s farewell to the troops and Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration.
After two years of pomp and circumstance, Lowden’s next Navy experience was several months of training to become a search and rescue swimmer. Soon after, he made his way to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. All told, Lowden has been to 50 countries and four of seven continents. “I had a great time and incredible experience in the Navy,” he said. “I even considered making it a career. But it had become very clear to me—from my military experience and traveling around the world—that education is the most important thing that I could be a part of. Not to mention, I promised my parents, especially my father, that I would finish my college degree.”
A pivotal dorm-floor connection
The Marion, Ind., native accepted his honorable discharge and headed back home again to the Hoosier state. He enrolled at IUPUI to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer technology. It had been a minute since he was a college student, and Lowden found that he had to start over earning credits. “It's amazing how calculus becomes a foreign language when you haven't done academic math in 10 years,” he said, laughing.
How he made his way to IU’s tech organization is a funny story, with a special UITS guest star.
Lured by the prospect of free room and board as a resident assistant in Ball Residence Hall, IUPUI’s only dorm at the time, Lowden was in charge of the freshmen men’s floor. “I had a fresh-out-of-high-school, 18-year-old young man named Dave Hancock on my floor,” he recalled. (Hancock is currently director of advanced cyberinfrastructure for UITS Research Technologies.)
“Dave was part of a group of us who liked to build computers from parts for fun,” he said. “He and some of the others used to come to me with questions frequently. About halfway through the semester, Dave didn't ask so many questions, and I ended up asking him questions about IUPUI technology—and he always knew the answers.” Turns out, Hancock had a job at the UITS Support Center and answered phone calls about tech during his shifts.
“He asked me if I wanted a job there, and I said ‘yes, please,’” Lowden said. He was on his way.
Oncourse guy to director to AVP to CIO
A few months on the support desk, and he was tapped to help with a new project called Oncourse. His boss had some sage advice.
“He told me, ‘it'll either be a good thing or a really bad thing because no matter what, you'll always be known as the Oncourse guy. And if Oncourse works out well, that'll be a good thing. If Oncourse works out pretty badly, well, you'll be the Oncourse guy,’” he said. He stepped into the role, wrote his own job description, and started working with the development team to deploy the Oncourse app. As IU’s first learning management system, Oncourse lasted well over 10 years. Being known as “the Oncourse guy” ended up being a good thing for Lowden.
“Within very short order, I was introduced to this really young, energetic, ambitious man named Brad Wheeler,” Lowden said. (He succeeded Wheeler as VP for IT and CIO.) With a charge from IU President Michael McRobbie to assess the LMS landscape and put forth a path for IU, Lowden and Wheeler recommended a new model: to build their own, with partners. The Sakai Project was born. Lowden managed the functional design team of the project, which began as a $6.8 million open-source LMS and was used by hundreds of institutions around the globe.
Leaders at every level
He moved up the ranks in UITS, from manager of course management systems to director of enterprise systems infrastructure, and finally to associate vice president for enterprise systems. In January 2019, he was tapped to join the IU School of Medicine as its executive associate dean and CIO.
Lowden’s been leading successful teams for years, so what’s his secret? “Hire great talent and get out of their way,” he said. “I think everybody is a leader, and it's critically important that they influence the outcomes they want to accomplish.”
At an IT organization as large and diverse as IU’s, leaders at every level are what make the wheels turn together—not fall off. “I have always embraced the notion that it's our job to make the technology an enabler, not an obstacle,” Lowden said. “When we get too involved in our world of technology, we often lose sight of the fact that there's 100,000+ folks out here whose careers are not technology. They really just want to do their job, publish their findings, or complete their degree. We're here to advance the mission of this institution, and that's education and research.”