Opinion Paper

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 Finding a Seat at the Table
G.L. Donhardt
G.L. Donhardt is Director of the Office of Institutional Research at the University of Memphis.

In the formative years of the institutional research (IR) profession, many researchers reported directly to their presidents and chancellors. While this structure still exists on some campuses, for many the shift has been away from such direct reports.

While reporting to provosts and academic affairs vice presidents is common for IR, such organizational structures do not take full advantage of all that the profession can offer executive management. Institutions are best served when the chief IR officer (CIRO) is sitting on the executive council. Obviously, a position on the president’s cabinet does not preclude one’s presence on the provost council or other vice presidential committees where expertise is needed. Reporting to the chief executive officer (CEO), however, connotes the importance of gathering and analyzing intelligence that supports decision making on campus.
As a member of the president’s cabinet, the CIRO can bring an analytical objectivity to the table that is too often missing. IR professionals see their institutions from a perspective not always viewed by others. Often, this vantage point allows for the early detection of both problems and prospects. Other members of the council may be unaware of essential research-based questions to be asked and the analytical solutions that can result from such inquiries. If IR professionals are to actively contribute to affective change, they need to be at the center of the decision-making process (Swing, 2009).
Lessons to be Learned
Are there strategies to get IR a seat at the table? Are there lessons to be learned on how to promote the profession? An examination of the advent of the chief information officer (CIO) may supply some answers.
Changes in the structure of business occur frequently. In higher education, change comes slowly, if at all. One major exception in the administrative structure of many colleges and universities clearly stands out—the arrival of the CIO. The evolution of this position has had a profound effect on the governance of higher education. The development represents a key shift in the balance of power and re-allocation of resources within colleges and universities.
The CIO is the senior administrator “responsible for information policy, management, control, and standards” (Penrod, 2005, p. 1). Within recent years, more and more of these technology administrators have been reporting directly to their CEOs and serving on executive management teams (Zastrocky & Schlier, 2000).
The business world was first introduced to the idea of creating the role of the CIO in a 1980 Computerworld article about a presentation given by William Synnott at an Information Management Exposition and Conference (Winkler, 1980). Synnott, then Vice President of Data Processing at the First National Bank of Boston, coined the title CIO and worked with other industry leaders to develop the concept (communication with Richard Nolan, July 15, 2006).
“All of the disparate IR functions should be united under one umbrella with a new name and raison d'être that will justify a presence on the executive council.”
Drastic changes were taking place in the electronic information industry during the later years of the 1970s. The Data Processing Era was giving way to the Information Age. By the end of the 1980s, the profession had evolved into information technology (IT) with a wider scope of duties. The new leadership position of CIO, emphasizing the management of technology, signaled the change (Synnott & Gruber, 1981).
In 1981, William Synnott and William Gruber collaborated on how to bring about the restructuring of IT in their book, Information Reference Management: Opportunities and Strategies for the 1980s. A chapter written by Richard Nolan laid out a number of strategies. Although Synnott and Gruber’s book advanced tactics for change, the movement did not gain momentum in higher education until the end of the decade when Nolan gave a keynote address at the CAUSE national conference in November 1989. Nolan asserted that too many executives failed to grasp the need to transform their organizations to meet the demands of the new information economy. An excerpt from that speech was published in CAUSE/EFFECT (Nolan, 1990) along with reactions from five IT professionals in higher education. In a subsequent article, presidents of institutions of higher education were asked to comment as well (Transforming Higher Education, 1991).
Synnott and Gruber pointed to the need and Nolan provided the spark. The profession’s publication CAUSE/EFFECT solidified the position with comments by leading IT professionals and garnered buy-in from university and college presidents. Change agents within the profession went to work selling the idea to presidents and chancellors, persuading them that management of IT was too important to be left to individuals who lacked broad understandings of how institutions worked (Penrod, Dolence, & Douglas, 1990).
A number of chief executives became convinced of the necessity of granting the lead technology administrator a seat on the executive council where he/she could influence institutional policy decisions, budget processes, and strategic planning (Penrod, 2005).
Upon first glance, one may surmise that the growing need for greater visibility in technology was the prime mover for the creation of the CIO role, and that the CIO would have evolved in higher education regardless of the efforts of Synnott, Gruber, and Nolan and without the support of CAUSE/EFFECT. I am skeptical that such is the case, for need alone does not a position make. Need alone does not garner resources or opportunities for influence. And, need alone does not get one a seat at the executive table.
On most campuses, IT is largely a background process—one that provides necessary support for the daily operation of the institution, but is not the primary business of higher education (Keen, 1997). Granted, IT is essential, but other background processes, such as IR, can make the same claim. So, how can IR garner the increased attention that IT has enjoyed?
