Being Prepared for the Provost

Ask eAIR invites questions from AIR members about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. Questions may be submitted to

This month’s question is answered by Julie Atwood, Associate Vice President of Specialty Accreditation, American Public University System.

The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting below. 

Dear Julie: How can I look prepared and knowledgeable to my provost?

JulieAtwood.jpgWorking with the provost and other upper-administration members can be challenging, but it is also an opportunity to share important information and be recognized as an integral part of the decision-making process. Here are some tips to look good to the provost.

Know what’s going on in the institution. Large initiatives like regional accreditation or the addition of new programs are likely to be communicated widely across the campus. Smaller, more campus-based programs may not be. Take time to look at internal newsletters, emails, or other updates to see what else is happening on campus. You’ll be ready with good ideas for how to measure success in new initiatives if you are familiar with each program. New initiatives may be national programs such as Foundations of Excellence or implementation of the Degree Qualifications Profile, or may be campus-designed course revisions, or new social media initiatives. Are there changes being made to the normal practice of admissions, retention, or graduation requirements? If you have the time, pursue the possibility of being included on a few of the committees or see if you can get meeting minutes afterward.

Know what is going on outside the institution. Issues in the field of higher education have an impact on each institution. If your school administers a national test, such as the ETS Proficiency Profile, be aware of other similar tests that exist or are being developed, and be able to make a recommendation to keep going or change. The U.S. government recently launched the College Scorecard, and there may be questions about where that data came from and how well it represents the institution. Being prepared to provide information quickly indicates you know what you’re doing!

Find out where the provost is regularly sharing information. In essence, this boils down to finding out which stakeholders the provost interacts with and what they value. Does your provost regularly share data with deans and department chairs? Is most of his/her interaction with the president or Board of Trustees? Sharing data internally means you can use acronyms and jargon that are familiar to those on campus. Sharing data outside requires more explanation. Also, be aware of what the eventual recipients of the information value from their perspective. The Board of Trustees and the public may be more interested in comparisons to other colleges or national means. Internal groups may be more interested in trend data that shows change over time. Be prepared to make useful recommendations. Setting up a meeting with the provost to discuss the kind of data he/she normally needs and the values of the groups he/she works with can put you ahead of the game when data is requested.

Provide enough information that you don’t need to explain it. The provost needs to be able to explain data to the eventual stakeholder group without IR backup. You don’t necessarily need to provide all of the information within the table, chart, or graph, but the provost needs to have it available. Does this data represent all students in a course, or exclude those who dropped at some point? How is persistence calculated, and is there more than one way it is looked at? Consider creating a “data cookbook” or “glossary” that is regularly updated and maintained. A common set of definitions can really help ensure that everyone is talking about the data in the same way. Also be sure to note any results that look strange or likely to be questioned, and note when important events happened. A table that shows growth rates is interesting; a table that shows growth rates before and after a marketing campaign or change in admissions criteria is more useful.

Share what you know. You are the expert on campus concerning institutional data and where and how it is used. Offer to add bits of interesting data to internal newsletters or emails to share across campus, or offer to take over a regular provost communication, such as a blog or newsletter column, to discuss how data is used on campus. The provost will likely appreciate the respite as well as the expert information.

Be available and accurate. Many of these suggestions can take some time, but be sure when the provost needs information it is provided quickly and accurately. Few things are more annoying than getting a response, then getting an updated response because an error was made on the first. Work to ensure that the provost knows when information comes from you, it is solid!

Taking some time to know more about the context of the information you provide, and communicating well with the provost will pay off big dividends going forward. Sharing what you know and becoming a recognized figure around campus will give you the opportunity to provide expert assistance as data is collected and shared, and offering to do some of the sharing yourself will generally be welcomed and valued.



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