Deep data review enables focus on planning, student success

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

The world has grown increasingly reliant on vast amounts of data for a growing number of purposes - everything from marketing and problem-solving to storytelling and innovating.

At the Arizona Board of Regents, data and the development of a specific suite of university metrics have been paramount to the board's fiduciary responsibility, and form the basis of our work going forward.

Last week, after a year-long revamp of our operational and financial review (OFR) process, Northern Arizona University (NAU) debuted a first-of-its-kind OFR report - Possibility in Every Direction - providing a wealth of data on the university's performance that will help guide the academic, business and strategic imperatives for its future.

The OFR is a critical piece of the enterprise mission. As all business leaders must look closely at their operations, scrutinizing every detail, so too does the board.

The data-driven plans that are developed during the OFR process have two main functions: to guide the work of the entire university and to demonstrate to the board and to the public how each university is performing and how its performance serves the state. Just as Regent Myers said at last week's meeting, the OFR is not just about what each university is doing, but what they are doing for Arizona. While the public nature of the review reinforces our university system's accountability, it also highlights the importance of public participation in discussions about our state's future.

Once the plans have been developed, presented and accepted by the board, each plan then becomes the baseline against which all progress is measured and against which all requests are made for strategic resource investment.

In her report to the board, NAU President Cheng shared important indicators of student success - growing enrollment and diversity, increased retention, a high percentage of first-generation students and enhanced support services. I applaud Dr. Cheng for her outstanding work ensuring the success of NAU students at every level and for her and her staff's impressive OFR report - truly, a deep dive into the data - setting the stage for what was a productive discussion last week of NAU's performance and current trajectory.

Reviewing information about our public universities this deeply not only enables a focus on planning, transparency and student success, in meeting the goals of the enterprise, it helps the board to advance student success by ensuring that operations and finances are as they should be, in order to support our students at the highest level. This in-depth evaluation of our universities' missions, strategic initiatives, financial models and current performance levels informs decision-making, enhances accountability and helps the regents to clearly understand the details and progress of each university.

The OFR redesign has been a key outcome of the board's increased focus on transparency and strategic planning. Featured in this redesign is a series of new, interactive data tools now available to the regents, the universities and the public. The data offers a robust, dynamic profile of each university and the enterprise as a whole, and serves to equip leaders with the information they need to foster strategic conversations and future plans amidst increasing complexity in the higher education landscape. 

Comprised of three components - a background report, a written business plan and, finally, a public presentation to the board - the OFR offers a vivid snapshot of where our universities stand now and the direction they are headed.

Following NAU, the University of Arizona will be next up in the OFR process, and I look forward to their report to the board, further expanding the view of the state of our enterprise.

Access to information is not only essential to growing Arizona's public university enterprise, both strategically and responsibly, it is a key aspect of the board's role as a public servant committed to the success of all Arizona students statewide.