Complementary Functions: IR at the Campus, System, and State Levels

​Jonathan Gagliardi is Deputy Director of the National Association of System Heads (NASH), the association of the chief executives of the 44 college and university systems of public higher education in the United States and Puerto Rico. ​NASH is in the second year of a project that examines public system/campus roles in institutional research—AIR served as a partner in the first year of this research, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Jonathan spoke with eAIR about lessons learned to date. Join the conversation with comments at the bottom of the page.   

Interview by Leah Ewing Ross

eAIR: What opportunities do you see for the IR functions at state systems and campuses to work together better?  

Gagliardi.jpgBroadly speaking, there are opportunities for functions at the state, coordinating board, system, and campus levels to be more complementary. Based on what we’ve seen, there’s consensus surrounding the need for more connected data for myriad uses. Campuses are hoping to leverage more disaggregated information to inform and evaluate programs and interventions. Systems and coordinating boards see the need for a unified voice and can tell the story of collective impact to more engaged and diverse stakeholders from within their own governance structures, government, the private sector, and civic society. State agencies and legislatures are looking to stitch together data from disparate sources to better understand the relationship between their investment in higher education and the subsequent contributions to social mobility, economic growth, public health, and society writ large.

More specifically, state systems and campuses can work together more effectively by better connecting data. To date, much of the information needed to understand the impact of our efforts, including information related to student success and cost, have remained topically stove-piped. Systems can play the role of connector; in addition to providing relief from burdensome reporting requirements, they can identify exemplars and best practices among the campuses that compose them. Developing that community of campus-level experts and helping them to take ownership in the collective successes of the entire system is key. As such, the power of the convening should be underscored.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the need for opportunities for networking and professional development; there’s a lot of great work going on in pockets across systems and campuses. Ensuring there’s a community where folks can share and learn from one another is noticeably absent despite an obvious appetite for such opportunities. That need is only going to grow as change comes at a more rapid pace.

eAIR: What are the top lessons learned about the IR function from the first year of the project? How did that influence your preparation for the second year of the project?

During our first year we learned a lot, but if I had to nail one thing down, it was how much the structural, cultural, and political environment affected the ability of system and campus IR functions to move forward in a collective and comprehensive way. It was very evident that those who perform IR functions understood that demands will continue to grow, capacity will continue to be stretched, and technical solutions will come and go. But for IR to meet the demands of the future, we have to understand the context. By taking into account our imperfect arrangements between our systems and campuses, we can design better solutions that are more likely to be strong, sustainable foundations for a more diverse and dynamic function. As for how it has informed our second year of work, it has allowed us to see beyond some of the surface-level challenges systems and campuses face. To become more responsive and analytical, you have to know where you’ve come from in addition to the unique opportunities and challenges faced by your organization so that the process of innovation we’re going through is able to grow.

Innovation and perpetuation are very different processes, which to an extent, are naturally in tension. It’s best we acknowledge that so we can figure out the best way to move forward with an eye toward future demands, rather than perfecting yesterday’s requirements. The systems that have made the most progress are in states where the state policy environment promotes strong data systems, and where the boards are constructively engaged in pushing for cross-functional analyses, including productivity and value.

eAIR: We understand that NASH’s follow-up work includes on-site interviews re: streamlining system requirements. Can you share more about those initiatives?

We were incredibly lucky during our second year to have a steering committee and a panel of experts who had their fingers on the pulse of what is needed from IR functions. That foresight, as well as the generosity of a few volunteer systems, gave us the chance to get our boots on the ground, talk to the people who are in the middle of this rapidly changing environment, and help assess how to best position both our systems and the campuses that compose them to fulfill their dual promise of access and opportunity. It led to some very candid and informative conversations that have helped us in the development of a toolkit we hope can be used to self-assess the state of analytical functions as they relate to how the field is evolving. A community of experts coupled with tools that help point IR functions in the direction of the future is a potent combination we hope to help facilitate and diffuse. Stay tuned because there’s more to come!

eAIR: What excites you most about this work in 2015?

With change comes great opportunity. I think there’s a lot of great work going on. The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) has done great work mapping out the data landscape. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) is thinking creatively about leveraging the power of State Longitudinal Data Systems, as is the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). The Data Quality Campaign (DQC) has helped us all get on the same page with their continued work on common educational data standards and their expanded portfolio. The folks at Georgetown University, including Anothony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, have shown us that even without perfect data, we can make sure we’re all rowing in the same direction. For a long-time, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) has done similarly important work.  And let’s not forget about the leadership of AIR, as well as your own work with campuses. From a system perspective, you can look to very different but incredible dashboards put together by Stephanie Bond Huie at The University of Texas System, and Jeff Gold at the California State University System to see the utility of data increasing. It has really become demystified, especially as organizations like the U.S. Education Delivery Institute have emphasized the importance of implementation. Further, legislatures at both the federal and state levels are clear-eyed about the need for and importance of data. So, IR functions are going to become increasingly important, and with that awareness will come more opportunities to highlight what is needed to move forward together!

About NASH: The National Association of System Heads (NASH) is the association of the chief executives of the 44 colleges and university systems of public higher education in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Formed in 1979 for the purpose of seeking improvement in the organization and governance of public higher education systems, NASH serves as a forum for the exchange of views and information among its members and with other higher education organizations, with special attention to the perspectives, problems, and opportunities of heads of systems as a unique category of higher education executives.

Visit the NASH website for more information about the NASH project described here. Additional information about year two of the study will be released soon.



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