Thriving in IR as a Lifelong Learner

Nicola Paterson​ is Project Officer in the Office of Planning and Institutional Research, University of the West Indies, Mona

eAIR: I understand that you work at a regional Caribbean university. Can you compare and contrast IR in the Caribbean with IR in North America?

I work as a Project Officer in the Office of Planning and Institutional Research at The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Jamaica. The University has Campuses in Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados, and an Open Campus that provides blended and distance education. The UWI is funded by 17 territories in the Caribbean, making it a regional university.

NicolaPaterson.jpgI think that AIR serves a leading role in the theory and practice of IR. Little did I know that the work I was doing was recognized by a professional association with its own code of ethics for members. Since joining AIR in 2007, I have grown and developed professionally from AIR’s vast array of literature and scholarship and participation in the annual conferences.

I have discovered, to my surprise, many similarities facing IR offices in North America and the Caribbean. These include the lack of data governance policies and data dictionaries. Without these, administrators often question the quality and integrity of the data.

A major difference in IR, however, is the bureaucratic structure. In North America, IR offices are often embedded in a very intricate network with a hierarchical structure. From compliance reporting, to federal agencies, to decision making from the Board of Regents/Trustees, the IR function in North America is bureaucratic, yet effective. This structure is also complemented by organizations and vendors whose mission it is to make a positive contribution to the management and function of higher education institutions. In the Caribbean, IR includes annual reporting to federal agencies, but this information is not in a standardized format, regionally, for comparison purposes. In addition, the communication and consumption of IR data is not as evident in the Caribbean as in North America.

eAIR: You recently completed an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) sponsored by the US embassy in Jamaica. Can you outline the program for us and the outcomes regarding linkages and best practices in regard to fund raising and student financial aid?

Although the US Embassy in Jamaica was our first point of contact, the program sponsor was the US Department of State (DOS), Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; International Visitor Leadership Program.

Upon submitting a proposal, the DOS agreed to sponsor a small team of administrators from the UWI Campuses for a project entitled “University Financial and Strategic Management.” The sponsor was aware that the UWI was seeking to restructure its internal operations and match global standards of education in myriad professional and academic areas. The project aimed to compare policies, practices, and regulatory mechanisms that ensure accountability, both financial and strategic, and provide student- and customer-centered service.

The team met with higher education officials in the US from the City University of New York (CUNY), Columbia University, the Regents Advisory Council on Institutional Accreditation of the NYS Board of Regents, the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder), Naropa University, the University of Texas System, Texas A&M System, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Needless to say, the experience was very rewarding. Upon our return to the Caribbean, the team compiled a report with recommendations intended for the program sponsor and for senior officials, boards, and committees across the regional university.

Recommendations included collaborations with the institutions visited through Memoranda of Understanding, as well as capacity building for the University of the West Indies in the areas of philanthropy, institutional research, and study abroad experiences for foreign nationals to study at UWI.

eAIR: What impressed you most about the institutions visited?

I was greatly impressed by the value and importance accorded to IR. Data and metrics informed many aspects of the institutions’ operations, from university branding, to enrolment management, to student assessment and remedial programs, and strategic planning. The institutions also had integrated systems which supported the use of predictive analytics and increased efficiencies in day-to-day operations.

Students were also central to the ethos of the institutions. Efforts at marketing and recruitment, enrollment management, student financial support, and enrichment programs seemed conducive to student satisfaction and alumni support.

eAIR: Is there anything you would like to do differently in IR based on your participation in the IVLP?

Absolutely. Although I work in a small office, I would like to learn more about predictive analytics as I believe this would be helpful for decision making and improving institutional effectiveness. It would also be useful to move from a reliance on static reports to real time information at one’s finger tips.

eAIR: What is your personal philosophy of IR?

My own philosophy of IR is that to thrive and excel in the field, one should be a lifelong learner. It is not enough to be a specialist in one area, but to expand your knowledge in as many areas as possible. Understanding technology and software, theoretical frameworks, management principles, and campus politics are key to effective leadership. 

Some books I have found personally inspiring include Jim Collins’ Good to Great, Alexander Astin and Anthony Antonio’s Assessment for Excellence (2nd edition), and William E. Knight’s Leadership & Management in Institutional Research.

I can’t imagine working in another field. Institutional research offers a dynamic environment in which to work, capturing a broad range of functions and practitioners with various backgrounds and skills.



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