A Conversation with Gary Rice and Mary Ann Coughlin

Interview by Leah Ewing Ross

In celebration of the release of The Association for Institutional Research: The First 50 Years, eAIR interviewed Gary Rice, Project Coordinator, and Mary Ann Coughlin, Co-Editor, to learn about the genesis and meaning of the project that, together with their co-authors, they describe as “an opportunity to look into our past, giving us a greater understanding of where we began and broader insights about where we might be tomorrow.”  (Download a copy of The Association for Institutional Research: The First 50 Years; AIR Sign-in required.)

Gary Rice is Associate Vice Provost for Institutional Research at University of Alaska Anchorage. ​ Mary Ann Coughlin is Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs at Springfield College.

 

eAIR: What insights about the future did you gain through your participation in this project?​ ​

Gary

This project served to document my observations of and interactions with AIR over nearly 50 years. In that time, AIR has grown from a small, exclusive “good ol’ boys” club to a large, inclusive association of professionals. I was the first two-year college IR director invited by my mentor, Ross Armstrong, to attend the Stony Brook Forum when the AIR Constitution was officially adopted. Today, community colleges comprise a substantial portion of the total AIR membership, state and regional affiliates have emerged, and the Association is international. Members use AIR and its gatherings to network, draw from colleagues’ vast knowledge, and provide their considerable expertise to a variety of state, regional, and national organizations that confront the fundamental issues of our time. I can say with strong conviction that the IR profession and AIR are in good hands.

Mary Ann

Studying our past provides us with many insights about both our past and our future. Studying the history of AIR provided us with an understanding of how we have grown and changed over the first 50 years of our existence. If it follows that the past causes the present, and the present creates the future, then it is my belief that the future of our Association is bright. Why would I say that? Most importantly, because of the work of Bill Lasher, who wrote an excellent chapter that reviewed the role of IR in American higher education over the past 50 years; he documented how IR has become “a mature area of higher education administration.”  While one could question the future of higher education, reading Bill’s work left me with a sense that what we do matters. We are contributing to making our institutions better, and thus, we are making a difference in student learning.

​ eAIR: Did you identify any consistent themes about the field of IR that held true throughout this historical perspective?

Gary

The only constant I observed in this project and, in my opinion, the only constant that matters is the inner strength, adaptability, and wisdom of AIR members to retain stability with flexibility in an ever-changing world. Throughout AIR’s history, members have been professionally challenged while concurrently valued for the contributions of their thoughts and work. It took time for the early AIR exclusivity to become inclusive, but now it is happening on a large scale.  

Mary Ann

Throughout our history, we have struggled to answer the question, “What is Institutional Research?” I think we have all experienced the occupational hazard of being asked, “What do you do?” Each of us proudly answers, “I am an Institutional Researcher,” which of course leads to the logical question, “What is Institutional Research?” In hindsight, it is not surprising that we have long struggled to define our profession and that this is a common and recurring theme throughout our history.

 

“It is time for IR professionals to step forward to anticipate user information needs, provide timely analyses of pressing issues, and serve as sources of context and insight as a result of gestalt institutional knowledge.” - Gary

 

eAIR: What did you learn that surprised you?

Gary

It surprised me somewhat to learn that the roots of IR in the U.S. go back to 1701 when the founders of Yale examined Harvard’s organizational structure. At that time, such studies were usually conducted by institutions’ presidents. Presidents are still seeking information to effectively govern institutions, but the difference today is that much more technical and intellectual sophistication is required of Institutional Researchers.

Mary Ann

I particularly enjoyed reading the chapter on the history of AIR; it is formatted in segments that parallel the decades, and each section was written by or in conjunction with a prominent AIR president from that era. I found the interviews with past AIR presidents to be most interesting because the history of AIR is told from the perspectives of the individuals who led us through each of the periods.

eAIR: What nuggets of understanding did you identify as essential for IR professionals?

​Gary

Throughout its first 50 years, AIR reflected the struggle of its members to define our existence. It is time for IR professionals to step forward to anticipate user information needs, provide timely analyses of pressing issues, and serve as sources of context and insight as a result of gestalt institutional knowledge.

Mary Ann

I think it is vital for IR professionals to understand that our work is not done in isolation. Our work is integral to the success of our institutions, and the success of our institutions is critical to the success of higher education. In other words, what we do matters, and it matters to our students. 

eAIR: If you had to succinctly communicate the role of IR to a broader audience of higher-education professionals, what would you want them to know?

​Gary

IR has evolved, and as a field we now ask, “Where do we go from here?” In response, Marvin Peterson described the current roles of IR professionals:  coordinate institutional intelligence; conduct academic/management studies; conduct and support institutional planning; conduct and support program assessments, evaluate program quality, student persistence and learning; and analyze the postsecondary knowledge industry itself.     

Mary Ann

Higher education today is marked by the call from stakeholders for greater accountability and transparency. IR is a critical component of efforts to provide measures of the outcomes of student learning and evidence of institutional effectiveness. After all, IR professionals hold the keys not only to the data, but also to institutional knowledge about the data and the measures.

“What we do matters. We are contributing to making our institutions better, and thus, we are making a difference in student learning.” - Mary Ann

 

 

 

 

 

 

eAIR: What has this project meant to you on a personal level?

Gary

This project had a great deal of meaning to me from the outset, and I had two very personal goals. First, I saw that the history of AIR was in real danger of being lost for good if something was not done to save the past and capture the present as it unfolds into the future. Second, my whole career, approaching 50 years, has been spent as a practitioner in all levels of public higher education IR.  As the finish line nears, I wanted to make a contribution of significance to my profession and to AIR by working collaboratively with very talented professional colleagues to provide a legacy we can all be proud to offer. To paraphrase, “it takes a community to save a history,” and thanks to the unselfish, committed, and creative contributions of a number of very good people for nearly two years, I was able to reach that dream on their shoulders. I owe them a debt of gratitude I can never repay, and I will remember the experience for the rest of my life. Knowing that the fruits of our collective labor will benefit AIR members as they build upon it for years to come brings a sense of inner peace I cannot describe in words. The joy has been in the journey, and the destination has exceeded my wildest dream.

Mary Ann

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to participate in this project. It was a pleasure to work with so many colleagues I admire. Learning more about our past is important to our present and our future; I consider it an honor to provide this information to our Association.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leah Ewing Ross is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant based in Davis, Calif.