• Board Corner
  • 12.08.23

Embracing Evolution without Abandoning Our Identity

  • by Jonathan S. Gagliardi, AIR President

Dear Colleagues,

Can you believe that we have already arrived at the end of the fall term? As the old saying goes, the days are long, but the years are short. Though cliché, it has also taken on greater meaning to me over the last few months as I have experienced personal milestones, reunited with dear friends, and traveled home for extended time with my family.

With time and space comes the ability to observe the collective impact of the incremental changes that happen daily, like when you return home after half a year away and get to meet your newborn nephew or notice that almost every child in your orbit has somehow grown half a foot. Similarly, recent trips to Washington, D.C., and New Orleans have allowed me to see that the AIR community has changed in ways big and small.

In 2016, AIR convened an IR Summit in Washington, D.C., with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to examine the evolution of our field and profession in light of the budding analytics revolution. A panel that I was on sought to unpack the controversial question, “Will IR/IE exist in 2020?” Our Gates Foundation Program Officer at the time, Patrick Rossol-Allison, always has had a knack for getting the attention of an audience!

Some of the answers were abstract, others were esoteric, and many were anchored in the real work that happens daily. Much was said about the growing demands for data, the continued emergence of IR/IE-adjacent fields, and how the convergence of these two phenomena could positively or negatively affect AIR.

What most stood out to me about that discussion was the visceral reaction of the audience. Real tears were shed, particularly around how the composition of the AIR community might evolve, and if the influence and standing of IR/IE would substantially diminish. It was a rich and loaded discussion, and I left the event with a newfound appreciation for the natural tension that existed in that room between the desire to preserve AIR as it had been, and the recognition that the decision to embrace change or not could have long-term implications for the association.

Fast forward to nearly a decade later, and I see now that those two realities were not mutually exclusive, and in truth, both have happened to a degree. My recent trips to Washington, D.C., and New Orleans cast that reality in full relief. While participating in an Institute for Higher Education Policy event focused on equitable postsecondary value, we engaged in conversations around the importance of better and more integrated data. While there were many familiar faces and roles, the diversity and volume of non-IR/IE professionals has noticeably grown. Similarly, while in New Orleans at National Symposium for Student Retention hosted by the Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange, I was able to listen to colleagues share their research and experiences beyond the traditional borders of an IR/IE Office—though if you peel back the veneer you can easily see that at its core, their work was in fact IR/IE.

My takeaways? I think AIR as an association is well-positioned to continue to amplify the impact it has on our colleges and universities and the students we serve. And, doing so will not require us to eschew the best features of the AIR community we care so deeply about. It turns out that you can embrace evolution without abandoning your identity. At the same time, the future will also require that we reconceptualize what it means to be in IR/IE. Luckily, we have begun to do with intentionality in recent years through the many formal and informal engagement opportunities with you; the recent work of our ad hoc committees on the future of IR/IE and volunteer pathways; and the introduction of our new organizational membership option that will be available in January 2024. As a result, we are poised to open our association to the growing number of professionals in IR/IE-adjacent fields, and those who increasingly work with data across our institutions and invite them to find a home in this wonderful community.

Speaking of community, the holiday season reminds me of how much I value AIR and you, our members. Regardless of how you choose to spend it, know that I wish you happiness, health, and good fortune!

Happy Holidays!