Blog: Idea Exchange
Information as Transformation: Telling the Story of Educational Excellence
Information as transformation—it’s a powerful idea that Digital Measures by Watermark president Matt Bartel explored in conversation with James Anderson, Chancellor, Fayetteville State University (FSU), and Laurens Smith, Interim Provost, Utah State University (USU), at the American Council on Education (ACE) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. in 2017. From educational excellence to institutional transformation, data and reporting are key. Here’s a recap of the conversation.
James Anderson joined FSU as chancellor with a commitment to implement evidence-based decision making and outcomes assessment. To accomplish this, Anderson worked in concert with faculty to develop metrics, as well as working with metrics required by the University of North Carolina (UNC) system. But once they had decided on the metrics, they needed to codify them so they could be used not only for faculty self-evaluation and faculty credentialing for Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accreditation but also for evaluating department chairs and deans. That’s where Activity Insight came in, collecting the needed data and customizing the reporting required to measure FSU’s metrics.
At FSU, departments have a major incentive to improve their metrics—additional dollars. Anderson raises funds each year which are awarded to high-performing departments—and “high performing” isn’t subjective, or given to the most persuasive pitch by a department chair—funds are awarded based on the measurable metrics agreed on by the faculty senate. “The metrics bring fairness to the process,” Anderson said. The metrics also provide a framework for approaching a department chair. “Here’s where your faculty is scoring low in this area. Can you talk with us about how we can help you improve this area?”
The Hard Copy Era Is Over
Laurens Smith has been with USU for 11 years, serving in the provost’s office. The Jon M. Huntsman School of Business led USU’s efforts for better reporting in order to meet the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation standards, and the university as a whole saw the value, Smith shared. “We felt the days of hard copy or paperwork when it came to faculty evaluation were behind us,” he said. Now, USU uses Digital Measures by Watermark for annual reviews and accreditation reporting, and for reporting on its mission as a land-grant research university, especially the activities of its Extension and Agricultural Experiment Station.
In its first phase of faculty activity reporting, USU focused on making it easy to collect faculty productivity, teaching, research and service. Now in its second phase, USU drills into data, providing the granular snapshots that faculty, department chairs, deans and central administration can use to see what’s happening with faculty activity. It also uses Activity Insight data for visualizations created to provide insight to various USU stakeholders.
USU now does faculty annual reviews exclusively with Digital Measures. “Faculty know when it comes time for reviews, if it’s not in Digital Measures, you didn’t do it,” Smith said.
Faculty Embrace Metrics
When asked how faculty have responded to data-driven decision making, Anderson shared that one of the early concerns came from the arts and liberal arts disciplines, because they felt hard sciences had an easier way to quantify their activities. FSU had departments create their own rubrics, based on activities relevant to their respective disciplines, so they would each be evaluated on standards that measured success in their own fields.
“We tried to achieve a cultural shift—and you know how easy that can be,” Smith joked. There wasn’t much pushback on the theory behind having an electronic, easily accessible database of faculty productivity as USU rolled out Activity Insight. And USU eased the transition for faculty with dedicated resources to help with data entry, and by taking advantage of Digital Measures’ direct data imports, as well as data integrations with sources including Crossref and PubMed.
At USU, the greatest advantage of faculty activity reporting is that it fosters honesty and clarity. “It tells an honest story about what’s happening in your unit,” Smith said. “How many of us have had a department head come in and share stories about how great things are going to justify more funding or more faculty? Now, we hit a button and see the data. It’s a level playing field, and we can make much more informed decisions.”
Anderson agreed, noting that the most difficult evaluation point can be a department chair or dean. Before Digital Measures, those evaluations were done in a subjective way, Anderson reported. “State schools have to be transparent. Departments should look across at each other and know why one department gets more money than others,” he said. “Now, every department can look at its performance against other departments. There’s equity and clarity. And fewer decisions are appealed because people are satisfied with these decisions—they know where the data came from.”
At USU, Digital Measures is helping to build a vision for graduate student enrollment, grant funding and other areas. “We’re able to take a snapshot at a most basic level or college level so we can see who’s stepping up, who’s increasing productivity,” Smith said.
At FSU, the incentives built into evaluations have spurred collaboration across disciplines. For example, new collaborations around forensic studies have emerged at FSU, exciting young faculty to collaborate in forensic accounting, forensic biology and other areas. “Many who were satisfied with just being in the classroom are now stepping up and competing for dollars they wouldn’t have before,” Anderson said.