Collaboration and Consultancy at VCU: A Role for IR

Kathleen Shaw is Vice Provost for Planning and Decision Support (OPDS), and Valerie Holton is Director of Community-Engaged Research in the Division of Community Engagement (DCE), both at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). They spoke with eAIR about the consulting role of institutional research, partnership in support of the university’s mission, and how collaboration allows for greater capacity.

Interview by Leah Ewing Ross
eAIR: The VCU Office of Planning and Decision Support and the Division of Community Engagement have developed a strong relationship in support of the university’s mission. How did this strategic partnership evolve?
Valerie: Part of what drew me to VCU is our commitment to working collaboratively across the institution and our communities. DCE is the central office that leads the university in building infrastructure to support mutually beneficial community academic partnerships. When I started, a part of my job was to get a handle on the scope of community-university interactions. Because this was going to require working across this very complex organization, I reached out to Kathleen’s office to develop a deeper understanding about using language that could be understood throughout the university, and to learn about existing data collection efforts and infrastructure, including design and deployment of large-scale surveys. It was incredibly helpful.
Kathleen: Our offices collaborated on a mixed methods data collection and associated communications plan to learn about the breadth and type of partnerships, both at the faculty and unit levels. Out of this, we wrote a report describing the effort and findings, presented to the Council of Deans and Board of Visitors, presented at conferences, and published a manuscript.
Valerie: Through that work, we discovered that VCU sustained many diverse partnerships with the community organizations, yet “partnership” was loosely defined and not consistently understood. Furthermore, there was no mechanism for consistent tracking of the relationships, description of roles, articulation of expectations, and so forth. This meant that we could not adequately resource them, manage risks, or ensure quality. Because community engagement is a fundamental part of how we achieve our mission, we needed to bring greater understanding of these partnerships to help the university teach our students and generate new knowledge in a way that advances our mission and tells our story. A presidential task force was formed to support the Board of Visitors in its quest to gain a deeper understanding of these partnerships. As a result, the university has committed resources and developed policies and other infrastructure to support the teaching and research we do in collaboration with our partners. From this, we have continued to collaborate on several key initiatives including a successful submission to Carnegie to receive the community engagement classification, co-authored scholarship (papers and conference presentations), joined the Anchor Dashboard Learning Cohort, and created visual displays of our community engagement data, such as the Community Engagement Data Dashboard and Community Partner Map.
Kathleen: The next phase of this work is the continuing progression of the third theme of the university strategic plan, which is to “become [a] national model for community engagement and regional impact.” The university is collaborating with Richmond-based organizations to deepen our engagement and focus our efforts in ways that truly leverage our resources and align with community-identified priorities. This ensures VCU intentionally connects the region with our research, teaching, service, and healthcare missions. Both of our offices are heavily involved in that work.
eAIR: How can collaboration enhance the work of institutional research?
Kathleen: My office was created to support the university’s strategic plan. One principle of that plan is based in data-informed decision making, and our work is dedicated to elevating data identification, classification, stratification, communication, and analysis. By nature, I play the consultative role and seek ways to lead and inform VCU’s strategic initiatives. We have broken out of traditional functional silos in institutional research (IR), institutional effectiveness (IE), business intelligence (BI), data governance, institutional surveys, and strategic planning to develop collaborative cross-functional teams. We think about the problems others are trying to solve in order to help them pose questions, develop hypotheses, and test the hypotheses in an effective fashion.
Valerie: Everyone in OPDS is very interested in working with others to address the larger mission-driven and strategic initiatives of the university. From my point of view, Kathleen’s office culture embraces openness to ideas, flexibility, and commitment to solving problems.
Kathleen: Even when there is no mandate to do something, if there is value in doing it, we go forth. Starting something often allows it to become something, like the partnership with DCE. It’s about solving problems and building things, not about grabbing turf. Once something is started, it often finds a better home elsewhere. 
eAIR: How can an office accommodate more work and responsibility when its plate is already overflowing?
Kathleen: When I started this role and shared my plan for increasing our skill levels and deliverables, there was concern about how we would have time for that. We started with differentiating among what has to be done, what has always been done, and what would be nice to do, and figured out where to eliminate, simplify, redefine, or automate. Now we use the Agile methodology approach of identifying a problem or a required deliverable and addressing it within two to four weeks so we can move on to something else. For example, my associate who populates dozens of external surveys and program accreditation work is working with a BI analyst to write a program in SAS that will contain data elements asked for in those items with attributes to know which element goes where, and to do so electronically. That will free up two to three months of the associate’s time. We also identified subject matter experts (SMEs) in a variety of areas, such as human resources, student data, and financial aid. Each SME partners with one to two other people to transfer skills so that there are back-ups (SMEs in training). Instead of slowing people down in efforts to learn additional skills, it has created efficiencies because new questions are asked and new work-arounds are identified. Everyone on the team wants to work on predictive and descriptive analytics, and all of us can do more of that as we become more efficient. My ultimate goal is that we will be a consultative service for the university. This is why the AIR Statement of Aspirational Practice for Institutional Research resonates with me—it reflects our work to date and the goals we seek to achieve. Furthermore, the description of Chief Institutional Research Officer (CIRO) reflects a large part of my role.
eAIR: Can you speak more about the role of consulting for IR and related fields?
Valerie: The type of consulting Kathleen speaks of has great value for the university and can serve as a model for other institutions. For example, there is increasing interest within and across universities and colleges to assess engagement with and impact on our communities. Most of the people working in the engagement field haven’t been trained in areas related to IR. Kathleen’s approach has allowed our units to do more together than either could do individually. The idea of collaboration may seem like more work at the outset, but we couldn’t have done this without each other.
Kathleen: As we chart new territory, the opportunities continue to expand. New questions, new situations, and new applications arise. The shared work of these two offices has informed the broader university mission. Community engagement has always been part of VCU’s identity, but this collaboration has increased transparency as well as the interest of stakeholders to identify opportunities to integrate community engagement in other ways, particularly the teaching and research missions.
Valerie: Kathleen is extraordinarily visible at the university. She is seen at meetings, serves on a lot of committees, and attends functions. It makes her role and her office seem very accessible.
Kathleen: I have found that being visible and accessible increases my productivity and enhances the work of my office. It allows me to learn what others are doing, what challenges they face, and ultimately how my office can advance their work. There are many opportunities to collaborate throughout the university.
Valerie: An easy place for IR offices to partner is around issues of community engagement. We are seeing strong evidence that engaged forms of teaching and learning are high impact practices, and that engaged research increases the relevance and application of the findings. But to do that work well, we need to have a better understanding of the breadth of work and assessment of its impact. Community engagement professionals are skilled in collaboration and are eager to partner with IR offices in support of the institution’s success.
  • To What End: Measuring Engagement with Our Communities, Metropolitan Universities Journal, Vol. 26 (2), 2015, V. L. Holton (Guest Editor).
    • To what end? Assessing engagement with our communities. V. Holton, pp. 5-8
    • Leveraging internal partnerships and existing data infrastructure to track and assess community engagement across the university. V. L. Holton, J. L. Early & K. K. Shaw, pp. 75-98
    • Measuring community-university partnerships across a complex research university: Lessons and findings from a pilot enterprise data collection mechanism. V. L. Holton, J. F. Jettner, & K. K. Shaw, pp. 99-124.




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