Interview with Laura Saunders

​Laura Saunders is Interim President of Bellevue College (Washington) and is a Past President of AIR (1987-1988).

Interview by Leah Ewing Ross

eAIR: How did you enter the field of institutional research, and how did your work lead to your role as a college president?

laura saunders 125.jpgAs a doctoral student at University of California, Berkeley, I had a job with the UC System Office of Planning and Analytical Studies. While there, I had the opportunity to know Sid Suslow and Adrian Harris – longtime AIR members. From there, my career took me to Penn State University. At the time, IR was largely student data-oriented – it was a blend of business management and statistics with an emphasis on student progression. I moved from Penn State to the University of Washington, where I was Director of Planning and Capital Budget and learned about facilities and the data needed to support facilities. Later, as a Vice President at Highline Community College, I helped establish the campus’ IR office and hired the first director. I arrived at Bellevue College as Vice President for Administrative Services, a position from which I retired in 2008. I returned to Bellevue in 2011 as Interim President.  

eAIR: In what ways has your role as president shaped your understanding and expectations of IR?

As a president, I am oriented toward using data—I look at completion rates, I try to understand what our students are doing, and I want us to be efficient in our use of public resources. A lot of what is done in IR is driven by what comes across the president’s desk. At Bellevue, I moved IR from the Vice President for Administration’s purview to the President’s Office, and I tie its work directly to the institutional priorities and decision-making. We need good data to be convincing when we articulate what we do with our students and what we contribute to national conversations about community colleges.

eAIR: What do you miss about working in IR?

I rely on staff to provide the data and do the research, but I still enjoy brainstorming, asking questions, and reading about higher education and research. As president, there is simply no time to do research.

eAIR: What insight or advice can you share with IR professionals who aspire to achieve campus leadership positions, including the office of president?

You’re only as good as the people working with you, so help them improve and get ahead.

It is important to help others achieve their goals—serve as a mentor, and offer advice. Understand the challenges of doing detailed research in IR, but be able to translate it to the broader perspective. Get supervision experience early on in your career; it is important to learn how to motivate, evaluate, and promote people, and how to build a team. You’re only as good as the people working with you, so help them improve and get ahead. Also, broaden your exposure to policy questions. Understand the workings of federal and state-level policy as well as the role of financial aid and tuition.

eAIR: What would IR officers be surprised to know about the experience of being a president?

Some may be surprised by how important it is to know how boards work and that the president, as CEO, works for the board. Working with AIR as the organization shifted to a model of shared governance has been very helpful in informing my work as president.

eAIR: How have Bellevue College’s data uses changed as part of the transition from a two-year institution to a bachelor’s degree-granting institution?

Well-informed researchers make their institutions and their presidents shine because they use good data aimed at informing institutional decisions. It’s a team effort – good data allow for good decision-making.

Bellevue offers three bachelor’s degrees with plans to add more, but all programs have to support the College’s efforts in economic development and in meeting the workforce needs of our district. We are a large open-access community college (96-97% of our students are enrolled in lower-level courses), and in many ways we remain similar to community colleges without bachelor’s degree programs, but our comparison groups have changed.

eAIR: How do you manage stress, and what do you do for fun?

I am an interim president, so I know that this position will end at some point. For fun, I quilt, which seems fitting because working with quilting patterns is not unlike doing research.

eAIR: Do you have additional comments, reflections, or insights to share with eAIR readers?

It is always useful to maintain a broad perspective. Involvement in professional associations is a good way to gain that broad understanding of the field. Understand the politics that affect funding. Pay attention to what goes on in Washington. Learn about organizations that fund higher education, such as the Lumina and Gates foundations. Well-informed researchers make their institutions and their presidents shine because they use good data aimed at informing institutional decisions. It’s a team effort – good data allow for good decision-making.