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the idea exchange

The Art of

The Art of Data

Mara Hermano brings a fresh perspective to research and planning at BC.

As a budding art history student, Mara Hermano learned to analyze artwork through both micro and macro lenses: examining each brush stroke and shadow for clues to meaning, while also viewing the piece as part of a larger body of work or time in history.

Now she brings that same duality of perspective to her work as vice president of institutional research and planning (IRP) at Boston College, which she describes as “one of BC’s most truly interdisciplinary departments.” Since joining BC in fall 2019, she has become a key player in advancing the University’s strategic plan and, most recently, navigating the unpredictable and constantly evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

Born in Manila, Hermano has spent her career honing the expertise in integrated planning that she brings to BC, where interdisciplinary collaboration is a crucial part of the University’s 10-year strategic plan.

Here, we talk with Hermano about how she got her start, what brought her to the Heights, and where she hopes to take BC next.

Q: How did you go from an art history major to a career in research and planning?

A: Well, I didn’t wake up one day and say “I want to be a higher ed administrator.” I mean, who does? [Laughs] I started working at Christie’s auction house at the heyday of the art market, then I went to the Frick Collection, where I oversaw several major research and archival projects. Then my husband joined the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis—Manila to New York to St. Louis, it was a big adjustment! The WashU chancellor had just merged three units—the museum, the school of architecture, and the school of art—into the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, and I was his first hire.

Q: Is that when you got hooked on higher ed?

A: Yes, that’s where I wrote my first strategic plan, and I discovered that I love planning. That’s my superpower.

Q: Then you moved back east and took a job at Rhode Island School of Design?

A: Yes, it was a one-year contract to write a strategic plan, but I ended up staying 10 years, through six positions and five offices. I worked on the campus master plan, I edited a book with the president and 14 faculty, and then I led the self-study for our accreditation process—it was like herding cats, getting all those departments together and on the same page. That’s when I had the idea of bringing all the data—the institutional research part, the strategic planning part, the assessment parts—together, so I proposed and built a new office for integrated planning. I led that for five years and, when I finished my second strategic plan at RISD, well I’m a fan of The West Wing, so like Jed Bartlet, it was “What’s next?”

Q: And that was BC? How has that transition been?

A: My dad went to Jesuit schools from kindergarten through law school, and my mom went to Georgetown, so the Jesuit tradition has always been part of my family’s values. And though RISD is very different from BC in terms of scale, they are both mission-driven in their own ways. Of course, I’ve never had to think about athletics before, so I’ve learned a lot about American football and how much athletics are a part of the campus culture.

Q: How has the pandemic affected your work?

A: I had been here six months, and then COVID happened. I have a small team, 11 people, and it was very intense, very fast. We all had our regular work, and then all of us had our COVID hat to put on. So my research team looked at course enrollments and class capacities from the past five years to predict enrollments, and my space planning team applied social distance guidelines and other accommodations. The numbers were shifting all the time, but working with our partners in Student Services, Facilities, and IT, we were able to safely offer close to 60 percent of our classes either fully in person or in some form of hybrid, which was a real victory.

Q: How did you hold up personally and professionally during that time?

A: I always think about my grandmother. My grandfather was imprisoned during the Japanese occupation of Manila, and she had six kids whom she had to feed through bombings and moving from shelter to shelter. Whenever I think I’m having a bad day, it’s probably nothing compared to what my grandmother had to go through during the war. That image of strength and perseverance is something that is really important to me.

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The Jesuit tradition has always been part of my family’s values.

Mara Hermano

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Mara Hermano

Q: Another key part of your formation is your training in art history—how does that relate to the work you do now?

A: Art history is about being able to understand, to look at an object, and to think of the time, the context in which it was made. You zoom in on the details—a petal, a blade of grass, or the pencils used—but you also need to be able to zoom out to see a bigger picture. It’s the same with data, you have to zoom in on one data point, say the number of undergraduate students in a given year, but you also have to zoom out and see the bigger picture of what was happening in education, in demographics, in politics. A single fact is not helpful; it only answers one question. We need to get better at using data and data visualizations to tell the story of what is happening at BC in the context of how higher education is changing.  

Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that institutions that have a robust planning culture and can use data effectively are better able to respond to challenges, both academic and cultural. What challenges do you hope to address at BC?

A: Everyone in higher education is thinking about the rising cost of attendance, about racial and social inequities, and about how we contribute to the public good. Can we play a role in rethinking and redesigning what higher education can be? Can the way we collect and report demographic and financial data help inform and advance our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives? Can planning be more efficient and effective so that BC’s costs go down and contributions to the community go up? These are the kinds of questions I’m asking as our team thinks about how better analysis and planning can support BC’s long-term strategy.

Q: What role does your team have in addressing equity?

A: We’ve worked to streamline University data so that it’s easier to understand, so that it tells a more coherent story. One of our goals is to collect better data and then present it in a more visual, easily understood way. We want to be more intentional about helping our partners understand how race and ethnicity data is reported and analyzed. Only then can BC leaders really measure our success in certain areas and set new goals. That’s just one example. On a personal level, I’m on the committee for BC’s Forum on Racial Justice in America, where I am chairing the arts subcommittee.  

Q: Assuming that things return to normal somewhat this fall, what are you looking forward to?  

A: More than anything, more face-to-face contact with my own team, with my colleagues, and with the students and faculty. I also really miss going to all the University’s events—the Lowell Humanities Series, art exhibitions, theater performances—what a gift they are! I’ll also be mentoring several students and a staff member, speaking to departments and student groups around campus, and I’ve signed up to be a conversation partner with an international student who’s pursuing a PhD in economics. This is what I really love, meeting people from all around the campus and being part of the life of the University.

Learn more about Mara Hermano and the IRP team at bc.edu/irp.

Visualize IRP at Work

See how Mara Hermano’s team tracks and shares information on the University and its impact:
 

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