The Power of Data

Tim Stanley presented workshops and sessions at the recent AIR Forum in Denver, Colorado., covering such topics as Tableau, Excel, the rising tide of dual mission institutions, and FERPA and its role in IR. Tim is the Associate Director of Institutional Research and Information at Utah Valley University.

Interview by Lisa Gwaltney

TimS.jpgeAIR: What prompted you to pursue a career in IR and how did you get started in the field?

I don’t think anyone in IR ever said, “I want to be an institutional researcher when I grow up.” I started in computer science, and shifted to sociology for my undergraduate degree. I was dissatisfied just talking about the world’s problems without doing anything about them—so I shifted into public administration with a focus on policy analysis for my master’s degree. I spent some time as a graduate research assistant in BYU’s IR department, and as a researcher in the LDS Church’s Research Information Division. After graduating, I spent four years working for a local market-research company analyzing survey research data. My move to institutional research took a few years, but it has given me the opportunity to apply research skills to an area that I am passionate about and I truly believe helps to make the world a better place.

eAIR: You mentioned that you work in a somewhat “unusual” IR department at Utah Valley University. Can you tell us a little about what makes your office setting unique?

Utah Valley University is an exciting place to be—UVU is a large, public, open-enrollment institution with a dual mission. It has grown from a technical college to a university (becoming Utah Valley University in 2008). It now offers a wide range of degree types from certificates and diplomas to master’s degrees. UVU administration is dedicated to transparency and is passionate about data—which makes our Institutional Research & Information (IRI) department an exciting place to be.

Over the last decade, our office has grown from three full-time analysts to a team of 10 full-time people (with two more being hired), four part-time analysts, two student research assistants, and a 12-station telephone survey research center with its own full-time and two part-time supervisors, and a group of on-call telephone interviewers. (We have the largest website and phone bills on campus!) Our office is divided into two sub-departments, one dedicated to data management and reporting, and the other to survey research and assessment. Recently, we’ve begun exploring more qualitative focus groups and economic analysis using tools such as Burning Glass. Each summer we deliver a popular “MythBusters” presentation where we take commonly held myths about UVU and put them to the test of data. Of course, it’s not all work—we host a weekly “Interdepartmental Strategic Collaboration Meeting” where we get together to play board games over a lunch break.

eAIR: You presented a workshop and concurrent session on Tableau at the recent AIR Forum. How do you use Tableau in your role as Associate Director of IR to make data tell a more powerful story? 
I’ve been a fan of Microsoft Excel for a long time. I often describe Tableau as Walt Disney taking an Excel pivot table and turning it into an amusement park. We’ve used Tableau in several different ways to deploy the stories we tell across campus. Our key “Institutional Indicators” build on very simple Tableau visualizations imbedded into a website organized around our institution’s core themes and objectives. Tableau helps to keep those visualizations looking consistent and professional, easy to update, and easy to download from the web for PowerPoint presentations, etc. We use more complex visualizations to display program review, student success, and survey results. Different audiences can use a variety of parameters to select which kinds of students, which program, or even what question on a survey they would like to view. We’ve used Tableau to provide information to local high schools regarding the success of their students at UVU, while protecting their information for other schools. It has even helped administration to tell the story of UVU’s “Unique Educational Mission,” showcasing a map of institutions that have large numbers of both associates degrees and bachelor’s degrees similar to UVU.
eAIR: In the last year or so, what was the most rewarding project you worked on and what made it so?
Over the last year, I’ve been involved in the development of AIR’s statement of aspirational practice in a couple different capacities. I’ve enjoyed participating in these conversations about the directions that institutional research is going as a field, how the role of IR is transforming, and the best ways we can position ourselves moving forward. It’s been an opportunity to meet some great, deep thinkers and have illuminating conversations about important topics. This is perhaps the most rewarding part about institutional research for me—I love to work with people who recognize the power of data and the role it can play in making our institutions better. Whenever I work with someone to inform a decision they are trying to make with data, be it a dean trying to add a new program or a student trying to select a section of a class, it is a win for institutional research.