Cynthia B. Gray Interview

Interview by Michelle Kiec
Cynthia B. Gray is Director of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Planning at Beloit College in Wisconsin and serves as an IPEDS Trainer for AIR.
eAIR: Please share a little bit about your background and your current position.
I spent five years in the Department of Psychology at Alverno College (Wisconsin) before I came to Beloit College as a faculty member in the Department of Psychology. After four years on the faculty, I became Director of Institutional Research and Planning. Most of the work of the office at that point was reporting and ad-hoc data analysis for senior-level administrators. As the needs of the college changed and the focus of higher education emphasized the development of useful and valid methods of assessment, the office expanded to include institutional assessment activities. As part of those changes, the name changed to the Office of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Planning, and the staff expanded to include an Associate Director position with a primary focus on assessment.
eAIR: How did you become interested in the IR field, and what was your first IR-related job?
This is my first job in IR. I liked the idea of using the skill set I developed in the social sciences in a different context. (I was a comparative physiological psychologist.) One of my favorite aspects of teaching was making a difference in the lives of students; a position like this seemed to be another opportunity to have a positive impact on students by helping the institution make better decisions more effectively.
eAIR: What are the biggest challenges in your current position, and what have been your greatest successes?
My biggest challenge is trying to figure out what gets done. There are so many interesting and important questions that all institutions need to address; I want to select the ones that will have the biggest and most positive impact. My greatest success was probably being able to expand the office and hire someone who focuses on assessment. What that individual has done over the past two years is incredible and really demonstrates the trust the institution has in the work of the office.
eAIR: Who or what inspires you as an IR professional?
My colleagues. Every time I ask a question or go to a meeting, I come away with new ideas, new questions, and a better sense of what I can do to help my institution move forward. There is always a generous measure of shared expertise and a sense that we can all learn from and teach each other. It is a wonderful national and professional environment in which to work.
eAIR: What resources do you find most helpful in your current position?
The IPEDS Data Center and the professional development materials created by AIR would certainly be at the top of the list, as would my colleagues.
eAIR: How does your background and current position fit with your role as an IPEDS Trainer?
My 16 years of teaching experience in a variety of settings helps me understand how to develop and deliver effective curricula and to be comfortable in front of groups of all sizes. My own, relatively fresh, memories of being a new keyholder trying to wrap my head around IPEDS for the first time helps me understand the training needs of other keyholders. Also, working in a small office with relatively limited resources makes me sensitive to the issue of workload. I try to help create curricula that focus on the components that will make the biggest impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of my colleagues’ work. [The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defines a keyholder as an institutional representative who has the ID and password to gain access to IPEDS to complete the survey.]
There is a tremendous amount of value in the use of IPEDS data that gets lost in the chaos of trying to get the data submitted.
eAIR: What are the most common IPEDS-related hurdles for the people who attend the workshops?
Although it depends on the workshop, as well as the roles and experience levels of the participants, I would say the biggest hurdles involve helping people understand (and use) the IPEDS-specific definitions. An additional challenge is getting campus individuals who are not directly involved with IPEDS to understand the value of IPEDS data, and to devote the appropriate resources (including time) to obtaining and using the data.
eAIR: What insight, wisdom, or advice would you like to share with individuals who are new to IPEDS or find IPEDS to be overwhelming?
First, take a deep breath. Second, understand that you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. AIR and NCES have developed excellent materials and training opportunities for keyholders and users of IPEDS data at all levels.
eAIR: What have you learned through your work as an IPEDS Trainer?
Two things come to mind immediately. First, no matter how much experience one has, there is always more to learn and to understand. Second, there is a tremendous amount of value in the use of IPEDS data that gets lost in the chaos of trying to get the data submitted.
eAIR: What advice would you like to share with new IR professionals?
Welcome! You have just joined the ranks of some of the best people in the world. If you have any questions, ask.
eAIR: Finally, please tell us something unique and interesting about you.
I have a picture of me in a dancing bear costume, and once ran 40 miles (though not while wearing that costume)!

To learn more about IPEDS and related resources, visit the AIR IPEDS Training web page.

Michelle Kiec is Associate Professor of Music and Coordinator of Core and Program Assessment and Accreditation for the School of Arts and Sciences at University of Mary in Bismark, N.D.