InterfolioUniversities' new era of academic management

Universities' new era of academic management

The right data technologies can help higher education institutions to streamline HR processes, allowing careers, diversity and inclusion to flourish.



Higher education has embraced cutting-edge technology to manage a growing and increasingly diverse student body. Data insights and learning analytics are de rigueur on campus as universities look to maximise student success and remain competitive. But can a university remain competitive if data-driven technologies are not similarly implemented to get the most from their academic staff?

Joey Williams, director of communications at the University of Texas at Austin, believes that universities are feeling the pinch in an increasingly competitive market for top academic talent. He views the traditional models of recruitment as no longer fit for purpose. Universities have to look to new processes, technologies and data insights to manage their academic staff. “Recruiting faculty is really a global market and it has become hyper-competitive, especially for really top talent,” he says. “A lot of it is to do with universities really being pushed to be more economically efficient. Leaders are also much more intelligent when it comes to wanting data about what they are doing with their money.

“So, if we are going to go out there and recruit faculty, they really want to see the data behind it and that what they are investing in is actually bearing results.”

The University of Texas is a large institution with approximately 3,500 academic members and a student body of more than 50,000. The organisational challenges that Williams talks about will be immediately recognisable to higher education professionals. While there is the will to embrace data, and the strategy, change often arrives at its own pace when there is the need to overhaul legacy procedures and IT systems.

Williams says that it is important to incentivise this change. If academics and other staff can see how new technologies are improving their working day, they will buy into it. For the past five years, the university has been using Interfolio’s suite of software and solutions for better academic management. Interfolio has enabled the institution to use its data to enhance its recruitment processes and simplify its workflows, says Williams.

“If the dean comes to us and asks for a report, that’s something that we can do pretty much instantly,” he says. “Before, you would have to solicit information from individual departments and committees – even that on its own would require a lot of people’s time. Now, we are able to provide granular, departmental, college or institutional data very quickly. And if we are trying to do something new, we are able to see if it is helping. If not, we can adjust.”

Interfolio was founded by Steve Goldenberg in 1999. He wrote the business plan when he was an undergraduate studying entrepreneurship at Georgetown University. While there, he worked in the careers office, where he witnessed the labour-intensive, all-paper processes that scholars would need to embrace to further their careers in academia.That led to the development of Interfolio’s electronic dossier service. Its first customer was the University of Virginia. Students there paid a small fee to use it and it was a success, albeit a limited one. Goldenberg’s next goal was to create a platform to benefit the institution in all matters of academic management, including document collection, citations and equal employment opportunities compliance.

Higher education’s widespread shift to cloud-based IT solutions in 2010 created the opportunity to do just that. “The academics are the beating heart of an institution and the university didn’t have the tools for hiring them,” Goldenberg says. So he looked at staff search committees, saw how they spent their time, and built more user-friendly reading tools for reviewing applications. Interfolio now offers multiple products to help institutions support staff throughout their careers – and build more diverse, inclusive departments. “It is important to recruit and hire the right people,” says Erin Mayhood, vice-president of product development. “One of the brightest examples that I can give, that I think resonates with most organisations, is that many institutions have diversity hiring strategies and goals, and when you use Interfolio to help with your hiring, most departments can achieve 100 per cent compliance on gathering equal employment opportunities information.”

The main consideration, says Mayhood, is “how do you get the papers, securely, into the hands of the right people?”.The key, she says, is transparency: the paper processes of old had problems that solutions such as the Interfolio Faculty Information System, with its customisable permissions and safeguards, doesn’t.

While some universities are still using paper processes, she sees the tide turning, although considerable challenges remain for universities transitioning to data solutions, such as deciding what data to collect and why, breaking down legacy systems, making decisions about where an institution’s source records will be stored and determining permissions surrounding access. “It definitely requires leadership and buy-in on campus, and some change management,” she says. “It’s about working with your implementation team on what challenges we have seen in other departments, talking openly with other departments about what their challenges are, exchanging ideas and strategy, and working to absorb those.”

Goldenberg sees research impact and civic engagement as the next potential areas where Interfolio can help universities support their faculties. Where is research creating the biggest impact on wider society? How can we better use data to measure and monitor civic engagement? These considerations, he says, can be folded into an academic information system. Right now, the greater issue is helping universities manage their digital evolution.

The solutions might appear technology-based but Mayhood reminds us that, in higher education, everything is really all down to people. “And so I always say, ‘Just start!’”

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