Driven by Data

Rebecca Friedkin collects and analyzes data to facilitate decision-making at the College

Photograph by Brandon Schulman

As the recently named director of the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, Rebecca (Becky) Friedkin has joined Barnard in a new senior-level administrative position. For those who might wonder what institutional research is, Friedkin offers a succinct definition: She studies Barnard and the higher education community to support planning and decision making across the College.

In practical terms, this means being a central repository for a wide variety of data, making it readily available to faculty and administrators, and bringing relevant data to bear on important issues. Friedkin sees her “data maven” role as “helping to frame conversations around important questions – using data to provide context for understanding the challenges and opportunities facing Barnard.”

Data tracked by her office includes composition of the student body, faculty, and staff; course offerings and enrollments; students’ majors and minors; tuition, room and board costs at Barnard and at peer schools; admissions and financial-aid statistics; and survey data from students, alumnae, parents, and faculty and staff. One strength of institutional researchers is that they can merge data from different areas of the College and do complex analyses over time.

The second focus of Friedkin’s position is the coordination and support of assessment of student learning outcomes. Although faculty constantly evaluate student work and assign grades, assessment in this context makes explicit the degree to which specific learning outcomes are achieved by Barnard students. For example, a student research paper may demonstrate strong technical writing skills but weak evaluation of primary sources. By clarifying areas of strength and weakness, faculty can make changes in curriculum and teaching to improve student learning. “Of course, the most important reason to do these assessments is to improve teaching and learning, but they are also critical in maintaining our accreditation, which makes Barnard eligible for federal financial aid,” says Friedkin.

A recent survey of alumnae from 15 classes between 1960 and 2005 provides evidence of the value of a Barnard education. Alumnae were asked how much their Barnard educations contributed to a variety of competencies. Among the highest-ranked skills are: critical thinking; writing clearly and effectively; thinking analytically and logically; and synthesizing and integrating ideas and information. All these capabilities firmly support the underpinnings and goals of a liberal arts education. And, says Friedkin, employers want to hire people with these skills. They are qualities that point to the development of successful leaders who can deal with complex issues, on a global scale if necessary, and implement solutions to problems.

The third facet of this new position is to advocate for the quality, integrity, and appropriate use of College data. Friedkin works with administrators and faculty to ensure that they have timely access to reliable information needed to perform their duties, and that they understand the limitations of and appropriate uses of data provided by her office.

Friedkin comes to Barnard after eight years in the institutional research office at Yale University, where she also earned a PhD in sociology, and she loves the small-college environment. She has spent years studying organizations and working with data, and, in her opinion, the idea that statistics can be manipulated to prove any point of view isn’t really accurate: It is important, when using data, to understand where and how they were collected, what they actually measure, and their limitations. Armed with a deep understanding of good data, an analyst sometimes discovers new ways of looking at the world.