Crunching Numbers for a Living: proFile of Alisa Hicklin Fryar

I may be a longtime academic (and political scientist, no less), but I am not a numbers cruncher. Hand me a table with results from any regression analysis, and I immediately break out in a cold sweat, reliving my nightmares of statistics classes in graduate school. Quantitative work just isn’t my thing, but I do admire it. I appreciate the scholars dedicated to this kind of number crunching and analysis – scholars like Alisa Hicklin Fryar, associate professor of political science and specialist in higher education policy. Her passion for her work is contagious enough to even make me want to grab some data and a spreadsheet, and her heartfelt attention to her students is even more inspirational.

I spoke with Alisa recently about her love of data, her work-life balance, and her thoughts on mentoring, among other interesting topics. I hope you enjoy our conversation, and I bet you too will come away enthused and motivated, no matter what you do or study!

Could you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up, where did you go to school, what did you study and why?

I grew up in Southeast Texas, basically in the swamps, where the culture is a pretty strong mix of Texas and Louisiana. I attended a fairly rural public school, and after graduating high school, went straight to the local regional college, Lamar University. I always thought I would go into the "family business" and be a K12 teacher like my mom, aunts, sister, cousins, and uncle have been. I enjoyed speech and debate in high school and that led to my majoring in political science and minoring in math. The math minor seemed like it would give me some options (and I was worried that it would be hard to find a job to teach government). But, like many college students, my plans changed. I became completely enamored with universities. I genuinely love higher education, and I am still completely captivated by campus life, the diversity of students, the histories of public institutions, why we all do what we do, and everything else. And that was also when I turned into a bit of a number cruncher. We had to take two statistics classes for the political science major, and in one class, the professor gave us a database with the salaries of all of our faculty and tasked us with looking for evidence of inequities. I couldn't believe that we could even have access to those things!

Your academic work focuses on higher education policy, public management, and minority politics and policy. What drew you to these subjects?

It started during my time at Lamar. After my freshman year, I knew I wanted to be a part of higher education for the rest of my life. During my sophomore year, I served on a search committee for our college's dean and became fascinated with the strange path that is academic administration. My junior and senior years were dominated by student government work, where I began to see more of the inner workings of an institution and became interested in an issue that Lamar has been working to improve for quite some time: minority student success and minority faculty representation. But even then, I didn’t realize that it was something that I could study.

I thought I’d try to sneak through a PhD program and go back to Lamar. But my advisor in graduate school, Ken Meier, showed me how I could do research on these issues that matter most to me. He opened doors that I didn’t know existed, and it changed my life. It also changed the way I think about mentoring my own students. He allowed me to explore areas that were not considered “real political science” by most people, while showing me how to be successful in academia. It’s often difficult to do the work we care most about, while also doing the kind of work that will get someone through a dissertation, hired, published, tenured, and promoted. He never pushed me away from my core interests, but he was always honest with me about the risks that come with doing less traditional work. At all levels, higher education struggles with our core commitment to the free, open pursuit of knowledge and our commitment to being honest with our students about the world that exists outside of our campus.

How have quantitative tools helped you to study the subjects that matter to you, and why do you choose to "crunch the numbers," if you will, in your work?

I really like data. It’s weird, honestly. But there are a few things that seem to be consistent. Working with data often feels like putting together a puzzle without knowing what the final picture will be. Sometimes I come across data that surprises me or presents me with evidence that goes against what I think I know. I love that. It feels like a riddle or a mystery. One recent example came from a friend who works with Native American students. Over the last few years, the numbers on Native American student enrollment had been falling steadily, and that seemed strange. My friend thought that maybe Native American students were going to other schools in the state, so I found those data, and it showed that their enrollments were falling too. It was strange. After puzzling on it a bit, I had an idea that maybe there was something about multi-racial students (students who identify as Native American and White, or some other race), but I didn’t have access to the data that would let me know for sure. Finally, I found it! And sure enough, the number of students who identify solely as Native American was falling (to around 1,000), but the number of students who identify as Native American, including those who also identify in combination with some other race, was climbing steadily to over 2,600!

