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How Data Drives Cultural Fluency & Why It's Important

cultural fluency

Season 2  |  Episode 4  |  Dr. Belinda Higgs Hyppolite, University of Oklahoma

Not everyone experiences university life the same. Storytelling through data allows different perspectives to come to life. Data tells the story of how to recruit, retain, progress and promote. The reality is that data also dictates dollars.

Dr. Belinda Higgs Hyppolite, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Oklahoma, shares why diversity is not our problem but our promise for a better future.

Listen to this episode on Spotify!


[00:06] ERIN KING

More people than ever are questioning the value of higher education. We are here to explore why they're right, why they're wrong and which institutions are rising to the challenge. I'm here with our Analytics Consultant, Dr. Jacob Bonne.

Dr. Bonne, who do we have with us today?


Absolutely. Thanks, Erin. I'm happy to introduce a friend and colleague, Dr. Belinda Higgs-Hyppolite, who is the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Oklahoma. Thanks for joining us, Dr. Hyppolite. Can you share with us a little bit about your work at Oklahoma?


Good morning, and thank you both for the opportunity to be with you. Again, my name is Dr. Belinda Hyppolite, and I serve as the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer across all three of the University of Oklahoma campuses.

We have a campus in Norman, which is our traditional undergraduate population, and we have a campus in Oklahoma City, which is our health science center; so it is associated with OU Health and our hospital system. And then we also have a regional campus in Tulsa, OU Tulsa campus.

My job at the University of Oklahoma is to help advance the mission of diversity, equity and inclusion and to ensure that I attend to (me and my team) the campus climate and issues that could emerge on our campus.

But our goal is really to increase the sense of belonging and emotional support for all faculty, staff and students. We have several different constituents that we serve, and the goal is to make sure that you can show up on campus and be your authentic self and have a great experience and to just be free to be who you are without judgment.

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[01:48] KING

On this season of DataU we're discussing the future of work.

So how are universities preparing their graduates to join the workforce with a framework of diversity, equity and inclusion?


Well, I think as you know, the demographics are changing within the United States and globally, so I think that if universities are not discussing diversity, equity and inclusion and belonging, then they're doing a disservice to students who walk through the doors of the academy.

Part of the academy's mission is to allow students to come in and to use their creativity and innovation, and to seek truth and to seek knowledge and to go through the inquiry experience. Part of the job of higher education is to provide awareness and education, but to also provide exposure and to provide knowledge; and knowledge is the baseline of what we hope students come to our campus to pursue.

That means the student they come to the university as should not be the same student that graduates from the university. If we have done our jobs well, we have exposed them to different experiences, to different cultures, to different individuals that they may have had no interactions with in their hometowns, in their high schools or what have you.

The promise of higher education is to give you an inclusive and holistic experience. As you know, industry, Fortune 500/400 companies, nonprofits, for-profit companies, are looking for individuals who can walk into an environment and add value immediately, and part of adding value is walking in with a level of cultural fluency and cultural understanding, and knowing that you have to be able to engage with all types of people in order for an organization or company to be successful.

The goal is for companies to reach a customer base. In order to do that, you have to be able to attract a customer base, and so the question is not about who is coming, but most CEOs grapple with who's not coming, who is not engaging with our product, who are we not attracting?

Part of that can be because there is no brand recognition. Part of it can be because there is not an idea of how to connect with that type of customer. And so the more diverse perspectives, ideals, individuals that you have within the space, the better your company will be, the better your corporation will be.

It is to the benefit of individuals to look for folks with diverse perspectives, lived experience, global experiences because it only improves your ability to reach the customer base that you seek.

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[04:31] BONNE

We've talked a little bit about diversity, equity, inclusion and you threw another one in, sense of belonging. I know that's more and more a part of the conversation. Those are all central to values in higher ed and central to our operation. But how do you make sure that those aspects are everyone's responsibility across campus?


