It starts with strategy: Intentional goal setting, strategic planning, & pickleball

It starts with strategy: Intentional goal setting, strategic planning, & pickleball

It starts with strategy: Intentional goal setting, strategic planning, & pickleball

Sophie Tullier, Blog Team write and Director of Assessment, Data Analytics, & Research at the University of Delaware

Hello SAAL Blog readers! Here is the next installment of our conversation series getting to know The leaders that make up this wonderful group of Student Affairs Assessment Leaders and learning from their personal stories. I joined the SAAL blog team after starting a new role as the Director of Assessment, Data Analytics, and Research at the University of Delaware. Being new to the role, I reached out to others who have been doing this work for a while. Given SAALs mission and vision center, in part, on the creation of a thriving community, I thought I would share with you a bit of what I learn from these conversations as well as some information about the humans in these roles, the faces behind the listserv emails so to speak.


Each conversation has been an hour long, so I’m not going to share all of what we talked about. I’ll share a bit about who these individuals are, some of their thoughts and advice, and hopefully give you some new ideas to ponder in your own work, with my own take-aways following the recap of our conversation.


Dr. Shaun Boren (he, him, his)

Director, Student Life Assessment & Research

University of Florida

In his current role: about 6 years

Also serves as: co-chair of NASPA’s Assessment, Evaluation & Research Knowledge Community; ACPA’s past co-chair of the Assessment Institute, ACPA representative to the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education.


Tell me about your journey into student affairs assessment. How did you get here? It was not my childhood ambition…. My undergrad required physical education courses as an elective. Kind of unusual, but part of their liberal arts degree was PE. I grew up with exemptions from physical activity but they said "No, we accommodate people." And I had never heard of accommodations, right? I ended up connecting with this guy that taught a lot of the outdoor classes. That transition from not feeling like I had this disability, it really was a developmental awakening, so I started helping. Part of it was practical . And it was like, "How do I afford to do all these things?" "Well, if you're a teaching assistant you can do this for free." So, I got into all that there. Eventually I went to a master's for outdoor ed to run an outdoor program for Student Affairs.



My first professional job was running an outdoor program. But one of my first tasks was pitching for and designing and building and running a climbing wall. So, I had to pitch the idea and pretty early on it was like, "What's the data?" So, benchmarking, how big a program, how much money do you need, where does it go, how many staff? So, using data to run this thing that I hadn't done before. And then telling the story, like how do you pitch for more money? So, I was doing more work with assessment before it was called assessment.


In time the division decided to hire a full-time assessment person. I was encouraged to apply by some administrators but I didn’t know if I wanted to do it by myself because I've never really done this. I'm not sure if I can do it well. I didn't apply and they hired someone and I knew I was going to work closely with this person and see what they do to learn from them. I thought the work was really interesting. I loved working with her, was more interested, but I had a great job. And at that point, I’d advanced in my career and recreation was a big part of my identity. I was known in those circles. I didn't really know how to shift. But my wife applied for a job here at UF. And she didn't think she'd get it, but she did. So I looked for a job but finding an outdoor job is just so rare. People don't leave those very often. So, I thought maybe this would be a good time to see if I can switch. They were opening a new shop here, they had hired all the analysts, and the last person to hire was a director. I just won the lottery here. I was on the third search. I didn't even know the first two searches since I wasn't looking and I kind of had nothing to lose. So, just told them what I had done and what I like to do.



I forgot to mention - also the director left my prior institution and the VP said, "Before we even get a new person, I have some things I still need done. Can you cover?" So, I was just interim, and there weren't any other staff, so I was working with IT analysts. But this was the VP's directive, so there were people in IT investing time. Being able to work with the analysts and realize I didn’t have to have been an analyst to be a supervisor of an analyst, that's a different job. And I really liked that job of coaching them on what to do and what the results mean and how to package it up. That was enough experience for me to learn and to be able to interview about what I have to offer.


What advice do you have for me as a new director or someone new to this field? One is understanding how much work is in the lake – understanding data, enriching data. There are certainly the minefields of getting data, other units' concerns over how you're using data, units trusting you to be good stewards of their data. But of course, you're also looking for a comprehensive picture of student engagement that no one unit can provide. That involves connecting data in ways it hasn't been connected. The advice there is the importance of personal relationships. I'm not great at it, that's a room for improvement for me. Also often if you have a consultation with the department about what they want, they'll ask what you have, and then they say, "Give me everything," and it's just not sustainable. And it's not particularly helpful for them, really. So, that's been a big part is the sustainability of projects and how to automate reports that they might need.



Related would be understanding data governance and getting in on those conversations. The school, when I started, they had a first meeting with data governance that didn't include Student Affairs. And then I got in on the meeting and they were talking about gender, and they're like, "Well, we don't think we even need gender, so let's just erase it." Because classes, they don't use it. Which was a valid thing to recognize of you don't need gender in the classrooms. Yeah, we're like, "No, housing is actually gendered, and sports are gendered, and Greek is gendered," Very relevant conversation for us to be in. I didn't know how much advocacy would be in that work from my little shop, but it is very much so.



