USF addresses systemic inequities using data from student, faculty insightsDashboards track diversity, anti-racism, and equity

The University of South Florida is currently the fastest-rising public University in the United States as reflected by a sustained, decade-long ascent across U.S. News and World Report's "Best Colleges" rankings.

But as USF grows, its institutional commitment to excellence in higher education asks in earnest: "best" for whom? How does the "USF experience" vary among its heterogeneous racial and ethnic populations? And how might the University bolster its services and redefine campus culture to improve the collegiate experience and provide better opportunities, both within and beyond the University walls, for all Bulls? 

USF recently launched the Diversity, Anti-Racism, and Equity (DARE) dashboards to address these questions. The DARE dashboards, which operate using Microsoft Power BI data visualization, will collect measurable insights about how students and faculty progress through their time at the University so that USF leadership may formulate workable, data-driven strategies to become a more equitable -- and, specifically: anti-racist -- institution.

Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, Senior Advisor to the President and Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, is the DARE project lead. USF offices of Decision Support and Student Success are partners in DARE dashboards' development, maintenance, and data analysis.

"We see across the country, whereas universities have had a knee-jerk reaction to George Floyd's murder and said 'OK, now we need to do something,' USF is different -- in part, because for the past 10 years, we have been really intentional in student success, which is why nationally we have been number one for Black student success and highly ranked for Latino student success," Hordge-Freeman says.

"I say that to say we have that trajectory to build on. At the same time, I don't think the DARE dashboard would have developed if those events wouldn't have happened -- but I'm also really confident about the foundation we have built, which, to me, suggests that not only are we going to collect this data, but we're going to apply that data as the strategic plan."

Inclusion in a new light: moving goal posts from 'diverse' toward 'anti-racist' 

President Currall penned a message to students and faculty last June pledging a commitment to examine and reform USF policies to better support the Black community -- a response to nationwide civil unrest following George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police. The President's letter was met by a call from Black faculty and staff, penned by Hordge-Freeman and signed by nearly 90 colleagues, for USF to move beyond merely embracing diversity -- and instead work to cornerstone all University operations in anti-racist practices.

"By 'anti-racist' what we mean is that USF wants to take a proactive role in dismantling systems and structures that disadvantage racial and ethnic minority groups. What we know, historically, is that universities have been spending a lot of time and investment focused on diversifying student population, for example, and even faculty population," Hordge-Freeman says.

"But the work of anti-racism goes beyond, specifically, the composition of 'who's here,' to considering: How are folks advancing through their time here? How are they experiencing USF? Are folks having similar outcomes in terms of jobs they obtain after they graduate? Or, if we're talking about faculty: Are faculty able to get tenure and then move into leadership roles? We're asking different types of questions ... then we're building on those questions to determine whether or not USF has embedded anti-racism and a focus on equity in everything we do."

Asking the questions -- and then analyzing the answers to develop anti-racist practices rooted in concrete data -- is where DARE dashboards enter the picture. 

Office of Decision Support analyzes data to help USF craft new narratives

"The DARE dashboard is an opportunity for USF to compile essential data related to equity and anti-racism from across all our campuses. What it will allow us to do is have a comprehensive overview of where we are now, at baseline, so that we can develop goals and track our progress in a way that also builds in accountability for ourselves and to the broader public," says Hordge-Freeman.

DARE dashboards combine numerical data and statistics, such as the percentage of students who rely on financial aid, with qualitative data collected in the form of short essay-style questionnaires. Each dashboard can be broken into four key metrics: Access, Achievement, Inclusion, and Engagement.

The Access and Achievement metrics dig into the quantifiable data such as student loan statistics, degree attainment, and post-graduation employment rates. The more experiential metrics of Inclusion and Engagement are designed to draw a clearer picture of which populations receive or struggle to access mentorship and leadership opportunities, course engagement, and insights on campus climate through individualized short-answer responses.

"Those four elements are really the foundation of what we're working on -- but we imagine, and what we hope to do, is to continually be open to how these elements can expand. What's so gratifying about working with the Office of Decision Support at USF is that, as I am able to access some of the studies and surveys they have compiled, we’re able to ask new questions. We're able to evaluate the data we've collected in the past, analyze it, and, given the findings that we have, ask: How might that drive how we move forward?" Hordge-Freeman says.

