Reflections on Documenting and Defining the Work of IR (and Everything Else)

Fred Lillibridge is Associate Vice President for Accreditation, Compliance and Planning at New Mexico State University Doña Ana Community College and AIR Past-President (2006-2007). He reflects on AIR’s efforts to document the work that defines institutional research across all titles and variations represented in the AIR membership. 

Interview by Leah Ewing Ross 

eAIR: How did you develop interest in the effort to “define IR”?  

I’ve been working in IR for more than 20 years. During most of that time, I’ve felt that IR professionals are underpaid. One reason is that we don’t have a clear set of tasks that can be used for benchmarking with other higher education professions. This struck home when I tried to get an associate reclassified. I was told that our human resources department couldn’t do it because comparable salary information wasn’t available. When I discussed the situation with IR colleagues, it became clear that I am not alone in my frustration. 

My involvement with this project resulted from a conversation I had with Randy Swing. We brainstormed ideas for what can be done to address this issue. I mentioned that I worked in the South Dakota State Bureau of Personnel in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In that role, one of the projects I was most proud of was a task analysis of government positions. I thought the task-analysis approach might be a good one to use to better understand what AIR members do day-to-day.  

From experience, I know that there isn’t a common understanding of what institutional researchers do. Purists would suggest that IR has been defined since the 1960s, but it is pretty obvious to me that the profession is constantly changing—to be a member of AIR doesn’t equate to a job description full of 1960s-defined IR tasks.  

eAIR: AIR recently released a survey of members entitled “The Current State of IR.” What will the survey accomplish?  

Overall, the goals of this project are to help hiring authorities understand what they need from IR, to explain what AIR members do, and to understand and articulate what IR is worth. Although we have been working on this project for about a year, we really won’t know how effective we’ve been until the survey results are analyzed.  

As I read job descriptions and resumes to develop the task lists included in the survey, it became clear to me that AIR members are doing all kinds of work for many different purposes. The survey results should help us better understand how many AIR members do certain tasks. Hopefully, the information we gather will lead to development of several descriptive profiles of IR positions. The profiles will be very helpful for higher education leaders when seeking to fill IR positions and making salary compensation decisions. They may also be used as road maps for professional development, which will be particularly useful for newer institutional researchers and individuals considering positions in the field. For example, an advanced-level IR profile could help a person determine skill gaps he or she needs to address before seeking a higher-level IR position.  

eAIR: In light of your tenure in IR and involvement with AIR, how does this project resonate with you?  

Until a few years ago, I didn’t know anyone who set out to be an IR professional. When I transitioned from South Dakota state government to graduate school in 1989, I had no clue that such a profession existed. Yet it was clear even then that the assessment movement was taking hold and that external accountability was very important. I got into IR because my advisor found me an internship in IR at El Paso Community College. I quickly discovered that all of my experience and education was relevant to this work. Most institutional researchers are expected to be good at lots of things, and I think we all like to be helpful, too.  

I love working on this project because it suits my true personality—it’s a detail-oriented person’s dream. The work is full of intricacies, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. 

Finally, AIR has been my professional home since 1991. I’ve had the opportunity to serve AIR in many ways. My time at NMSU-DACC is coming to an end, and this may be my last opportunity to give back to AIR some of what it has given me. 

eAIR: How do you explain the work of IR to people who don’t work in higher education? 

Clearly, we don’t have a catchy phrase that describes what we do. My current job has evolved. Over the years, I’ve described what I do as: I count things. I help others do their jobs better. I help keep the dogs at bay (them versus us). 

And now I just say: I’m in charge of everything else. 

Seriously, IR’s role continues to grow in importance. We are expected to help justify what our institutions do, what our students are learning, and why it is important to keep funding us. 

More information about AIR’s efforts to document the work of IR is provided