Institutional Effectiveness Professionals: The Special Ops of Higher Education

Co-authored by Damon R. Wade, PhD, Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness & Enrollment Management at Grambling State University

An excerpt from the opening monologue from the hit television show, The A-Team, asserted that "If you have a problem, if no one else can help and if you can find them....maybe you can hire...The A-Team." Leaders across the higher education landscape, specifically Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are under more pressure than ever to do more with less. On balance, student expectations and needs are growing, as are external expectations for the performance of higher education institutions. It is, therefore, with great respect and admiration for the brave men and woman of the United States Military that we make this comparison; a comparison with which practitioners and observers of higher education leadership may agree. Figuratively speaking, Institutional Effectiveness Professionals (IEP's) are the special operators or "A-Team" of higher education. It is their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that allow them to carry out their assigned missions to develop strategy, analysis, policy, and procedures that work together to affect change at the nation's HBCUs.

Bowen (1974) suggests that "The idea of accountability is simple. It means that colleges and universities are responsible for conducting their affairs so that the outcomes are worth the cost." This submits that positive performance outcomes of institutions should be directly aligned with their mission, vision, and goals. Evidence of achievement of these performance outcomes should be collected in a systematic fashion and their results reported to all campus stakeholders. The need for HBCUs to present positive performance outcomes has presented a chance to more strategically organize and implement monitoring of institutional effectiveness, leveraging data, analytics, and applications to support the institution in continuous quality improvement and internal assessment. The Institutional Effectiveness (IE) area has a strategic leadership role in implementing data-informed decision modeling, strategic planning, and resource allocation to support and enhance the success of students and achieve the mission of the university.

Subsequently, with increasing accountability for performance outcomes, leaders at HBCUs must recognize the need for practitioners with distinctive skills. When the battle for scarce resources is being fought, and proof of performance is demanded, IEPs must be activated. Why? Because the actions of IEPs are focused on achieving operational objectives; they develop systematic, explicit, and results driven processes that measure performance against the mission in all aspects of an institution. Furthermore, IEPs are generally charged with evaluating the university's progress toward meeting its performance objectives and seeking ways to improve services and processes that provide value for students. They are typically people immersed in problem solving, making sure that analysis and facts needed for assessing inputs and out¬comes are available for decision-making.

Much like IEPs focus on mission driven objectives, Special Operations Forces (SOFs) encompass the use of actions focused on strategic or operational objectives. The systems that these individuals work through require personnel trained in specialized areas, and must possess the capacity that exceeds the routine capabilities of conventional forces. SOFs are characterized by certain attributes that collectively distinguish them from conventional operations. These operations are politically complex assignments where only the best equipped and most proficient forces must be deployed. Similarly, SOFs can be used for many general undertakings and trained for specific types of missions. Special Operations members function as intelligence gatherers, completing objectives, and salvaging what is often times viewed as unsalvageable. Their missions require detailed planning and precise execution, and they are valued for their fearlessness, out-of-the-box thinking, imagination, and initiative.

There is a hitch! The depth of operation of IEPs and their activities are influenced by opinions regarding their importance within the institution, "Will someone get me the A-Team....our accreditation report is due next week." In other words, an IEP's knowledge, skills, and abilities may go underutilized or they are often called on at the last minute to handle a situation that, as Liam Neeson's character in the movie Taken explains, requires "a very particular set of skills." Some faculty and administrators alike who invest minimal effort in the ideal of continuous improvement are likely to attribute lower levels of importance for IEPs. Perceptions of the importance of institutional effectiveness can be affected to the extent to which institutional effectiveness principles have been integrated into the overall framework of the campus.

In order to improve results, broad institutional planning must take place with IEPs playing a significant role in the process. This will allow better response to external demands for accountability; more precisely, define an institution's strategic position, and sharpen its focus on outcomes-based performance designed around its educational mission. Similar to SOFs, an IEP's talents are not a cure-all or a replacement for conventional staff capabilities. If IEPs are utilized correctly target goals will be achieved; if used poorly, their capabilities are sorely wasted. IEPs must be a key part of any strategy that helps to demonstrate an institution's value-proposition.