I think you just said it. I think the way that I look at my position at an institution, I'm an administrator. I sit in the ivory tower, as they say, of an institution which is generally classified as the administrative building, and so my job is to make sure that I am clear-eyed and that I understand the vision, mission, purpose and promise of the institution.

But it is not one person's job to lead the work of diversity, equity and inclusion. We all have an individual responsibility to really ensure that we are creating inclusive spaces throughout an institution, throughout a corporation, and the way that you do that is to make sure that inclusion is at the forefront of what you do, which means that there are mentoring programs in place so that when we invite in new employees, how are we onboarding them into our spaces? How are we making sure that we're creating those inclusive spaces, so that they can show up and be their authentic selves, that they can pursue knowledge and learn what is needed for an organization to thrive?

And so it is everyone's responsibility because we all have a sphere of influence, is what I say. What I often say to folks is: What are you personally doing to ensure that no one feels isolated or no one feels alone in this space? It doesn't mean that you have to go out and have a banner and become this huge social justice advocate. It could start with you just striking up a conversation with someone you don't know.

We all know that there are cliques that form within office spaces, so how are you inviting people into your space? How are you disrupting bad behavior? How are you correcting narratives that might be shared about individuals in the spaces?

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We all have to own our part. We all have a role to play. We all have a level of influence, and you don't need a title to be a leader. Part of leading is leading from where you are within an organization. And so again, that could start with having a conversation with your kids, having a conversation with your family, having a conversation with the people you go to tea with or play golf with. If you hear an inappropriate joke be willing to say: Hey, that wasn't funny or that landed on me this way.

I believe that you can be disruptive without being disruptive.

A lot of times the way that we move this work forward is because it's relational. And when you have a relationship with someone, it's easier to correct them, right? It's easier to level set expectations than to say: Hey, that didn't sit well with me.

Because I don't have a relationship with everyone, we need people who do have those individual relationships to capitalize on that influence that they have to lead the work forward.

[07:30] KING

We talk a lot about how universities are using data for change, so when it comes to students, how are universities using data to ensure equitable outcomes for their students? And what are some suggestions on how universities can do better?


Well, I think this is the core of what universities should be focusing on. As we know, data tells a story, and a lot of times people are very leery of, what will the data tell us. Sometimes organizations, companies and even universities are guilty of trying to put forward the really pretty shiny objects: The data said that we attracted this many students. We retained this many faculty. But in storytelling, we know that there is always a positive and a not so positive narrative.

I think I alluded to this earlier around what does the data tell us? What is it showing us around who we are attracting, who we are not attracting, who we've been able to connect with, who we have not been able to connect with, who is staying, who is leaving. Data tells the story around how we recruit, how we retain, how we progress, how we promote. All of that information can be gathered from data.

What I would say is that we have to use data to inform the work that we do and the way that we do that, where I am at my current institution, is that we have key performance indicators, and we use data to inform our strategy.

If we see that we are not attracting certain demographics, then we use the data to say: Well, why aren't we attracting? Have we not gone after this demographic? Have we not made it accessible? Are we not using the right type of language? Are we not using the right type of marketing strategies?

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I think that all of our decisions have to be data informed because I say data dictates dollars, and a lot of people don't want to talk about that as a reality. But when we look at a strategic plan, when we look at a key performance indicator, we fund the things that are priorities. Data helps to show us what the priorities need to be, and then the priorities have to show us where we need to put our funding in order to move organizations forward and to advance strategic plans.

I think it's critically important that data be infused into the DEI framework and into that sense of belonging framework because it is how we tell our story. It is also how we show our success and how we show our opportunities in the areas that we are underperforming.

[10:03] BONNE

I know we've talked quite a bit about students. You've referenced faculty and staff a couple of times. I'd love to hear some of your strategies or ideas around ensuring DEI for faculty and staff from the university HR side. We talk about that not nearly as often as we talk about students.


