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New Face: Brent Drake

From sports to student success – it’s all in the numbers for the new vice provost for decision support.

People  |  Apr 23, 2018  |  By Juliet V. Casey
Portrait Brent Drake

Brent Drake, vice provost for decision support in the office of decision support (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Brent Drake, the vice provost for the office of decision support, says UNLV has the opportunity to achieve the “grand goal of higher education” — helping people improve not only their own lives, but also the lives of future generations.

He joined UNLV this academic year, and is reshaping his office to better support university leadership in its commitment to accountability and evidence-based decision-making.

Drake, who came from Purdue University, said increasing access to tools and research can help the institution be strategic in its use of resources, and help leaders craft more effective policies and practices to meet institutional goals, such as student achievement, retention, and completion.

At Purdue he served as the chief data officer, where he helped build “an environment where leaders could make better strategic decisions based on data,” that led to successful outcomes for students. There, nearly 80 percent of students complete their undergraduate degrees in six years or less. Drake said he believes UNLV could achieve that level of success for its students in time through well-crafted, research-based policies and programs.

Why UNLV?

UNLV excites me for a few reasons. While I love Purdue – I spent 18 years working there and earned all three of my degrees from Purdue – UNLV has far more social and income diversity, which translates to greater opportunity for meaningful student access and success. I really believe in the grand goal of higher education. It is the best way to get the most people the greatest opportunities to improve their future outcomes, not just for themselves, but also for the long-term betterment of their children and future generations. UNLV serves people for whom a higher education really can be life altering — where a higher education really matters.

We’re a young institution and there’s a great energy about it. We just see a thing that needs to be fixed, and we can fix it. We aren’t mired down by 150 years of tradition that says this is how it’s supposed to be.

Why Decision Support?

I started out as an athletic trainer. It was a discipline that was very much about the practical application of sports medicine. I was helping athletes perform better and recover faster from injury. However, while I was working on my undergraduate degree, I was offered an opportunity to participate in undergraduate research with a psychology professor, who really was and is my mentor, David Rollock. He sparked my interest in social science research.

So, I went into sports psychology for my master’s degree to merge those two interests, and I learned that what I really love to do is the research. This led me to an even greater interest in educational psychology, where we use data to examine how to build optimal environments for student success, and that carries into everything we do in institutional research.

By using data, we can see if a policy or a program is having the effect we intended, or if we’re creating roadblocks. We can see what the outcomes really are. You have evidence in numbers, a source of truth, and we’re not shooting from the hip anymore or just going on anecdotal evidence. Strategically, it is easier to see what is the best choice and what is the best path.

What fuels your passion?

I believe in the grand opportunity that is higher education. It is the greatest way to lift a population and provide a more prosperous future.

For instance, my work with the Gallup-Purdue Index looked at correlations of graduates’ future success with their college experience. The big takeaway from that project was that it didn’t matter where a graduate went to school; when we split the results by the top 100 institutions in US News and World Report, or the Ivy’s, or public versus private, none of that related. Where we saw correlations with a sense of wellbeing and career fulfillment was how engaged individuals were as students in their college experience. How much did they seek out opportunities outside the classroom? How much did they participate in experiential learning opportunities? How engaged were they with their faculty and other students? Those results really line up with 40 years of higher education student success literature, where engagement and commitment to the institution are highly related to student success.

Here at UNLV, I feel I can have an impact and help build a place that helps the most students achieve success, not just with a degree but also in the long run with a great career and greater life. I want to make UNLV a place that sees students succeed as much as students at elite institutions. I believe we can get there, again, using institutional research to provide information about how we can be most effective and determine the best approaches for our student population.

Finish this sentence, “If I couldn’t work in my current field, I would like to…

My dream was always to be an NFL running back (hence the whole athletic training thing), but alas my parents didn't bless me with enough athletic genes.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

Aside from the fact that my bachelor's degree was athletic training? I mean it is a circuitous path from athletic training to institutional research. My grand life plan at 18 was to be a bum. I wanted to be an athletic trainer for a snow patrol. I figured I could waste a decade or so and then figure out what I wanted to do with my life. However, I met my wife my sophomore year of college, was married my junior year, so by 20 I was married with two small children. The bum idea kind of got dropped at that point. I'm blessed to not only have our two kids, but now two wonderful granddaughters as well.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up primarily in Peoria, Illinois, except for three years when we lived in Brussels, Belgium. I would love to travel back to Brussels with my wife so I could show her all the memories from my growing up, but we haven't gotten the chance to do so yet.

What are some of your pastimes?

I love athletics, playing and watching. One of the bummers of getting older is that all the sports I loved to do as a youth like football, wrestling, boxing, gymnastics, pole vault, skate boarding, aren't all real feasible anymore. So, I do lower impact stuff now like softball, racquetball, swimming, occasionally basketball, etc. (I still drag out my skateboard every once in a while). Otherwise I'm a big nerd, reading (sci-fi fantasy is my pleasure reading), video games, board games, podcasts, etc.

Tell us about a time when you have been daring…

Moving to Las Vegas is actually really daring. I had spent so many years at Purdue. It would have been the safer choice to stay there and just keep improving the environment. I’m really proud of what I built there, but coming here, I can see that what I do matters so much more and can empower and improve the lives of so many more students, which will also empower and improve the community, and the state.

In 10 to 20 years, UNLV will be…

UNLV will be one of those elite research, high-student-success institutions that produces greater knowledge for the common good. UNLV will be helping a diverse population see the gains and benefits of achieving a degree.