The University of St. Thomas recently promoted one of its own to chief information officer from the interim CIO role assumed six months prior. Moreover, the appointee is a woman. Karen Julian ’94, ’98 MBA has risen through the ranks since the first tech job she accepted over 30 years ago while a student at the largest private university in Minnesota.
Like most tech positions across industries, few are held by women. A fall 2022 report from Women Business Collaborative reveals that 27% of CIOs at Fortune 500 companies are women. When examining all businesses, studies show there are fewer in the CIO or chief technology officer (CTO) position.
While women make up 47% of all employed adults in the U.S., as of 2022, a March article in CIO magazine reports women earned only 18% of computer science degrees at the bachelor level in 2021, having peaked at 37% in 1984, according to Zippia.
Julian, who was raised in Lakeville, was ahead of her time. When she first set foot on the St. Thomas campus in 1989 as a first-generation college student, she knew she wanted to pursue a career that incorporated her interests in business, finance and technology. So, she majored in business with a concentration in finance, and minored in quantitative methods and computer science. In her junior year she secured a job as a computer programmer in the Financial Aid Office.
“There were very few of us,” she said about the number of student workers and full-time staffers in computer programming roles at the university at that time.
Becoming CIO at a university, let alone at St. Thomas, was not on Julian’s mind in December 1994 when she attained her bachelor’s degree.
“People going into technology don't necessarily do so because they want to be leaders, especially back then,” she said. But with tech teams, she said, "as a department grows, they take a technology person and put them in charge of the other technology people and before you know it, you’re a manager.”
That management experience she obtained as an undergraduate student worker led her to immediately enroll in graduate school at St. Thomas, beginning the MBA program in February 1995.
She held onto campus information technology (IT) and computer programming jobs throughout her graduate studies at the Opus College of Business.
“The MBA program came at a time when I started managing people and it was really helpful,” she said. “The exposure to management and leadership styles was one aspect I was able to apply the most at the job I had at St. Thomas at the time. I was constantly using real-world examples on school projects to solve a work problem.”
During her time in graduate school, she said “enrollment management became a thing,” and that’s when the admissions and financial aid teams joined to become one unit. The technology and operations team soon expanded to a full technology team. Julian joined ITS in 2017. She further developed and refined on-the-job technology skills. “It continued to progress,” she said, of both her skills and the industry.
In the early 1990s, personal computing was still a fairly young industry. The nascent World Wide Web was on the cusp of helping us coin phrases such as “information superhighway,” while also fueling the explosion of the chief information officer role.
The majority of CIOs at universities are men, just as is the case across corporate America. In 1984, there were fewer than 20 CIO positions in higher education across the U.S. By 2017, however, 68% of U.S. higher education institutions had a CIO or related role, according to research from Educause Review, an industry publication dedicated to covering IT as it relates to university life. It was about that time, when becoming CIO one day made it to Julian’s bucket list even though few women held the position across any industry.
In 2017, St. Thomas hired Julian’s predecessor, Ed Clark, as vice president for Innovation and Technology Services (ITS), chief innovation officer and chief digital officer. Clark, who previously held the CIO role at Minnesota State University, Mankato, was the first person of color to assume the CIO position at St. Thomas – at a time when across the country Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in the field and in the top role.
In a fall 2022 notice that Clark would be leaving the university to become CIO at California State University, with 23 campuses, St. Thomas’ Executive Vice President and Provost Eddy Rojas announced “in Clark’s place, Karen Julian – a 30-year St. Thomas technology veteran who has led the university’s technical and data teams through numerous high-profile projects – has been appointed interim chief information officer.”
For the previous four years, Julian had served as associate vice president and chief data officer for the Enterprise Data and Services department within ITS.
“Karen has brought so much to St. Thomas over the years, and her career path on the way to this promotion has made her an exemplary leader,” Rojas said in a statement to the community announcing Julian’s promotion to the permanent position.
“Most statistics show that as little as 20% of information technology leaders are women,” he added. “St. Thomas is leading the way and Karen’s promotion is one to be celebrated. I’m so excited to have Karen join what is already a very diverse and talented university leadership team!”
And Julian is happy to serve in the top position. “I was very honored to be asked to the interim role and now to be appointed as CIO,” she said. “Technology is a strategic partner in absolutely everything that we're doing as a university and I care about the university's success, and I have a tremendous amount of care for the people here, and how hard they work. I am happy to be here to support them and to help them be successful.”
Julian’s journey from a student living in the John Paul II Residence Hall on campus to the top ranks of the university, is one to be celebrated.
Retention is a top priority for every employer and every university, including for the University of St. Thomas. In fact, one of the ongoing priorities written in the St. Thomas 2025 strategic plan says, “We will retain, attract and develop top talent, ensuring that our employees experience a sense of belonging, feel valued for their contributions and can flourish.”
When the university is able to retain students and subsequently transition them into full-time employees post graduation, it is a testament that the university practices what it preaches.
“We are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion and to retention and promotion of our staff and faculty,” Chief Human Resources Officer Kathy Arnold said. “And in the case of Karen’s promotion, a student employee has grown into a university leader – a great success story!”