A Conversation With the UNC System’s Senior Vice President for Strategy and Policy

What work does the Strategy and Policy division tackle at the UNC System Office?

The simple answer to that question is that we are responsible for all things Strategic Plan related. When I started in 2016, the first order of business was to create a new Strategic Plan for the whole System. We then took the System-level plan, with its 11 goals, and created performance agreements that spelled out what each institution would contribute in pursuit of these goals.

So, our work starts from those two big ideas: performance measurement and public accountability. How is the System doing as a whole? How are our institutions doing in terms of accomplishing the goals they’ve set out to achieve?

Once you set goals, you’ve got to identify the policies and investments that can help you achieve them. So we’ve done a lot of thinking about how our policies and resource streams are aligned with the goals we’ve set for ourselves. That’s an ongoing effort that involves thinking about how the University’s funding model operates, looking at our state’s financial aid programs, and assessing how existing policies align with our goals.

Andrew Kelly

Finally, we’ve actively worked to raise our game when it comes to research and development on student success. We all know we want more students to graduate and to graduate on time, but it’s not always clear which are the best strategies to make that happen and which are the most cost effective. We’ve built a platform here—the Student Success Innovation Lab—to facilitate that work.

We’ve built a platform here—the Student Success Innovation Lab—to facilitate that work.

In March 2019, the UNC System finalizes the first annual update of its Strategic Plan data dashboards on its website, charting each institution’s progress toward its performance agreement goals. Who should go visit these dashboards, and why?

The dashboards serve a couple of different purposes. First, concrete goals focus our work and the work of our institutions. These data dashboards make our progress and each institution’s progress public. This encourages everyone to keep this work a priority. It also gives institutions an opportunity to see what’s happening at their peer institutions.

Second, the dashboards help the public and our stakeholders—the General Assembly, other policy makers, our Board—to learn what’s going on and how the System and its institutions are faring in terms meeting their goals.

So, who should visit them? I’d say any taxpayer who has an interest in what our System aspires to do should come take a look! In particular, I think that local stakeholders—these might be representatives from the local school district or from the local government who are invested in their local UNC System institution —should certainly take a look. Encouraging more students to make their way to and through our institutions is a team effort, and you need input from beyond the UNC System.  The dashboards encourage participation at all levels–from the K-12 side, from the community colleges, from local and county governments.

You mentioned earlier that the Student Success Innovation Lab (SSIL) will promote student success strategies that are cost effective. In March 2019, the first official SSIL grant recipients will be announced. How are these grants designed to have a long-lasting impact on student success, which extends well beyond a few individual classrooms?

What makes these grants different from other competitive grant programs is that we aren’t just thinking about implementing new solutions to improve student performance. We’ve also taken steps to make sure we learn something from the implementation.

We have essentially taken the approach that a medical researcher would take in a clinical trial. We are insisting that every project we fund features a rigorous, third-party evaluation so that, at the end of the study, we can determine if a new approach really did have a causal effect on whether students were more likely to graduate. Did it set them up to earn more credits? Did it improve the odds of being retained from first year to second, and to complete a degree in a timely fashion?

Certainly, other systems have given out money to support special initiatives, but they haven’t been as attentive to rigorous evaluation. What we’re doing is unique, and it will allow us, as a System, to learn what works and to make the case for investment in proven strategies.

Strategy and Policy co-hosts the annual Student Success Conference. What was the big takeaway from the 2019 convening?

First and foremost, the conference revealed how much great work is going on at our institutions and how dedicated they are.

It also showed how student success must be a shared issue across divisions and roles. One thing the conference did was attract representatives from lots of different roles; we had professors, financial aid officers, student affairs staff, directors of institutional research, provosts … you name it.

That brings up another takeaway. Normally we tend to convene people based on titles. We regularly convene CFOs, or CAOs, for example. But this conference made it clear that we should probably consider convening leaders around particular topics related to optimizing student success, like student advising, or student financial aid. Obviously, there are people thinking about these issues all across the System, but there’s not always an excuse to get a cross-functional group together to share the work they are doing and what they’ve learned.

What is one experience you think every college student should have before graduation?

When I was an undergraduate, I went on an organized freshman camping trip. Then, when I was an upperclassman, I actually led a couple of those trips for incoming freshman. What this experience taught me is that, the more you are in contact with people who are different from you, the more you respect and appreciate different backgrounds and beliefs.

When you’re out in the woods, you’ve got to figure out where you’re going to find water. How are we going to cook? Where are we going to shelter? You’ve got to work together with people who might have different opinions and different life experiences.

Obviously, you can have this sort of experience anywhere. It doesn’t have to be a camping trip. But I think the most important social aspect of college is making sure that you have exposure to people who are different from you. Reading about diversity and tolerance is fine and good, but there’s no real substitute for actually being together with others and working on some common goals.

You’ve got to work together with people who might have different opinions and different life experiences.

What is one experience you think every university administrator should have on a regular basis?

Well, I don’t do this enough, but I would say that administrators should make sure they have regular and substantive interaction with students in a classroom. I don’t mean necessarily teaching a full class. But I find it so rewarding and so informative when I go and talk to a class, or even just sit in and listen to a class discussion. It’s easy to forget how different the world is for today’s college students.

It’s also easy to forget how much our system has opened doors to students from different backgrounds and with different academic experiences. That’s quite an accomplishment. And it’s a good reminder of what the UNC System is capable of when you sit with those students, and talk with them, and learn from them within the confines of an academic discussion.

You have a new domestic priority, which launched in June. How is your youngest daughter fitting in to her new role as junior advisor to the Kelly Division?

That’s right…Roxanne joined us on June 10th! I’m happy to report that she is a wonderful addition to team Kelly, sleeping well, and growing like a weed.

The real star, in my opinion, is her big sister. She’s really risen to the role of senior advisor, and it doesn’t always go that way with older siblings!