Q&A: Why one university brought data strategy into the cabinet

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Q&A: Why one university brought data strategy into the cabinet

Featuring Jason Browning, Executive Director of Institutional Effectiveness at Dixie State University

During a recent webinar for EDUCAUSE, Jason and I polled our audience of IT leaders to ask about their greatest obstacle to improving the success of data initiatives at their institutions. Over two thirds pointed to cultural issues, with lack of campus buy-in and poor leadership investment and data governance quarrels at the top of the list.

Out of 35 IT leaders surveyed:
43% shared that lack of campus buy-in and poor leadership investment was a top challenge to data initiatives 
24% shared that data governance quarrels and campus data hoarding was a top challenge
19% Human resource constraints
8% Budget constraints
6% Other

It’s not surprising to see a tension emerging between people and progress. But what role should leadership play in solving this tension and paving the way for better data strategy?

At Dixie State University, Jason Browning serves as the Executive Director of Institutional Effectiveness (IE), and, like over 80% of individuals holding that title, he’s the first one at his institution. From his position on the President’s Cabinet, I’ve watched him push the institution’s data strategy forward through organizational reshuffling and deepening campus partnerships. In this post, I ask Jason to share more about Dixie State’s pathway to IE and how elevating data initiatives is paying dividends through their analytics efforts.

82%

of Vice Presidents of IE are the first at their institution to hold that title, according to the Directory of Higher Education
of Vice Presidents of IE are the first at their institution to hold that title, according to the Directory of Higher Education

Danielle Yardy: I mentioned you’re the first to hold a Cabinet-level position supporting Dixie State’s data strategies—how did the institution get to the point that this needed to be the path forward?

Jason Browning: Like many traditional institutional research offices, DSU focused primarily on IPEDS and other federal and state reporting obligations. It was difficult to repurpose these compliance reports for more operational or strategic purposes. As the higher education landscape continues to shift and evolve, it became clear to our President that in order to become a more data-informed institution, the focus needed to shift from this traditional institutional research (IR) to an institutional effectiveness orientation.

Lengthy delays and missed opportunities urge a new approach at DSU

Data on simple metrics like enrollment by major took up to 13 months to access

IR was entirely focused on IPEDS reporting, with no ability to conduct assessment

In one instance, these severe limitations meant the university president presented incorrect data to the state legislature

DY: Given everything that Dixie State was looking to achieve, what made you a good fit? Where were you coming from, and what were you hoping to bring to the institution’s data strategy?

It was critically important to me that data shift from an esoteric, compliance-related concern into a very real and relevant driver of decision-making and strategy development

JB: I’ve lived three careers: I started in banking and finance, before moving into higher education analytics and technology consulting, and ultimately into campus leadership roles in institutional research and effectiveness. The insight gained from each of these broad roles has helped to inform my vision for a data-informed campus. Ultimately, I wanted to provide rapid democratized access to relevant data and to infuse data into many of the strategic conversations happening around campus. It was critically important to me that data shift from an esoteric, compliance-related concern into a very real and relevant driver of decision-making and strategy development at DSU.

DY: You’ve been in-seat for almost a year now. What has being on the President’s Cabinet meant in terms of supporting you in the work you’re doing? What have you been able to achieve, and has the elevation of the position helped with that?

In the hierarchical world of higher education, sufficient executive authority and strategic leadership is integral to success.

JB: In the hierarchical world of higher education, sufficient executive authority and strategic leadership is integral to success. Being positioned at the executive level signals to the institution the strategic priority of institutional effectiveness while reducing the perception of internal politics. Sitting at the Cabinet level also affords me an awareness of the entire infrastructure, as well as the strategic plans and goals of the institution, including initiatives, obstacles, and intentions. With this broader view, I am able move away from the established ad hoc request model and instead redirect efforts in my office to deploy data and information solutions that will help inform many campus constituencies.

DY: What would you say are some of the biggest achievements around data from that time—both for your IE organization, and for Dixie State overall?

JB: Much of my focus for the first year has been on standardizing data and introducing the idea of data governance to campus. We have used the Education Data Hub (EDH) from EAB to develop a normalized data model that ingests a variety of data from key sources (including our Banner student information system, the Canvas learning management system, and others). EDH also allows my office to maintain control over custom variables and field definitions. We have also deployed business intelligence tools that source data directly from EDH and allow us to communicate results broadly—and consistently—to the campus community. I spend a good deal of my time nurturing relationships across campus and participating in as many conversations with decision-makers as I can.

An important part of my role over the past year has been to help educate people on what data is available and how it can be used to make more effective decisions.

DY: As you look back on what you’ve done and how that’s set you up to keep making progress moving forward, what’s on the horizon for you? What’s next for Dixie State’s data strategy and transformation?

JB: I am fortunate to have a key member of my team solely focused on the development of a data governance program. We recently introduced a new institutional policy that defines data governance and introduces a data governance framework. This is the first in a series of policies that will help provide the structure and support needed to ensure that institutional data is managed and used as a strategic University asset. This initiative will run parallel to our continued work to deliver dashboards and visualizations using our campus data sources.

Over the next several months, we will move from census date-based reporting, which worked when data was primarily for compliance purposes, to point-in-time reporting that will allow for both historical examination and real-time analysis of data to reveal important campus trends. To help achieve these objectives, I will be hiring additional staff that focus solely on modeling and data visualization.

Everyone has a role in elevating data

Dixie State University is on the path to true data democratization. But whether your institution has made the leap to institution-wide analytics oversight at the cabinet level or not, individual leaders should all play a role in elevating data concerns. Leaders from enrollment to advancement, and across student and academic affairs, all benefit from improved data quality and access.

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