I also was spending some time thinking critically about our assessment committee here at UD, and I asked Shaun pointedly about if he has one of these groups and how it works for him:


We did have one. We paused that in the pandemic, and then I did not resume it. For various reasons here it wasn't the right time to resume it after. We also had a problem that those liaisons - a lot of times it was newer hires that took an assessment class where their bosses did not, and they're like, "You don't run away from the word assessment, so go do the assessment team," but they weren't positionally empowered to bring that back to the leadership of their units, particularly the big units. They were just kind of lost in the org chart. So, what we’re going to try next is charging the new group with being the point of contact for annual reporting, will have some teeth that the old version didn’t have. And I think our roster will look a bit different.



But really the big thing I want from staff now is more intentional goal setting and strategic planning. When we would ask them what's your assessment agenda, they're confused by that. But you take the word assessment off, just like, "What's your agenda? What are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish for your department? Okay, cool. How did you come up with those? Like what informs that? How do you know if it's progressing? What does success look like? How do you know?" It all becomes assessment questions, but it starts with strategy. We're now leaning into being the central service for this in my division which came to us through asking all of these "why" questions in consultations.


What’s the biggest issue/change you are watching in the field right now? I'm certainly watching AI right now. The real interesting thing I think our analyst is doing with that is you can tell it like, "Give me some generic code for this." But then you would have to rewrite the code to line up to your variable names in your spreadsheet. Well, no, you can give it your spreadsheet without the data. Say, "Write a code that will give me this." And it will match so it's ready to run. Then you can run it and see what you get, check it against some of your known data, like do some tests and then give it like, "Wait, I'm getting this error for this piece of data," and it'll check it and go, "Oh, I got that wrong. Here's better code." So, it's really changing the work.


Like I've had multiple projects now, like a department reached out a couple of weeks ago and they gave me their curriculum and wanted help coming up with a rubric to evaluate students’ work. I'm wanted to try this. So, I put in the curriculum document, told it, "I need a rubric to grade a portfolio that covers this curriculum." I mean, 10 seconds. It took me longer to type the query than it did the response. And I checked it. I checked and it was really good. And we've been learning, like I shared that with them, not telling them the source until after they offer their feedback. Because if I told them the source, they'd think they don't trust it, and we didn't do our job. I'm not hiding something, but it's a tool we use. It's like anything, like spell check, you check it and go, "No, I did spell that correctly. That's a proper name," or something. Even if you disagree with it, it'll give you a starting place. If you're not doing it, you're spending hours, what could have been minutes on a part of your job. So, she knows in her field, she's behind if she's not using that now.


What do you do in your spare time? Oh, geez, I've been totally addicted to pickleball lately. Right before the pandemic with some family, and the stereotype like this was my wife's parents. So, the retirees that play pickleball. But it's shifted to a much younger audience now. I play with teenagers. My daughter plays, she's 13. I play with the in-laws, everywhere in between. Yeah, so I've been doing that a lot. I have too many hobbies. It's good, I just don't know when to find the time. We've been talking about starting an Etsy shop. Actually sell pickleball-related stuff. I do some woodwork. So, making wall-mounted medal holders out of wood, and then a lot of people look for matching outfits to wear on a team for tournaments. So, selling visors and t-shirts with funny team names or whatever. So, we might have a family Etsy shop soon. I also play music, not as much as I want right now, but I try and play some sort of music every day… Mostly guitar. I grew up playing piano. I have drums as well. We were talking about getting a Student Affairs band together here. I had that in my old job a band of all Student Affairs staff. That was really fun so I’d like to do it again.


I loved this conversation with Shaun. Even though it’s been a while since we chatted, I still find myself thinking about this conversation and some of the lessons I took from it. I explored ChatGPT for the first time after talking with him and have been moving forward with some of his ideas and cautions about data lake ideas as well as how to reimagine our assessment committee here at UD. I hope this sparked some ideas for your own work too!

Shaun really highlights for me:

1) The (ever true) importance of building trust with your colleagues and being strategic as a division and focusing on your goals. These things can often go hand in hand, and building trust helps so much with the “textbook” aspects of assessment and our new turn as a field towards leveraging data warehouses and AI.

2) I also really loved Shaun’s ability to be flexible and thoughtful in his role. I’m not sure how much that comes out in the written snippets instead of listening to him talk, but I got the sense that Shaun is great at adapting and fine tuning what works, what doesn’t, and fitting what he wants to accomplish into some of the campus politics and leadership changes he’s experienced. He seems to me to be a great example of what it means to take in information and fine tune our work.


This series is meant to highlight and lift-up those who are working in assessment full-time on a campus with at least some of their time dedicated to student affairs or co-curricular assessment. Know someone you’d like to learn from featured in the series? Leave their name in a comment and I’ll do my best to connect with them!




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