It felt so good to figure that out! But then it led to more questions. I often look at graduation rates for universities, but I realized that the Native American graduation rates only included the small group of students who identify as Native American only. That’s not very helpful when that group is less than half of the students who consider themselves to be Native American. But it also raises questions about the limitations of data that we face in all of our work. What does it mean to be Native American? What does it mean when two students with similar backgrounds make different choices about how they identify? And what should that mean for decision-makers at the university?

I also love how data can be used to question the assumptions that are made in our organizations and how those assumptions motivate policy and program decisions. Like, what percentage of your students take out student loans in a given year? If you think it’s 20%, you’re likely to think differently about our students’ financial situations than if you think it’s 80%. How much does it cost to spend five years at your institution? How does that compare with other schools? I cannot tell you how many times, and for how many different universities, even people at the top of the organization have been surprised by these numbers. And they matter tremendously.

You teach courses on data management. Can you tell us what we need to know about this subject – how to manage data and use it to enhance our learning?

Too often, we confuse data and statistics. I have students who are deeply insecure about their math skills and shy away from any conversation that involves data in a meaningful way. I also have students who have completed advanced statistics courses, but have never used Excel, manipulated a spreadsheet, or made a bar graph. Both are problematic. I wanted to experiment with ways to help students feel more confident working with data and help them see the ways in which data are a part of almost every facet of our lives.

Few things frustrate me more than seeing a smart, talented, educated person put themselves on sidelines every time a conversation becomes data focused. And it happens to women all of the time. They will be the ones with the most knowledge, expertise, and experience, but someone else starts quoting statistics, and those without statistical training often assume that the stats person knows more than they do. I see it happening to my female students, friends, and colleagues all of the time. Of course, there are times that statistical training is important, but it’s frustrating to see how statistics can be used to bully or silence others. I don’t want that for any of my students. I want them to have the knowledge and confidence to stay at the table and ask questions. Oh, and I want them to stop presenting pie charts. Pie charts are usually awful.

What are some of your favorite numbers to crunch?

Higher education numbers, always. Few people in political science or public administration study higher education, which is strange, because there is so much great data here! My favorite data are my survey data from university presidents. Surveying individuals at that level is really tough. They get tons of requests, they’re super busy, and they often want to hand it over to someone else in the office. Just getting it to their desk is an interesting challenge, but it’s so worth it. We ask questions about their relationships with state policymakers, how they make decisions about what to delegate, and how they think about their own priorities. It’s fascinating to me.

I’m also interested in the ways that we try to reconcile the inescapable tensions that we face on college campuses. We want students to have a rich, high-quality, personalized educational experience, we want to give faculty the support to do meaningful research, and we want to support our staff with appropriate salaries, benefits, and professional development opportunities, but these things are all extraordinarily expensive. And there’s no way to get around the fact that costs are increasing, state support is decreasing, and someone still has to pay the bills. So many people have deeply held beliefs about how to deal with these problems (make faculty teach more, do more online education, etc.), but most of these solutions have very little evidence that they would be effective. We make so many decisions about programs, prices, and staffing based on assumptions and best guesses. And some of those decisions end up costing a ton of money in the end.

Sometimes it’s the smaller things that are the most fun. A couple of years ago, we did an analysis of our department’s course enrollments to see why students take certain courses and avoid others. The results were amazing. Almost everything we thought we knew about students’ choices was wrong. It was “not supported by the data.” That’s an important difference. Statistics is not the almighty truth-telling function that some believe it to be. But it can make us reevaluate our own biases and beliefs in a way that can be quite healthy.

In addition to being a scholar and teacher, you are also a mom. How do you manage to integrate or balance work and life?

Well, we’re still learning. My daughter is nine months old, so I still feel like a “new hire” in the parenting department. A few people have asked me how I balance work and family life, and I have to be truthful. Right now, I don’t. “Balancing” suggests a level of control and stability that seems completely out of reach. I try to remember what I often say to my students about their exams: there is no right answer, but there are still some wrong ones. So, each day, I try my best to do right by my family and do right by my students, colleagues, and state. But most days, I’m happy if we can just keep most things from crashing down around us. It sounds a little fatalistic, I’m sure, but it’s the only path that lets me enjoy both my job and my family life in a meaningful way. I also have to remember that there really are no political science emergencies. My work is important, but I’m not curing cancer, saving souls, or bringing about world peace in my daily work on campus. Sometimes I just have to chill about it all.

