Sharing Data with Faculty: The Paradox of Transparency

by Todd Benson

 

Today, colleges and universities are using more and more data to drive decision-making. This is a good thing, however, when leaders need to include faculty in decision making and execution offering the right amount of data is of paramount importance. Faculty are, by their training, critical consumers of data and not sharing everything could be interpreted as the administration spinning the results. On the other hand, sharing every single data point can lead to an unfocused discussion. It’s no surprise then that one of the most frequent, and challenging, questions that comes up as we work with our partners is “How much of the report should we share with faculty?” Our standard answer is “Everything!” but full transparency presents its own set of challenges and concerns.

 

Our Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey has over 200 questions. By the time those results are disaggregated by race, gender, rank, and tenure status (not to mention all the potential permutations of intersectionality) and you include comparative data from other institutions, we are talking about millions of data points. That’s far too much data for a faculty meeting or even a full day retreat. That is why when I talk about the COACHE results with our partners, I focus on teams and process.

 

Carefully Construct Your Dissemination Team

 

Often, when our partners disseminate results, there is an impulse to give everything to everyone right away. Such an action is tantamount to drinking from a firehose. In my estimation, that desire to be transparent comes from a place of genuine concern for establishing trust. If faculty don’t believe the administration is being forthright, then there is no reason to trust the findings. However, it isn’t necessarily an approach that drives collaborative decision making.

This very real concern about trust is why teams matter. Having faculty who are respected by their colleagues on your dissemination team gives the results some credibility to start. Choices must be made about what data is shared and with whom. If faculty know that they were well represented in that process, they are less likely to question decisions.

 

Implement Thoughtful Processes from the Outset

 

Consider what your goals are for sharing the results. Why does this matter and what will change because of a presentation to your faculty? When you start the meeting with clear goals, it forces you to think about what is realistic within those parameters. Next, convey those goals to the faculty. Make it clear what can and cannot be completed in the time allotted. Make sure that early on, faculty have a chance to offer their perspectives on where to dive deeper in future meetings.

When there is so much to discuss, don’t be afraid to assign a little pre-reading. In the case of our partners, that can be a summary of the results or even just asking faculty to read some preliminary notes about the basis for COACHE and the methodology. Think about the questions that eat up time and distract you from the real benefit of convening faculty; to elicit their feedback. Then consider what you can address in a pre-meeting handout so that your team can stay focused on the task at hand. Not everyone will read the handout, but rather than taking ten minutes to answer those questions you can just reference the document.

Reading every line of a spreadsheet to your faculty is a surefire way to extinguish discussion. Start at the highest level and then drill down. Sharing the top line results (benchmarks) and asking faculty to decide what subjects and subgroups warrant further attention helps them to be part of the process. The data become the platform for discussion and if they make the choices about where to drill down, everyone stays focused.

 

Engage Dissenting Voices

 

Every campus has faculty who want to see everything so that they can judge for themselves. Those faculty might get dismissed as the campus curmudgeons. As difficult as it is to deal individuals that question everything, they are an important part of every community. If you don’t engage them well, skeptics become cynics. If you do engage them well, they become allies. When your toughest critic becomes an ally, your work gains credibility.

So how can we manage the people who want to see every piece of data? One option is to make them part of the team at the onset of your work. Bringing them on board early affords you the chance to demonstrate good will and to say that dissenting voices matter. At one of our partner institutions, I sat in on several of their team meetings and the first one was less of meeting and more of an hour-long interrogation of the COACHE survey methodology. One person firing question after question at me about every choice we made over the past decade. By the third or fourth meeting, the dissenting voice became more congenial. Later, I spoke with the team lead. It turns out that in addition to the general meetings, he was spending additional time with this person. He was doing the hard work of building trust with someone who had very little trust for the administration. While it was challenging, in the long run, he eliminated the need to have those same discussions in the middle of a faculty presentation.

 

Account for Data Requests

 

Often, requests to dive deeper into a particular segment of the data are come from very real experiences of faculty at your institution. Those experiences should not be dismissed, but it can be challenging to balance the restraints of time and resources with individualized requests. One approach is to have a data request process in place. Assuming you follow IRB protocols for the protections of participants, then data transparency should be an expectation. However, it is appropriate to ask faculty to do a little work for that access. Faculty who are not part of the team might be asked to submit a written request for data. Asking them to articulate the questions they are hoping to answer with the data may inform the work of your team. Then, if you are able to honor their request, ask them to report back what they learn. Set a deadline and ask them to share their findings.

 

Closing Thoughts

 

Sharing data with faculty can be a challenge. Striking a balance between candor and productivity is a difficult balancing act. But at COACHE, we know that how an institution engages its faculty is just as important as the data itself.