Office of Decision Support Associate Vice President Dr. Valeria Garcia says the ODS was created to maintain data sets across the University and bring disparate offices, such as Information Technology and Student Services, together to serve the needs indicated in the data.

"It's a marriage of institutional research and institutional effectiveness assessment: How are we doing, what are we not doing as well on, and how do we improve?" says Dr. Garcia. 

She says ODS "keeps the hat on data integrity" managing the DARE dashboards.

"We're looking not only at demographics -- but what's happening? What are the feelings? What's the satisfaction? What is the perception? There are all those components of it, and then it's down to services. What are we doing to help move the needle in some of this?" Garcia says. 

"It's not hard, necessarily, in terms of bringing the data together. It's hard in terms of making sure you're framing the questions and the data in a way that they become meaningful. You're telling the story -- whether it's the story you're still in, or where you've arrived -- and then where you want to be as an institution. We get to take the data as a standalone and then translate that to really be powerful," she explains.

Dr. Hordge-Freeman says partnering with ODS creates an opportunity for USF to lean into data-driven priorities as the University advances its mission to dismantle systemic inequities.

"I think the power we are yet to leverage at USF is what it means when you have folks with such different expertise. If we manage to bring folks together in a way that's synergistic, we can achieve our goals at a much faster rate and really re-think, and re-define, even, what's important to us," Hordge-Freeman says.

Phased DARE rollout focuses on students and faculty
The Phase I DARE dashboard measuring student data concluded in December 2020. Phase II, which focuses on faculty, is scheduled for completion in mid-March. Phase III will measure institutional and academic support. 

"Part of it is to make sure we're very deliberate and that we've unpacked [the data] and understand its nuances because then we have to translate those. We're making sure the data are stable and solid; that we have confidence in the data. That's why the phases are so important. It lets us process those [data] to make sure we're asking the right questions, and then nuancing them -- because context is so very important," Garcia says.

Hordge-Freeman says DARE student dashboard data already highlights "opportunities for growth." She suggests, for example, the University could begin looking at strategies to improve graduate school recruitment and support for Latinx students -- a population DARE Phase I data indicates is underrepresented in USF's postgraduate programs. 

She anticipates the Phase II dashboard will provide valuable insight into USF's hiring patterns, and what happens after faculty receive tenure: how they move through their time at USF from associate to full positions, their access to leader and mentorship roles, and perceptions of USF infrastructure.

Hordge-Freeman says early financial aid data also illuminates an area of interest in USF's efforts to push the needle on equity. Currently, 70% of Black students and 54% of Latinx students of all races report taking out student loans compared to 40% of white students and 32% of Asian students.

"One of the pieces that I'm really interested in is this question of equity and how that's connected to student loan debt," Hordge-Freeman says. 

"We can see there are some huge gaps between Black students and other students in terms of the financial consequence of going to college. That is important, not only for the University to understand but also for other entities outside of the University. ... one of the really great outcomes of working with the ODS is that we're able to delve in even more deeply into some of those questions, to unpack what's happening, and develop strategies of addressing them that include, but also extend far beyond, USF."

Office of the President houses USF Anti-Racism web portal

In December 2020, USF launched a University-wide Anti-Racism Website as a comprehensive resource. A portal on the website connects USF students, faculty, and staff to the University's Equal Opportunity Complaint Form where they can report bias, as well as links to mental health and other support services the University provides. The website also serves as a repository for anti-racism and diversity training opportunities and community events.  

The site currently contains a section on COVID-19 Equity & Anti-Racism that addresses pandemic and vaccination concerns among Tampa Bay area BIPOC communities, as well community outreach efforts that exist in partnership with USF Health. 

Hordge-Freeman encourages members of the public to connect with USF by using the website to share their own stories, experiences, and ideas. Becoming an anti-racist institution will be an ongoing effort, she says -- and the more community involvement and urgency for accountability, the better.

"I think best practices remind us that the work of equity and anti-racism has to be ongoing, and has to be sustained. The moment we think we've made it is the moment we're making a mistake because we have to constantly be vigilant of all the ways that inequities manifest themselves in a University, and in society more broadly," says Hordge-Freeman.

Visit the USF Anti-Racism website and the Diversity, Anti-Racism, and Equity Dashboard to learn more.
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Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.