By Peter Lange, former Provost, Duke University and Senior Advisor, Academic Analytics.

Only one decade ago, few higher education institutions had adopted databases or analytical tools to assist with faculty and research-related strategic decisions. Today, such tools are more broadly adopted. An important question follows: how and why did mindsets and perspectives change so that analytical tools are now often used by senior administrators in making important decisions?


Some of the factors that changed include:


  1. The societal context for data and analytics.

Over the past decade, there has been an explosion in the cultural awareness of what can be learned from aggregating and mining large amounts of data (i.e., “big data”). This shift is felt in all areas of society, including higher education.

  1. The realization that data provides better understanding of an institution’s context.

There is growing recognition among senior academic leaders and governing boards that data can help an institution evaluate itself. In addition, data and tools now available can help institutions understand the broader context in which they operate and compete.

This recent abundance of comprehensive comparative data about an institution and its peers provides a more complete picture of the institution and the competitive landscape in which it operates. In some cases, access to these data leads academic leaders to conclude that they may not have understood their own institution and its relative strengths and challenges as well as they thought they did. The newfound ability to mine data leads to a greater understanding of strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities.

  1. A more competitive landscape demands better decisions.

The higher education research enterprise operates within an increasingly competitive landscape, including greater competition for faculty members, students, and funding. In this environment of increased resource scarcity, leaders are under heightened pressure to make even better decisions.

Having broad contextual data – including access to peer data on a systematic basis – complements the types of data that senior academic leaders have long had access to (e.g., evaluation letters, visiting committee reviews, anecdotal observations), thereby increasing their confidence when making many types of strategic decisions.

  1. The desire to expand the research horizon.

In this more competitive environment, institutions want to raise their research profile to continue to attract talent and funding. Senior leaders want to know what research their own scholars perform, they want to know about the research at other institutions, and they want to be able to expose their research to stakeholders broadly including businesses and commercial enterprises, as well as other types of public or private actors and institutions. Data and technology directly help expand the institution’s research horizon in new ways that continue to evolve.

In sum, academic research leaders have always had and used access to data, but these data tended to be partial, qualitative, anecdotal and local to the campus. Data sources available today are broader, the available tools make the use of data more systematic and provide a systematic comparative context in which to place these other types of information, helping to facilitate better decision making.

Data, tools, and technology are most valuable when used in combination with the experience and judgment of academic and research leadership. Quantitative data does not replace human judgment; rather, data informs and complements judgment.

The biggest changes in the use of analytical tools over the past decade are the acceptance (by many, but certainly not all) of data and technology as a means better to understand their institution and the broader context, to help make more informed decisions, and to complement human judgment.

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