Opinion

We missed the big data revolution. But we're going to fix that at UNC.

UNC system President Margaret Spellings works in her office in Chapel Hill in March 2017.
UNC system President Margaret Spellings works in her office in Chapel Hill in March 2017.

For a long time, public higher education hasn’t collected or used data about itself well. Our data systems were built to meet narrow compliance and reporting requirements with very little of it helping leaders more effectively manage our public institutions.

Over the past few years, the gap has become even larger, with the big-data revolution changing how people shop, travel, access health care, and even how they date. Somehow, public higher education has largely missed this wave.

That’s just not acceptable anymore. Having the right data isn’t optional, it’s a necessity and we’re dealing with the consequences of our information deficit every day.

Policymakers want timely answers about efficiency, productivity, impact and student success. Institutional leaders, like our deans, provosts and chancellors, want independence, flexibility and trust.

But as both sides navigate the operation and governance of North Carolina’s public universities, the debate is based on anecdotes and ideology rather than data. Because we just don’t have all the facts.

That’s why changing that dynamic, getting us all on the same fact-based framework, and supplying the data our leaders at every level need is the UNC system’s No. 1 priority.

The UNC system has laid the groundwork to bring our data systems into the 21st century. We’ve focused on removing barriers that hold our faculty back and identifying what data they need to better educate students.

Now, with the help of the legislature, we’re ready to take that work to the next level.

We know data isn’t usually a “front-page” issue. Few are eager to hear about marrying cost data to student outcomes or combining input data with output data so we can see what investments work, what faculty excel, and which programs best serve students.

But a better data system is at the heart of our “front-page” political debates around higher education, and it is at the heart of any plan to empower and enable faculty, policymakers and students alike.

To find and support the best professors who are preparing students for future classes and careers, we need a better data system that can link professors with student outcomes.

To invest in programs that are most effectively filling workforce shortages in teaching, nursing and STEM fields, we need a better data system that can connect program cost with graduate success.

To reform the business side of the university, streamlining student health care, housing, and dining, so that we can prioritize academics and research, we need a better data system that helps identify efficiencies and lower overhead costs.

And to stretch taxpayer dollars further and ensure public dollars are meeting the state’s needs, we need a better data system that shows exactly what is driving costs at each program and institution and allows leaders to make better informed actions.

There will always be a passionate debate about a well-funded public institution that’s critical to our state’s future. But we can transform the debate by providing the facts the discussion demands.

Groundbreaking new big data studies showing higher education’s impact have yielded astounding results. We know our institutions are doing good work, and we must better use data to document and guide that work in the years ahead.

We’re well placed to make that transition. With the help of the General Assembly during this short session, we’re optimistic about creating a sustainable path towards data modernization across the UNC System.

Higher education is built around the idea that evaluation, inquiry and debate centered on facts and data advance society. It’s time we apply that worthy approach to our own operation, and use data to conduct the debate on higher education’s future.

Margaret Spellings is president of the UNC system. Harry Smith is vice chair of the UNC Board of Governors.
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