VCU is developing a national model for using analytics to bolster diversity and inclusion

The project is part of the university’s commitment to provide a fair, open and empowering environment for students, faculty and staff.

The V C U Student Commons.
A crucial component of VCU's efforts to measure and improve diversity and inclusion at the university is its Campus Culture and Climate Dashboard. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

A collaboration at Virginia Commonwealth University is setting a new standard for how data and analytics can help drive improvements in diversity and inclusion in a university setting.

VCU’s offices of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success; Institutional Research and Decision Support; and Technology Services have teamed to use institutional data sources and the VCU Organizational Culture and Climate Survey to illustrate the status of diversity and inclusion efforts within the university and to target areas for improvement. The project is part of VCU’s commitment to provide a fair, open and empowering environment for students, faculty and staff, said Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., vice president of institutional equity, effectiveness and success.

Through these efforts, academic and administrative units are assessed every 18 months based on performance on three indices: diversity index, inclusion index and engagement index. Nasim said VCU does not measure diversity “for the sake of measuring diversity.”

“We are interested in how diversity functions to advance organizations toward their performance goals,” Nasim said. “For VCU, this means: How does diversity help us to achieve student success, national prominence in research and scholarship, and urban and regional transformation? We have learned that diversity in and of itself is not adequate to drive excellence in these areas. Our environments need to promote inclusion and engagement in order for us to fully realize the value of having a diverse population. To me, that is activation capital — cultural capital.”

Nasim joined Monal Patel, associate vice provost for institutional research and decision support, and Christopher Marcoux, Ph.D., director of analytics for institutional research and decision support, earlier this month to virtually present at the EDUCAUSE 2020 Analytics Summit on VCU’s work linking analytics with diversity and inclusion. EDUCAUSE is broadly considered a leading voice in higher education's approach to elevate the impact of technology, and Patel said the conference offers a venue to engage with the country’s most prominent higher education leaders.

Betsy Tippens Reinitz, director, enterprise IT program for EDUCAUSE, said event organizers were impressed “with the intentional connection between the analytics work at VCU and the institutional mission.”

“In particular, we found the focus on diversity, inclusion, and engagement very compelling,” Reinitz said. “Many institutions include a nod to those ideals as part of their strategies, but VCU stands out for being able to actually measure that commitment to inclusive excellence. In addition, the Analytics Summit focuses on the importance of cross-institutional collaboration with regard to analytics, and VCU’s work is a wonderful example of how that kind of collaboration can make an important difference to the institution.”

Many institutions include a nod to those ideals as part of their strategies, but VCU stands out for being able to actually measure that commitment to inclusive excellence.

A crucial component of the VCU team’s work is the Campus Culture and Climate Dashboard, which shows how academic and administrative units score in areas such as perceptions of inclusion within the unit. Patel said attempting to quantify something as behavioral and philosophical as diversity and inclusion presents an array of challenges. Crucial to ensuring the results are worthwhile is getting people on board to provide feedback at a high rate. “If that’s not there, then the data points are less relevant,” she said. Fortunately, the VCU community has embraced the opportunity to provide valuable insight on the issues, she said.

Marcoux said the use of analytics helps make the case for the value of diversity and inclusion at VCU, connecting concepts and policies with results — demonstrating, for instance, how inclusion improves faculty and staff retention by improving perceptions of unit performance.

“A lot of faculty members can articulate the benefits of having multiple perspectives drawing from diverse experiences. But what the dashboard does is it goes one step further and shows that the units that are perceived to be the most inclusive and that are, in fact, the most diverse in terms of composition and leadership actually have the higher ratings within the university,” Marcoux said.

Patel and Marcoux said the value of the survey and dashboard stems in part from the level of detail and transparency of results. “It’s important to be transparent about metrics so that people understand that it’s part of the mission,” Patel said.

Marcoux said the analytics feedback allows Nasim’s team to work with units on specific ways they can improve, showing them exactly where a unit is perceived to have inclusivity shortcomings.

“That allows for a more productive conversation,” Marcoux said. “Having that granular information allows you to have a more targeted, specific conversation about how things are in this academic or administrative unit and what might be done differently and what resources might help to achieve better performance.”

Nasim said analytics is a useful tool for measuring how the VCU community views the university’s culture and climate over time.

“It allows us to better understand the ways in which climate matters in the retention and satisfaction of our faculty and staff,” Nasim said. “And how changing dynamics in organizational culture either accelerates or impedes individual or unit performance.”

Marcoux said VCU’s approach to using climate surveys to measure perceptions of inclusion is unique in part because the university built its program in-house rather than using a third-party firm.

“Developing it in-house allowed us to tailor the survey to capture the specific concepts that we wanted to prioritize and that relate to the university strategic plan and align with our interests,” he said.

Marcoux said VCU’s team received feedback at EDUCAUSE that was both encouraging and informative, including providing ideas of ways to make improvements as it revises its dashboard. Patel said the surveys and dashboard will only grow in usefulness the longer VCU employs them because the work will begin to illustrate trends while strengthening suggestions for pathways to continuous improvement. In addition, Patel said the team will look for ways to connect diversity and inclusion survey results with the results of other surveys at VCU.

“This will help us connect the pieces together to tell a complete story of VCU’s holistic efforts to achieving the institution’s goals,” she said.

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