IR Offices Differ in 2-Year, 4-Year and Regionally

Michael Wrona, Assistant Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness and Planning, University of South Florida

Interview by Kelli Cox, Director of Planning and Analysis, Kansas State University

MWrona.jpgeAIR: What is one difference you have seen between IR offices at the community college level versus those at a 4-year institution? What about a similarity?

The 4-year institutions for which I’ve worked have both been research universities with selective admission criteria for undergraduates. One big difference with community colleges involves the amount and type of analytical support the IR office is expected to provide to the undergraduate admissions office. At an open-access community college that allows anyone with a high school diploma or GED to enroll, analytical support may be needed to help the admissions office meet enrollment targets, but the admissions office does not need help establishing criteria for admission. At selective institutions, especially those seeking to become more selective to improve the institutions’ position in college rankings, the IR office may be expected to help the admissions office establish criteria for admission that increase selectivity while still ensuring that enrollment targets are met. This can prove very challenging.

The biggest similarity I’ve seen between community colleges and 4-year institutions involves the absolute reliance the IR office has on IT and functional offices to provide reliable data that is organized in a useful way. Often IT is more tuned in to the transaction processing needs of functional offices than to the reporting and analysis needs of the IR office. Campus leadership expects the IR office to quickly provide meaningful information that can facilitate evidence-based decision making, but if the data systems are not structured appropriately, that can be a real challenge. There is a big difference between maintaining transactional systems and effectively governing data in support of a business intelligence strategy.

eAIR: Having lived on both coasts, what is your perspective on how these distinctly different regions of the country approach IR work?

I have worked in three different public higher education systems: the State University of New York, the University of California, and the State University System of Florida. The differences between them have more to do with the level of control legislators and governors exercise over higher education and with state funding mechanisms than with geography. Both California and Florida have separately governed systems for public research universities and other 4-year public postsecondary institutions. These systems have different levels of independence from elected officials, so there may be more variation within states than across them. In California, for example, the political independence of the University of California system is enshrined in the state constitution, whereas the state exercises more direct control over the California State University system. Perhaps because of this difference in level of political independence, the non-unionized faculty in the University of California play a significant role in a shared governance process, whereas faculty in the California State University rely more on their union for influence.

In Florida, public higher education institutions, whether in the State University System or the State College System, have very little political independence. In fact, when the State University’s Board of Regents faced elected officials in Florida a few years ago, these officials dismantled the Board of Regents and replaced it with a Board of Governors over which they had much greater control. To accomplish this with the University of California’s governing board would require an amendment to the state’s constitution.

eAIR: What are some of the skills or lessons you learned serving on the CAIR board of directors that have helped you in other areas of your work?

The skill I honed the most while serving on the CAIR board involved risk management. This was during a period of massive state budget cuts that resulted in layoffs and furloughs of employees in postsecondary educational institutions across the state. Non-essential travel was prohibited for many employees, which adversely impacted participation in the annual CAIR meeting – CAIR’s single largest expense (and source of revenue). We had to honor contracts CAIR had signed with conference hotels before the recession hit and sign contracts with venues for future conferences while not knowing how long the recession would last, and hence how many people would participate in future CAIR meetings. The year I took over as treasurer, expenses greatly exceeded revenue and we had to tap deeply into CAIR’s limited cash reserves. But we were able to cut costs while honoring our contractual agreements, and with strong leadership from President Chris Cullander, find additional sources of revenue to weather the storm.

eAIR: What would you tell new AIR members about how AIR can help advance their professional development as well as shape their career path?

People who are new to institutional research, assessment, or institutional effectiveness should take advantage of the opportunities AIR provides to learn more about the ways in which these functions are organized at different institutions, and the methods and data sources on which they rely. They should also maintain a healthy skepticism about easy solutions to problems, whether offered by vendors or by peers making a conference presentation about how they handled a situation. Open your mind to the possibilities, but don’t be overly persuaded by them. Institutional researchers are a lot like political pollsters – we can make compelling arguments backed up by data, but possibly not be correct nonetheless. Be prepared to learn from these experiences. The knowledge you gain from AIR will help you contextualize both your successes and your failures so you can have greater confidence in the future, and this confidence will play a critical role in your career development.




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