These days many private sector enterprises are labeling themselves as information companies. This is true even for some whose long term history has little to do with large-scale information production (e.g., some banks). The digital revolution has turned all transaction records and paper forms into data that can be used for improved functioning of the organization and provide insights into general human behavior.
In some sense, universities are the original information organizations. The research function of universities produces new information and the education function disseminates it.
Georgetown is blessed with an extraordinarily talented set of staff who have the job of transforming data into information for the good of the university. The Office of Assessment and Decision Support (OADS) is a group of nine data professionals, supplemented by student assistants and visitors. The data they examine constitute the totality of the operations of the university — enrollments in individual courses at the student level, teaching assignments for faculty, staffing of academic programs, and a host of other data that are routinely used to document the activities of the academic side of the university. In addition, digital data exist on revenues and costs of operating individual academic programs and the costs of supporting research activities.
From time to time OADS mounts surveys of faculty, staff, and students, to gather other kinds of data from self-reports of community members. They have mounted culture climate surveys, faculty work satisfaction surveys, student health surveys, sexual assault and misconduct surveys, and others. These expand what we know about our well the community is functioning on all aspects of its work.
Some of the surveys are quick response to pressing informational needs to give faculty and students current feedback. For example, during the online phases of the university during COVID-19 pandemic, short surveys on self-reported student engagement in classes helped identify how to improve the courses.
Since there are many outside groups that seek to collect data from faculty and students, OADS also oversees a Survey Coordinating Group, to assure that the valuable time of the community is not wasted on trivial questioning that does not benefit the common good.
The OADS staff that conduct this work are not the most visible to most community members, but their product often is very visible. They are computer scientists, data scientists, statisticians, and evaluation specialists. Collectively, they combine diverse data sources into analytic files that offer great informational value to the university. Then they use data analytic methods to extract aggregated information from the data.
Since they work on data concerning individuals, strict privacy protections need to be applied. Hence, they work behind computing firewalls of protection unusual in the university. None of the data analysis by OADS reveals individual characteristics; instead, the analyses seek to describe the status of large populations in statistical aggregates. Since OADS seeks to provide credible information of value to all the community, they are not advocates for one policy or another.
The OADS staff are also committed to sharing information from data analyses in ways that are accessible to wide populations. This is especially true of the surveys of faculty and students. For example, OADS published for the community feedback on student subgroups of undergraduate students, graduate students, international students, LGBTQ+ identified students, students with disabilities, in “spotlight” reports (see https://oads.georgetown.edu/surveys/cultural-climate-survey-spotlight-reports/)
Every university can become better with careful statistical analyses of data it produces, aimed at answering questions about key university processes. Georgetown is fortunate to have the OADS staff.