On Wednesday, Sree Sreenivasan, formerly the J-school’s Dean of Student Affairs, became Columbia’s first-ever Chief Digital Officer. The tech blog AllThingsD (run by two of Sree’s former students J-school alums) reported the news shortly after it was announced in emails from Prezbo and Provost Coatsworth. But just what does a Chief Digital Officer do? Sree tried to answer that question in an interview with Bwog’s chief J-school correspondent, Peter Sterne.

First off, it doesn’t mean he’ll be running CUIT. “It’s important that my job is in the academic office of the Provost,” he explained. “My job is very specifically to advise and work with him on trying to think through what we do academically.” To emphasize the point, he adds that “all the other operations [like] CUIT still go on. I’m focused on the academic side.” He’s less concerned with day-to-day operations than figuring out how Columbia can bring its world-class education into the online age. This can mean increasing the use of social media, platforms such as Courseworks, and even fully online classes. The key is to make sure that both Columbia’s academics and its brand reach the widest possible audience.

“We have such great content at the University,” he said. However, he continued, “part of what we have to all learn is, you can’t just have great content. You have to have ways of getting it in front of people to see it, whether they’re on campus or across the world.” By content, he means courses, curricula, research—the stuff of academia. Professors probably won’t appreciate their life’s work being reduced to mere “content,” but Sree isn’t trying to offend.

Just as important, he isn’t trying to radically transform Columbia into a fully online university like, say, Khan Academy. Some aspects of teaching can be improved by using online tools—think Courseworks (though it’s arguable whether that’s an improvement)—but in-person education will continue to be “the primary way in which education is delivered.” He’ll only look into ways to “enhance” and “improve” Columbia’s digital outreach while keeping intact “what Columbia has built over 250 years.” He doesn’t have any preconceived notions about what the university should do, he insisted, and most of his job will be spent listening to people in the university (including students like you!) who have ideas about how Columbia should make use of its digital resources.

Sree will remain on the J-school faculty, but as part of the promotion, Sree will be moving from the J-School—where he’s been for 20 years—to Low Library. It seems a natural evolution for Sree, who joined the J-school faculty right after graduating from J-school. For many years, he said, “I was the main digital media faculty person here at the school.” Now, though, the J-school is full of online-inclined professors and administrators, has its own institute center devoted to digital journalism, and is partnering with Stanford to create a center institute for media innovation.

For his part, Sree is excited to broaden his horizons beyond the J-school. “What was exciting for me, having spent 20 years at the Journalism school and thinking about just the J-school,” he explained, was “now to think more about the larger campus and have access to all these great minds across the university.”

If you have any suggestions about what Sree can do to help usher Columbia into the digital age, he wants to hear them. Drop him a line at ss221@columbia.edu or tweet @Sree.

Headshot via J-school