Feb 02 2022

Q&A: Melissa Barnett Wants to Build a Solid Data House

The inaugural data governance manager at Georgia State University seeks to support analytics by creating a stronger foundation.

The pandemic has generated new data and new use cases for analyzing and applying the insights data can provide. EdTech: Focus on Higher Education spoke to Melissa Barnett, the first data governance manager for Georgia State University, about her path from academia to academic administration; the role of governance in providing a foundation for data analytics; and how IT, governance and analytics come together to support a responsive approach to higher ed in uncertain times.

EDTECH: What was your path to your current role at Georgia State University?

BARNETT: I had the unfortunate experience of defending my sociology Ph.D. dissertation a month before the economy crashed in 2008. If you were looking for a job at that time, it was slim pickings. I’d been trained to be on the tenure track. Instead, I basically flipped the script and went from publishing in peer-reviewed journals to researching key questions for the institution, first at Harvard and then at MIT. At MIT, I started realizing that I had to really search for the data. So, I started digging into governance. If you know anything about governance, it’s not usually what people would consider a sexy topic, like data analytics, but it is the foundation upon which data analytics rests. To me, it’s similar to research methods or scaffolding, which are essential. Now, I am the inaugural data governance manager at Georgia State. I’ve been in my position almost a year.

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EDTECH: What role does data governance play in supporting a robust data analytics program?

BARNETT: It goes back to that foundational component. Governance doesn’t happen quickly. So, for those universities that had it in place, they had the foundational support, and their analytics rests on top of it. In the longer term, governance allows you to know what you have, how it’s defined, and then you can start to understand what you might need to collect to answer those larger questions pertaining to student success or any other components.

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EDTECH: What is the relationship between data governance, data analytics and core IT?

BARNETT: Those three components really work together. At Georgia State, we conceive of the shape of our governance structure as a pyramid. At the top is the university president, then the data trustees, etc. So, I work with everyone from the president to the people who are doing the hands-on work. Of course, they’re at varying levels. If you look at our pyramid, I am the connection and communication source across all levels. IT undergirds the structure. Governance cannot exist without IT. Governance needs IT. Often, a university will buy a data governance tool without having fully informed their people what’s going to happen or building the needed relationships that lead to a successful implementation. Then, that tool languishes because they haven’t built up the “people infrastructure.” Those relationships need to be established to explain, “This is important and here’s why. This is how to do it. Here’s your support network." I know what it’s like to be that analyst and have leadership saying, “We need answers.” Analytics is my soft spot, as a former analyst, and I now say, “OK, as a governance manager, I’m here to support and guide you, and I want to be that foundation and that support mechanism for you.” But I am not an IT person. I need their expertise.

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EDTECH: What advice would you give to somebody who is where you were a little over a year ago?

BARNETT: First and foremost, communication is key. I regularly work with 46 data stewards and all their team members, about 200 people total. I don’t have inquiries from each of them in my inbox every day, but they do have questions, and I absolutely need to communicate with them to advance our governance initiative. I also put people in connection with one another when needed. Higher Education Data Governance (HEDGe) has also provided a wealth of knowledge and wonderful connections with people across the United States and internationally. On a daily basis, I’m very much into the details of data governance at Georgia State. But at the same time, Georgia State is part of a university system where there are 26 other institutions that are a part of this, where data governance was mandated in 2019. When I speak with my fellow colleagues at Georgia Tech or at other universities in the system, like Augusta, I learn what their challenges are, and it puts what we’re working on at Georgia State into perspective. To return to that theme of relationships, you also need to establish them at your own institution and among your own peers across the higher ed landscape.

FIND OUT: How to achieve effective data analytics.

EDTECH: What are you looking forward to accomplishing as data governance in higher education continues to develop?

BARNETT: Universities are going to increasingly feel the need to use their data in new ways to answer pressing questions. With use comes responsibility, and they will need to firm up that foundation. So, I’m looking forward to seeing the expansion of data governance throughout higher ed. Data is an asset, and it needs to be taken care of. Again, it’s not sexy like analytics, where the focus is on results and visualizations. But governance is the foundation. You wouldn’t want a house without a foundation. It’s not the thing you think about all the time, but it is important and it needs to be there.

Photography by Dot Paul

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