California State University, Long Beach
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Novack, Staff Work To Make Sense Of All The Numbers

Published: February 15, 2013

The numbers don’t lie, so says Van Novack.

“You can think what you want to think, you can have an opinion,” said Novack, “but the bottom line is that the numbers don’t lie.”

As the assistant vice president of Institutional Research and Assessment (IR&A) Novack is in charge of numbers, lots of numbers.

“Because the campus administration is firmly committed to evidence-based decision making, they depend on our office for a variety of data needs. Having a ‘go-to office’ for data is really important. Most of the functions on campus require some sort of institutional data and, if they can’t get it centrally, they’re going to get it themselves,” said Novack. “We have a lot of smart people on campus, but if you don’t deal with this information every day, you sometimes don’t understand how it’s supposed to be sorted, how cohorts are supposed to be selected. Consequently, it’s really very important for consistency that campus constituents are able to get data from one source and that source is often Institutional Research. Generally, if we don’t have what our constituents are seeking, we know where they can get it. ”

Novack, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Pitzer College and his master’s and Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University, pointed out that that trust would not come if not for CSULB’s administration which has provided resources and supported the initiatives his office has put forward to offer robust content and interactive utilities online.

“This campus has chosen to maintain its historical mission of broad access, diversity and local consciousness, which is a good thing,” said Novack, noting his IR office works closely with Enrollment Services, Budget, Financial Aid, Faculty Affairs and Staff Personnel. “This campus really believes in transparency. Everything we put out there is publicly available; nothing is password protected and that is an expressed desire by this administration.”

Having been in the profession for the better part of two decades, Novack has seen a tremendous evolution in how things are done and how data is presented.

“When I first got into this profession, we were still on a mainframe and we had no individual printers,” he said. “Everything was printed on tractor feed and those kinds of printers just couldn’t do the type of graphics we see today; they could only produce rudimentary stuff and barely any charts or tables. All analyses at that time were delivered to requestors in hard copy.

“I think the general attitude in the IR profession 15 or 20 years ago was, ‘We know this stuff better than you do; you ask us for something and we’ll give you what we want to give you even if it’s not ideal for your purpose,’” said Novack. “But it’s become much more user-friendly and customer-oriented, and I certainly embrace that. I used to go to Institutional Research conferences and it was obvious some of the people making presentations just wanted to show how smart they were. Any statistician or mathematician can present numbers and analyses that confuse lay people.

“The thing that I really embrace is that producing accurate data analyses is meaningless unless it is fully understood by the intended user,” continued Novack. “And people increasingly judge you on what it looks like. We can’t compete with a commercial site, but it’s got to look neat and professional, pleasing to the eye and the layout has to be logical so people can follow it. I think that’s been the big challenge—how do you get truly useful data out there that is helpful to the most people possible?”

People want to think that their work has value and Novack feels that’s the case here at CSULB when it comes to his office.

“I feel I have a peer relationship with most of the people I deal with and we’ve developed a good enough relationship now where I can say, ‘Renegotiate a request,’ but I’m not seen as an obstructionist,” said Novack. “If you don’t have the data then you don’t have the data. We have a lot of information, but some stuff we just don’t have. The best part of this job is it is clearly evident the analyses we prepare are used constantly to make important decisions. It’s very gratifying to know that your work doesn’t go into the round file somewhere; that your work is trusted and utilized.

“We’ve been lucky enough to have the support of our senior administration,” he added. “I’ve been here since 1999 and the campus has become increasingly more data driven in its decision making and policy making. We work very hard to develop reports that address campus needs as they develop. We’ve had wonderful support from the president on down. This office used to report to Administration and Finance, but for the last six or seven years we have reported to Academic Affairs which is a much more natural fit as most of our statistical analyses has always supported that division. I report to David Dowell, the vice provost for enrollment management and strategic planning, which is becoming a common alignment.”

Van Novack

“At CSULB, we use data in all aspects of our planning and decision making,” Dowell said. “Data regarding graduation rates, learning outcomes, enrollments and more are used regularly to plan and guide our decisions. Institutional Research’s outstanding staff, ably led by Dr. Van Novack, provides much of the data that informs these decisions. His office plays a vital role in the effective management of CSULB.”

Among data the IR office provides is the student perception of teaching survey (faculty evaluation), still a paper process working with about 250,000 forms a year; data used by academic programs to do their mandatory periodic review; and data used for accreditation, both at the campus level and for specific programs. The office also reports to all college guides like U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review and Orchard House. In addition, IR is in charge of faculty workload reporting which is the mandatory California State University academic planning data base compilation.

“Over the last decade, campuses have really stressed real strategic planning,” said Novack. “Not only where we’re going to be in a year from now, but three years from now, five years from now, seven years from now.”

“A quick glance at our IR website tells the whole story,” said Lynn Mahoney, associate vice president of Undergraduate Studies and Academic Advising. “The office, under Van Novack’s leadership, gathers an enormous amount of data and makes it accessible to all in very user-friendly ways. The range of information available is extensive and easily accessed. In addition, his staff produces custom-made reports (like the one she requested about pre-baccalaureate students) quickly and thoroughly. Their work has enabled us to make data-driven decision as we work to improve student success rates.

“Our graduation rates recently showed a significant increase,” she added, “and, while much will be made about the advising and teaching that fueled this improvement, it is unlikely that all this would happen without the light that IR has shown on both our challenges and successes in this area. Their data keeps us honest and ensures that our focus stays where it should be—enabling student success. Offices of institutional research are often the unsung heroes of campus efforts to improve student success. Ours deserves praise as one of the best with which I have worked.”

Novack is insistent that any interaction with his office should be 100 percent positive.

“We work hard, we offer a good product and it doesn’t cost you anything,” he said. “Every encounter someone has with us should be positive. It’s kind of a nice position because I think most people see us as very helpful and we help them better understand what’s going on with their own areas. Hopefully, 75 to 80 percent of the time people can find what they are looking for on our website. If not, we will provide a custom report if possible.”

Novack appreciates his staff, noting that he has a peer relationship with its members.

“This is a great job, it really is,” he said. “I have a group of educated, highly-trained and intelligent people working with me for which I provide general direction. I always say I’m not the best analyst in the office. Our work is becoming so specialized that no single person can be the best at everything we do. My personal contribution is to set priorities, confer with our constituents and determine how our collective efforts can be best utilized in order to offer the highest level of service to the university.”