I will say that in my role they're kind of a package deal. My charge is to serve faculty, staff and students, so I don't get the luxury of just focusing on one demographic. I also serve our alumni base who are heavily involved in what we do in my institution.

I think that, again, we use data to tell the story. In order to attract and retain talented students, we have to have faculty and staff that are equally as talented and who are equally as engaged in making sure that our students are successful.

And so we go for top talented faculty. We want to have the best experts in their field, leading our students, leading the research. As a Research 1 institution, research matters. Research brings in dollars and money and things to the institution, and as we know folks, it's a higher ed institution, the pursuit of knowledge, but it's also a business, and it takes money to keep that business afloat.

And so again, we use data, and we use strategy for faculty and staff. We want to know what staff or what faculty are able to move through the lifecycle of the academy, are able to move from being an assistant professor up to full tenured professorship. We explore who's been able to obtain that goal of being a tenured professor and who seems to think it's still an elusive dream, aspirational, but maybe won't be obtainable.

Our goal in using data and using strategy is to decrease barriers and to increase access. Sometimes access comes through knowledge. Some people are not able to obtain tenureship because they don't know the process. It's not just about service, it's not just about research, but it's a combination of a number of things that you have to do. We want to make sure that our faculty are successful, that we're retaining talented, diverse faculty and with our staff, they're the lifeline of the institution.

Most of us have support staff, our staff are the front lines. A lot of times they will become aware of an issue that a student is grappling with, and so we need them to be the eyes and ears of the organization. But we also need them to know that they are valued members of our community.

A lot of times staff feel like students and faculty receive all of the attention in the academy. But we know that in order for it all to work well together, that everyone needs attention, and we need to create those promotion opportunities for our staff, need to create opportunities for professional development for them to grow where they are planted as well.

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Data tells us the story around it, and that's why we engage in campus climate, gathering of data, those surveys, we do that data mining to figure out, who stayed, why did they stay this long? We are engaging exit interviews, which is another form of collecting qualitative data around people's experiences. We try to put all of that into focus because it all has to do with that sense of belonging and helping the university to function well and to fulfill its mission.

[13:30] KING

We can't have this conversation without the context of COVID.

So from your perspective, how has COVID changed the landscape of higher ed and specifically the work that you do?


I would say COVID has created a chilling effect on what we do.

I think part of the college experience is having the ability to bring people together, to be able to come outside of your residence hall, come outside of your classroom and have these engaging experiences. What we've had to do is to become more creative and innovative in how we bring the community together.

I think that some of the pluses are that we've been able to engage in technology that has allowed us to reach audiences that we might not have ever had the opportunity to reach. But I also think that people are fatigued with being in Zoomland and Microsoft Teams, and I call it Zoominars, you know, webinars and Zoom all merged together.

I do think that it has created a challenge for us, but I look at challenges as opportunities; and you probably hear a lot of people say, oh challenge is a cliché, but I really do think that we've been able to reach our larger audience, engage in more meaningful conversations, be able to have those follow up conversations with people on the phone or via Zoom or what have you while masking and socially distancing.

So although it created challenges around access, it created challenges around: How do we keep our communities safe while advancing the work? It has allowed us to really lean into our creativity and innovation and continue to engage the community and to bring them together on all of these different social media platforms.

I think about my daughter, who's 14, she's had a phone, which is a walking computer, in her hand since she was eight years old. Now we're able to truly meet students where they are. We can engage with them through their smartphones, through their iPads, through their laptops. We can do games, and we can have engagement in a different way.

I think that technology is here to stay and how we use it is here to stay. We have to continue thinking about: How do we create those connections in the virtual space while also being creative around: How do we bring people together in a safe way as well?

So it did create a little bit of a chilling effect, but we were able to really lean into innovation to continue advancing the work because we didn't have the luxury of stopping because the world continued to spin. A lot of interesting things continue to emerge in the environment, and part of our job is to be responsive. We have to be able to show up for our community in whatever ways that we can.

