Sunday, April 17, 2011

Where has my data gone???

So as a long time observer of our administrations, Board of Trustees and the general operation of the university, I was dismayed by a comment made by the CEO at the last BOT meeting; namely that the university has relinquished through attrition its Institutional Research function to another state university. With the former Vice President retired, the Associate Vice President departed and the department administrative assistant re-assigned, the university has sought outside assistance in fulfilling a critical and often overlooked activity. As of the last BOT meeting, Southern Illinois University is now providing the Institutional Research support that the university had provided for itself since 1996. So what’s the big deal you might ask. The university has various reporting responsibilities. We send mandatory reports to the US Department of Education, the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), the Higher Learning Commission, the National Collegiate Athletics Association, the various public and private grant awarding agencies and organizations, and various academic accrediting bodies. Institutional Research also supports internal activities like program evaluation. Every academic program conducts a periodic evaluation. One of the elements of that process is provided by IR. For example, numbers of majors, numbers of degrees granted, number of minors, number of credit hours etc. Without that data the program evaluation can’t be conducted. Thus when the IBHE requests evaluations of university programs, the university can only tell them it’s waiting on the data that it had been able to provide for itself since 1996 and is no longer able to provide. Institutional research is an area that provides not just data, but methodologically rigorous analysis of the data that is collected by various offices and departments on campus. Those who know little about research design and data analysis might believe IR is only about querying some mystical cloud database. It actually is a bit more than that as many faculty can attest given their decades of research experience.
So imagine my surprise, given all of the corporate speak of the current administration, that the university had gone to what can only be considered a competitor institution to prepare reports that this institution is responsible for. This exposes the soft data based underbelly of the institution in this way. There is no guarantee that every flaw, defect, imperfection, strength, and asset will not be transferred to an institution that competes for the same state resources. I simply cannot envision IBM turning over a critical function to Apple because it allowed that function to wither. It begs three questions. Did the administration appreciate the importance of the institutional research function? Second, what sort of leadership was exhibited in allowing the department to disintegrate through attrition? Finally, why weren't faculty, especially those who teach research methods and/or statistics, asked to assist the university in a time of need? I am sure those who have years of experience working with data sets, conducting data analysis and teaching students about these topics could make a vital contribution and protect the data integrity of the institution. This is troubling not just in the short term but in the long term institutional exposure given a competitor now has unfettered access to the university’s data. One might imagine such an institution cherry picking the university’s best students or seeking out other valuable assets and making a tenuous situation more untenable.
Or I could be completely wrong about this and it is all normal and part of an as of yet undisclosed process of re-engineering the university into something other than a university.

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