Marshall University is harnessing the power of exceptional data management to ensure a bright future for students and faculty
Brian Morgan loves data. When you talk to him about his passion, Marshall University’s first-ever chief data officer gives the impression that his ideal vacation would be diving deep into a data lake.
Founded in 1837 and named for Chief Justice John Marshall, the public university serves over 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students each year, attracting learners from 47 states and 56 countries.
Morgan is a true son of Marshall. For over 30 years he’s been part of West Virginia’s oldest university, earning his undergrad and master’s degrees and teaching computer science there. “I had been working with our university’s data, and for about 19 years did ad hoc reporting, providing lists for advisors, department chairs, deans, everything at all levels,” he said. “I did this on the side, not in an official capacity. I always had my eyes on the institutional research world, and the CDO job came open and I applied.”
These days, he has a key role in a digital transformation that aims to revolutionize data management at Marshall as well as the whole of higher education in the state. Jodie Penrod, who joined the staff as CIO in 2022, was tasked with creating the sweeping effort. Morgan admitted that when it comes to higher education he likes the bleeding edge, boldly anticipating future advances in technology, but stressed that change requires a significant cultural shift.
“This is teaching us that real institutional change actually requires a change of culture, and that may mean a replacement of culture rather than just a modification of culture. It’s not just a technology change,” he said. “Without the right people, the right culture, and the right leadership, it won’t be successful.” Driving that cultural change from the top is Marshall alum and former Intuit CEO Brad Smith. Having achieved buy-in from Smith, the Board of Governors, and all levels of the university staff, the culture change has been made.
Providing data and changing systems and processes have been phenomenal, he noted, but a powerful change will be breaking down the profusion of data silos that have existed throughout the university’s history. “On one of my first weeks on the job, the provost asked for 20 data points and I thought, ‘No problem, I'll go find them,’” he recalled. “It took contacting 15 people and getting data back in Excel, Smartsheet, PowerPoint, and paper to put that data together.”
Morgan is undertaking a full data governance campaign. There’s an aspect of possession at work that breeds silos; often, users see data as belonging to their area and scope of work and format it as they see fit. When there’s no telling where data originates from, if there is appropriate access, if it is secured properly, or what the data actually means, the data is essentially worthless.
Centralizing the university’s vast pools of data and providing appropriate access to it is, as Morgan put it, “(A) huge transformation to going from that old way of thinking to a new way of thinking so that we can then look at students, faculty, staff, everything holistically. We are integrating data from just about every system under the sun, and that's never been done on this campus.”
Currently, the university uses the Blackboard learning management system for analytics that are then tied into Marshall’s student information system. They are able to see students’ test scores, background information, and financial aid data. “Now we’re trying to analyze the student success path, their key factors, and the key points that attribute to student success,” he said.
Marshall has a full student success team who had kept all of their data separately, so he’s bringing that data together to track the interactions that the team has had with each student to ascertain the number and type of interactions and measure their impact on student success. “It’s beautiful looking at how much has been done, how much has been disparagingly disconnected, and how much we're trying to bring back so we can then have reporting and analytics on each student as a whole.”
There’s trouble looming on higher education that most colleges and universities are planning for: the dreaded enrollment cliff. In and around 2008 there was a dramatic reduction in birth rates related to the economic crisis of the time, subsequently decimating the number of high schoolers available to enter college in the coming years.
Morgan is actively creating a model to predict some of Marshall’s enrollments based on populaces. The model combines the number of applications and admissions with data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which provides predictions on state population, to predict how many high school students will graduate. “If we built an enrollment prediction model on historical enrollments without looking at external factors and external graduation rates, we'd be in a bad spot,” he explained.
West Virginia ranks 47th out of 50 states in terms of the highest reduction in the number of high school students who are predicted to graduate by 2031. Roughly 77% of Marshall’s students come from in-state, and that population is expected to decrease by at least 20% over the next eight years. Morgan’s prediction model considers several different student sectors, majors, and types of programs at other colleges that are growing.
“The data is not going to tell us that a population decline in West Virginia is hitting hard,” he pointed out, noting that the model will also analyze a host of other factors that impact enrollment rates, such as what programs may attract out-of-state and adult learners.
“Digital transformation is so much more than just a technological upgrade. It's actually a strategic shift to being more connected, efficient, and innovative across the educational setting. It's about enhancing student experience. It's empowering faculty and staff and ensuring that our resilience in a rapidly changing world is there. It's universities making a commitment to using data and technology to open doors for learning, research, and community engagement.
“But all the while, we have to stay true to our core values and the mission of our university,” Morgan concluded. “The beauty of all of this is using data to make those informed decisions and how we're going to transform.”
At Marshall University, we change lives and inspire extraordinary futures.
Our students attach high value to our small class sizes, having faculty members actively instructing in the classroom, the availability of intensive advising, exceptional student success resources, modern facilities, a growing global community and robust extracurricular programming.
Our faculty members are leaders, mentors and cultivators of talent. They are making a real difference in the lives of our students, many of whom arrive here with enormous potential but lack a reliable roadmap for academic accomplishment.
Our alumni are the heart and soul of the Marshall family. They have gone on to lead Fortune 500 companies, win Pulitzer Prizes and become captains of industry, science, education and the arts.
1 John Marshall Dr.
Huntington, WV 25755
Phone Number: 304.696.3170
Homepage Link: https://www.marshall.edu/