The Action of IR

Reflections on Myth-busting, Navigating the Complexities of Higher Education, and the Art of Preparing Conference Proposals

Andrew Q. Morse is Educational Policy Analyst, Board of Governors, State University System of Florida

Interview by Leah Ewing Ross
MorsePhoto.jpgeAIR: What is the Board of Governors?
The Board of Governors, State University System of Florida, is the governing board for the state’s 12 public universities. We work with board members, state university leaders, lawmakers, and other councils and organizations to support the attainment of higher education’s tripartite mission of high-quality teaching, research, and public service. To that end, two of our major responsibilities are to turn data into easily digestible information to support decision-making and to communicate institutional and system-wide performance to board members and other key stakeholders. 

eAIR: How does your participation with AIR support your work?
It is essential that the information we provide our wide stakeholder audience is both accurate and adequate, and this often translates into a high level of technical expertise required for proficiency. I look at the field of IR as educational ”myth-busting.” The abilities to identify the assumptions associated with a particular policy or practice and to design and conduct a study to test those assumptions are key competencies of effective institutional researchers. 
As educational researchers, taking advantage of opportunities to continue learning and developing throughout our careers—to improve our skills as “myth-busters”—is critically important to meet the challenges associated with our professional roles. AIR provides many excellent opportunities for members to learn about and develop best practices related to institutional research and decision support. Both my professional work and scholarly activities have benefitted from the many resources available through the Association. 
eAIR: What is your process for submitting a conference proposal?
Teamwork makes the dream work. 
The underlying theme of how we develop and submit our conference proposals is that we support one another at each step of the process. My colleagues and I meet often to discuss our research ideas and to provide feedback on our studies as they mature into finished products. 
Our group has taken a step-by-step approach to bring a study from an idea to a finished proposal. The first step in preparing a proposal is to identify a problem—missing or inadequate knowledge, an assumption in policy, or a lack of conceptual clarity that warrants further investigation. We ensure that the problem we’ve identified is stated clearly and compellingly. 
Once we have the problem identified, the next step is to articulate the study’s purpose statement and research questions. The key is that we’re supportive of one another to ensure that the purpose statement and research questions flow from the problem. 
Then, we look at the more technical or practical aspects of the study. What are our variables of interest? What instruments, data sources, and analytical approaches will we use to answer our research questions? What are the limitations or challenges associated with conducting the research? This can be a difficult phase of the process because you begin to ask yourself, “Can I even conduct this study?” 
This is where I’m even more thankful for my research colleagues because they provide expertise in talking through challenges and appropriately framing the magnitude and limitations of a study. This is not to say, however, that we’re any less useful to one another in discussing the findings and implications of a study. We all have different professional roles in the office—from high-level policy, to institutional research, to budget and fiscal policy—and as such, provide multiple lenses through which to discuss our work. As a result of this process, our proposals are mature and focused enough to submit for consideration at conferences. 
eAIR: What do you do with feedback on conference proposals that are not accepted? 
The first step to take with feedback on any conference proposal, accepted or not, is to think about how to use the information to improve the plan. That’s what we did with a recent population study that explored the extent to which students’ production of excess credit hours differed, if at all, across academic disciplines. The feedback allowed us to think about alternative analytical approaches to our study, to address any misconceptions of our methodology from the reviewers’ perspectives, and to tighten up the study’s focus. Though we have not yet re-submitted the proposal, the review process was helpful to have the study reconsidered for presentation in the future. 
eAIR: As you look to 2014, what excites you most? 
Professionally, I continue to be fascinated by the complexity of the vast educational enterprise in which we practice and how it translates into the questions we wrestle with in educational research: Is what we define and measure truly and adequately reflective of our mission? Can everything worth learning or doing be measured in a manner that is easily and meaningfully demonstrable? What assumptions are we making and how might these limit the magnitude or applicability of our research? Looking forward to the year ahead, I am most excited about the opportunity to continue wrestling with and building upon my understanding of higher education’s complexity. 
Personally, I won our office’s March Madness bracket competition last year – no big deal. I most look forward to continuing my glorious reign through next year.