How do you feel about mentoring in higher ed., especially for women?

Mentoring is so important, but I’m often struck by how different my experiences have been. I had a strong female mentor, Terri Davis, while doing my undergraduate work, but after that, most of my mentors were men. There were times when I would attend functions that were organized for women, at conferences or at the university, and sometimes they were great. But sometimes I felt a little like I didn’t belong, and even now, I’m not sure why.

These are the conversations that are the hardest to have, and I don’t talk about it much, because I’m reluctant to voice issues that might undermine the efforts of other women to bring people together. But the longer I’m on faculty, the more I have female students coming to me from time to time, and it’s not uncommon to hear the same from students. So it makes me think about how we can build spaces for women and maybe even try to diversify those opportunities. Some women feel like the efforts to support women are focused exclusively on supporting women with children, and they feel like there’s no space for those without children. Some women feel like the spaces designed to support women’s careers are too overtly political and not inclusive. Over the years, I’ve had a few conversations with junior women who were people of faith and moderate on issues of reproductive rights (usually pro-life but liberal on support for women and children). A couple of these junior faculty/students are also members of underrepresented groups and could benefit so much from stronger networks. And, to be fair, there are so many spaces where women are supportive and engaged, regardless of family structures or political beliefs. But it’s easy to see how we can fall into the trap of either focusing exclusively on specific issues or making assumptions about the extent to which our experiences and priorities are shared by others.

Hopefully we can continue to find and build spaces that are supportive and inclusive for all women. And, if nothing else, maybe there is some value to someone in hearing that it’s okay to feel out of the loop at some of these functions. There are so many opportunities, formal and informal, for us to work together. And I’m trying to do better about going to events. Well, as long as they aren’t breakfast events. That’s never going to be my scene!

How has your work changed over time, especially as it relates to mentoring?

It’s something that is constantly evolving. Among my undergraduate students, I’ve found that the ones that are most likely to need more attention and need me to be more proactive in working as a mentor are my male students. So many of our guys are struggling, and, outside of the top 20% or so, they are often the most reluctant to reach out and ask for help. I get so much out of working with them, because I always see glimpses of my various friends and family in them. A lot of students are in college, but it’s hard to know if they’re ready to be in college. So how can we help them?

I try my best to be honest with the students that seem to be a bit… let’s say… “distracted.” I try to avoid too much of the “you need to get your act together” talk and often spend more time talking about the long game. We talk about avoiding the things that lead to long-term consequences (like super bad GPAs, crazy debt, legal issues, etc.) and the value of having someone they can come and talk to when they’re ready to get back on track. And they take me up on it! I’ve had a handful of students who ended up getting terrible grades in an early class with me, but they show up in a class two years later and talk to me about how they’re ready to get going on something. It’s a small thing, in the big scheme of it all, and I know it doesn’t make a huge difference overall, but it means a lot to me. When students mess up, they often slink away, thinking that we have permanently categorized them as lazy or dumb or irresponsible. I want to do my best to keep the door open for them.

What advice would you give to women who would like to work in your area, or in academia more generally?

So many women struggle with imposter syndrome, and it can really be discouraging. Most of the advice I see out there is basically centered on helping people realize that they’re not actually imposters. This doesn’t work for me, but I’ll tell you what has worked for me. The longer I’m in this business, the more I’ve realized that even the best, smartest, most senior, most prestigious, most accomplished scholars think they’re frauds at times. So I’ve come to believe that 95% of us think that we’re imposters, at least occasionally. The other 5% are jerks. And they’re usually the real imposters, too! So I try not to spend too much time worrying about whether I deserve to be here or whether someone will figure out how dumb I am in certain areas. I don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, and I try not to put others on a pedestal either. Because the truth is that the work that we do is not inherently any better or worse than the work that is done by the billions of people around the world. So I’ll keep trying to do a better job of working hard, doing right by my students, and being kind to others. And I’ll keep messing that up in new and unexpected ways at times. But I’ll keep trying.

Academia is a tough business,