What We Are Reading: Epic Measures


Book: Epic Measures
Author: Jeremy N. Smith
Reviewed by: Joyce Romano, Vice President, Student Affairs

In early September 2015, I participated in a Gates Foundation meeting, held in Seattle, to consider how to leverage insights on student success across higher education, so that each institution does not have to “reinvent the wheel” and also to make substantial gains in student success rather than a “best practices” model, which we have been using with marginal improvements. (A recent Lumina conference released data that the percentage of U.S. adults with a college credential has increased 2.4 percent since 2008 to 40.4 percent, but the goal is to get to 60 percent by 2025.)slice

The Gates meeting introduced ideas from a variety of fields in order to enrich the thinking and conversation about what new approaches may be useful. The book “Epic Measures” by Jeremy N. Smith was mentioned, and I was intrigued, so I read it when I got back from the meeting. I found it fascinating, and it sparked my thinking about how the approach could be applied to students in college.

The book tells the story of Christopher Murray, a Harvard trained medical doctor who, through unique experiences with his family in Africa when he was young, became intrigued with how to measure world health in a comprehensive manner that accounted for all of the ways that human life is affected by disease and affliction. His 20-year effort had a lot of ups and downs, including the fact that his idea was disruptive to the world health community and the way they calculated impact, which affected their funding.

Chris is described as a hard-driving, energetic and often abrasive person who doggedly pursued his idea and partnered with others as possible. In 2000, the Global Burden of Disease (GBDx) study was first published in an online format. It has been updated and is accessible by clicking here.

What Chris and his collaborators provided was a comprehensive accounting of not only what people around the world die of, but they also created an algorithm to calculate years lost to quality of life from chronic illness (the DALY’s — Disability Adjusted Life Years). The online tool allows the viewer to look at the data by country, diseases, regions and comparisons of all variables in current time and over time.

So it got me thinking about whether a similar comprehensive data approach could be calculated for student success. There are theories in higher education about “what makes a difference,” and Valencia has been a leader in implementing practices based on these theories at scale so that all students can benefit. But what is the holistic impact of each of the variables that might affect student success? How have they changed over time? What are the patterns that suggest synergistic solutions?

This kind of reading is helpful to my work as a leader at Valencia, because it keeps me reaching for new approaches that I can share and discuss with others. I believe that each of us contributes best by continuing to sharpen our professional practice, whatever job we have at the College, and to bring ideas forward for improvement in whatever sphere of influence we operate. The collective learning is powerful. Encouraging this among the individuals we supervise is an important leadership practice that makes Valencia the vibrant, innovative institution it is.

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