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[16:16] BONNE

You talked a little bit earlier about telling the story and storytelling. 

How important is it to strengthen public messaging around diversity, equity and inclusion, and what are some strategies perhaps to leverage data to do that?


I really feel like storytelling is a highly overlooked science as a part of data. Sometimes people only want to focus on the numbers, and we know that the quantitative data is critically important, but I look at storytelling as a qualitative methodology of also collecting data and creating those shared experiences.

As I look at the work that I have done here at the university over the last couple of years there are a lot of narratives that have been created through the media, through newspapers, through Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, so I also think that it is important that universities capitalize on all of those platforms to tell the story around: If you come to my institution, this is what you can expect to receive. So I do think that storytelling is a part of data mining and using data to drive the agenda.

I often say, not everyone experiences America the same. Not everyone experiences the University of Oklahoma the same. I think that we have a lot of agreement around diversity. We have a lot of agreement around inclusion.

We continue to grapple with the word of equity because some constitutionalists will say: The Constitution says everything is equal, which means that equal should be enough to cover it all. But as we know, equal protection under the law when the Constitution was created, it was actually not created for all. There were explicit communities that were left out of the conversation, left out of the narrative, left out of the story. It was created from a very specific lens.

Part of storytelling is also allowing different perspectives, different lived experiences to come to life within the environment. I think it's critically important that we use data storytelling as a form of keeping the community abreast of how people are experiencing the various environments.

If we promise inclusion and we know that people automatically show up as diverse, than the discussion over equality versus equity would not be such a polarizing topic because we know that they can both coexist together.

Although aspirational we would say equal protection for all, equality for all, because that is not the lived experience of everyone. We have to have equity and we have to have that qualitative storytelling to help provide a comprehensive, holistic view of things.

[19:18] KING

What is your outlook on higher education for 2022 with particular reference to diversity, equity and inclusion?


I think from the seat that I sit in my outlook has to always be an optimistic one, and so I will say that I am optimistic and I will always remain hopeful.

I had a former supervisor who would always say, "Hope is not a strategy." And I 100 percent agree. I think that in higher education, we must always have a strategy that is developed and that we are working within a framework to continue to advance the work of diversity, equity and inclusion.

We cannot hope that people are going to get it. We have to ensure that there are strategies in place to allow that education, awareness and advocacy to continue to be a very fluid and integrated part of our environment.

The ways in which we do that is that we are working from the framework of a strategic plan. That strategic plan has diversity, equity and inclusion built in as a core mission of the institution. And we've developed strategies, we've developed key performance indicators that will tell us if we are achieving our goals, and oftentimes people feel like if you don't achieve the 85 or 90 percent that you failed. No, it shows you that what we're doing is working. This gives us an opportunity to lean in more to different touch points to continue to advance the work.

I think that there has to be a strategy, there has to be someone who is providing leadership and there has to be accountability built in to the structure. If we say these are the things that we value, we say that this is the mission of the institution, how are we ensuring that everyone is doing their part to advance that mission and to continue to move that strategy forward?

That does not reside in the president's office. It is not a top down kind of a dictation. It has to be a literally bringing the community along. I'm not looking for buy-in. You may never believe in 100 percent of what I am saying to you, but can we agree that these are the values of our community and to work together on that strategy of how we get there?

And so for me, I look for that critical mass because the critical mass is what's most important. There will be a percentage of the population who will never agree and who will never be willing to do the work, but can we create the critical mass to continue to move the work forward?

The last thing that I would say is that I had the opportunity to spend some time in the presence of the late representative John Lewis, and he would often end every one of his talks by saying that diversity is not our problem, but it is our promise for a better future.

I will say that we have to reframe how we think about diversity, equity and inclusion and how we combine that with data mining and data sourcing and allow that to guide the agenda and to guide the work that we do in the space.

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