• Special Feature / Interview
  • 07.28.20

IR Is a Critical Partner in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work

  • by Ellen Peters, Associate Provost, Institutional Research, Planning and Student Success, University of Puget Sound

Ellen had the opportunity to speak with Michael Benitez, Jr., Vice President for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Metropolitan State University, Denver. Over the past two decades, Benitez has served higher education in different capacities, including academic and student affairs; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and teaching. He is a nationally acclaimed scholar practitioner in higher education and a highly sought speaker and workshop leader at universities, colleges, and conferences nationwide. Read on for insights on the ways in which institutional research (IR) can collaborate with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and be a critical partner in that work.

IR has traditionally not seen itself as a contributor to institutional conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. What are some ways for institutional researchers to reframe our thinking?

Given the historical foundations of institutional research in higher education, it is not surprising to hear that IR traditionally has not really seen itself as a contributor to diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations. Reframing, and even, re-imagining this vital collaboration is key for institutions to truly lean on data to drive critical decision making to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion work. IR serves as the central hub for collecting data but has not always been empowered to contribute to the conversation from a foundation of critical analysis. 

Some ways to help IR reframe include hiring researchers with a critical lens and taking advantage of professional and personal development opportunities that increase critical analysis skills and abilities. More specifically, thinking can be reframed by gaining an understanding of how to apply critical theoretical frameworks to data and utilizing different theoretical understandings to interpret data. While institutional researchers may feel that they are data neutral, it is important that they are aware that the biases they bring inform the data that is collected as well as how it is collected, analyzed, shared, and even what is shared. At one institution, an institutional researcher brought data to a group with three possible interpretations, allowing for a full discussion of the meaning of the findings, and an awareness of the biases that are infused.

IR is in a position to advocate for the right tool to tell the story. At one institution, the Great Colleges to Work For data was being used as the Campus Climate Survey; at another, the National Survey of Student Engagement was being used. These surveys are not intended to provide the sum total of information about diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus; however, they can certainly contribute to the work, and IR can place them in the context of the other surveys and data to paint a fuller picture.

IR plays different roles on campuses: mandatory reporting (IPEDS), internal data management (census), course evaluation, assessment, and survey administration to name a few. Are any of these areas particularly ripe for contributing to the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

I would say that all of them are. As noted above, it’s not necessarily skills that are missing, but the lens through which the work is approached, and the degree to which IR is empowered—or empowers itself—to advance equity and inclusion in all of its work. For example, IR is not required to report data on minoritized identities and other underrepresented groups beyond IPEDS. Here, in particular, is an opportunity for IR to be empowered to keep institutions honest and accountable to the data. 

Can you provide some examples of collaboration where IR engaged in critical inquiry with you?

At my two most recent institutions there are committees dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion that represent areas across the institution. In both cases, the IR function is well represented and is asked to contribute to DEI processes. However, it is important that we understand what we mean by critical inquiry to better understand how IR can contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion work and what role IR can play.

Two specific examples are from a Campus Climate Survey administered through such a committee:

  • When the responses to a Campus Climate Survey at a predominantly white institution overstated (by definition) the white experience, IR and diversity, equity, and inclusion collaborated to make visible data that otherwise would not have been visible in the absence of a critical framework. That critical framework allowed IR (and thus the committee) to recognize that the voice of the small number of students of color (so small that weighting was not the answer) was being obscured, and that qualitative data had to be leveraged to tell the full data story.
  • Sometimes, in survey data, it’s not just the highs and lows that matter, but those who “don’t know.” At one institution, the critical inquiry that an institutional researcher brought to the table helped the committee see the possible meanings of a “don’t know” response. While these responses are often omitted from the results, a critical frame allows institutional researchers to draw meaning from them. What does it mean when a third of respondents at a predominately white institution respond “don’t know” to the statement “there are certain groups who feel excluded from the campus learning community.” IR is in a position to ensure that these deeper questions are asked of the data.

Given your experience at both small and large institutions, what opportunity do you see at each institution size for IR to advance the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

In all honesty, this really does depend on the institutional leadership. There are creative ways for such opportunities to be cultivated and institutionalized at all institutions. I think these can certainly look different depending on institutional type and size, but opportunities do rely on how leadership is accounting for capacity and resourcing. In addition, institutional type and culture may actually play a larger role than size. Identifying the measures and metrics to benchmark diversity, equity, and inclusion—along with the gaps—are more specific to institutional type than to size. At my current institution, with many part-time, non-traditional students, metrics such as the traditional six-year graduation rate are not as informative as measures that are more applicable to the goals of our students. Careful and collaborative analysis of institutional measures relative to your institutional mission provide the best way for IR to advance the work.

In what ways could IR assist people in a position such as yours achieve the goals you have for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

This really depends on how much an institution's leadership values, encourages, and works to institutionalize diversity, equity, and inclusion practices. This said, IR can assist through being involved/directly connected and/or tied to diversity, equity, and inclusion work, informing and contributing to survey and institutional data collection efforts. This includes all the spaces mentioned above (internal data management, course evaluation, assessment, survey administration), but I think the most important contribution is IR’s ability to collaborate on what the data suggests and the recommendations that come out of the work.

IR can keep the institution honest—at a minimum with itself. At one institution, different areas use different definitions, making it impossible to really benchmark and measure any gaps or successes. IR can work to standardize definitions across campus. In addition, a push for transparency can lead to accountability as gaps are identified. When IR is empowered to listen to the needs and vision of DEI, and collaborates with us, the data and research that is applicable comes alive and can be used to make change and advance equity and inclusion. This way, institutions can truly claim they are data-informed institutions as opposed to being driven by the politics of power and control.