Alicia Betsinger learned a key lesson while working on institutional research for the University of Texas system. At a public university, she says, "everybody always wants the data yesterday."
So when Ms. Betsinger, formerly the Texas system’s assistant director of strategic initiatives, received an offer from Dartmouth College, she welcomed the chance to join a smaller institution and work on something a little less "fast and furious." At Dartmouth, where she is now associate provost for institutional research, Ms. Betsinger directs data-driven projects similar to the Productivity Dashboard she helped create for the Texas system.
"You just always want to make sure that the data is accurate," says Ms. Betsinger, who is 45. "You only get one chance to make a first impression, and you have to be cautious and careful."
Ms. Betsinger says that university employees can be wary of data visualization because there will always be the chance that someone will misinterpret the findings. In 2011, Texas’ release of a draft of faculty-productivity data in response to open-records requests provoked fears from faculty members that the numbers, which were incomplete, could mislead lawmakers about the value the state was getting for its spending.
Ultimately, Ms. Betsinger says, "UT adopted the model of ‘more is better’ because there was an idea that there shouldn’t be anything behind the scenes," and also because public universities are more subject to transparency laws and have more data sets to draw from.
At a private college, she may need to do a little more digging. "The data is there, but part of my job may just be trying to figure out where it is on campus," says Ms. Betsinger. But once it’s collected, she’ll have discretion over how it should be used, and can explore the possibilities of data collection solely for internal use. "It’s important that at Dartmouth people understand that a lot can go on behind the scenes with dashboarding, and it doesn’t all need to be public on the website," she says. "I want to help faculty and staff understand that this doesn’t have to be scary or nefarious. It can be a very positive piece to the institution."
Ms. Betsinger, who assumed her new post in mid-April, plans to start small and show how institutional research can drive suggestions for concrete changes. One idea is to look into data on department productivity.
Ms. Betsinger plans to take her cues for short-term goals from the new provost, Carolyn Dever. Long term, though, she says, "I would love for Dartmouth to become the national model for Ivies with respect to data visualization and consumption and use of data."