Strategies for Change
The Association for Institutional Research (AIR) is best suited to orchestrate a national campaign to promote change in the profession. The following are strategies adapted from Synnott’s book and applied to IR that should be considered.
1. Create a new identity for institutional research and the chief institutional research officer.
The IR profession must redefine its role and adopt a more expansive vision. All of the disparate IR functions should be united under one umbrella with a new name and raison d'être that will justify a presence on the executive council. At some institutions, planning, assessment, and IR have been bundled under the title of Institutional Effectiveness. While such consolidations hold promise, it appears that the majority of these units still report to provosts or vice presidents and not the institutions’ CEOs.
IR professionals need to shed the passive image of merely responding to surveys for admissions guides and completing IPEDS forms. If IR only engages in menial reporting, the profession is in jeopardy. One does not need to be a prophet to realize that any routine process that stands between a user and a computer and can be fully met with automation will be replaced by automation (Keen, 1997). It is only a matter of time.
The profession must position itself to offer more. IR professionals need to proactively focus on being the eyes and ears of their institutions. Being the eyes and ears means taking on the task of looking for opportunities and obstacles facing our colleges and universities. While IT responded to the needs of the Information Age by transforming data into information, the movement did not go far enough. The pressing need for higher education is to turn information into intelligence. This job is best suited to IR professionals with analytical and statistical skill sets.
Furthermore, a new title for the lead IR professional will signify that this person’s scope of work has expanded to fill the larger role of senior executive and policymaker (Synnott & Gruber, 1981).
2. Identify change agents.
IR professionals need to act as advocates for change. Apologists must be able to articulate the critical issues that will sway opinion within their own institutions and throughout the profession. But most importantly, CEOs at the institution and system levels need to be identified as change agents. These are the individuals with sufficient clout to influence their peers and promote research and analysis as vital resources. Without support from executives who place premiums on collecting and analyzing intelligence in support of decision making, any attempted transition will stall.
3. Identify a catalyst to ignite the change.
There may be a number of suitable triggers to spark change in the IR profession. Recall, it was Nolan’s keynote address at a national conference that ignited the movement for IT. The appropriate spokesperson in a similar forum may be what is needed for IR.
Regardless, the time is ripe for a catalyst to set things in motion. The mounting demands of governmental mandates and increasing consumer expectations are but two external pressures demanding more refined assessments.
Federal regulators, state agencies, and governing boards all want institutions of higher education to demonstrate the worth of the programs for which they are responsible. They seek evidence that college makes a difference in the lives of students, and they want assurance that curricular offerings are having positive impacts.
Likewise, growing pressures from consumers are causing institutions to seek validation for their offerings. Families want to know if they are getting value for their investments. Their loved ones’ futures are in the balance and they want their sons and daughters to get the best educations possible. Consumers are demanding quality and they are unwilling to tolerate anything less.
Any determined CEO will want to develop distinctiveness and achieve national eminence for his/her institution in the face of complex governmental regulations, emergent competition for students, and the battle for research dollars. The demand for more sophisticated analyses will rely upon the knowledge and experience IR can provide. 
“The pressing need for higher education is to turn information into intelligence. This job is best suited to IR.”
4. Sell the need for change.
A coordinated campaign initiated by AIR and the regional and state IR associations is essential in selling the need for change in the profession. A series of articles in a variety of publications should be directed to university and college presidents promoting the expansion of the role of IR. Examples of how the profession can help improve decision making and positively affect policy making will help sway opinion that research is a valuable resource (Synnott & Gruber, 1981).
CEOs in higher education must be convinced that IR is one of their most important assets. In a highly competitive environment, those with the keen assessment strategies that IR can offer will likely outperform their competitors. While IR capabilities may not be foremost on most CEOs’ crowded agendas, the analyses that IR can provide may be just what is needed to solve some of their institutions’ pressing problems.
Yet many executives do not know what IR can do for their colleges and universities. Some see it as nothing more than a menial function to complete the obligatory federal and state reports. What they do not understand, they cannot appreciate. A national campaign is an opportunity to educate and persuade these key players.
Undoubtedly, there will be resistance when one attempts to push another chair up to the table. Adding a person to the executive council pulls influence and resources away from others already seated. Members who see the existing structure as sacrosanct may be reluctant to welcome a newcomer to their ranks.
James Hearn (1996) pointed out that “influence and power flow to those who are willing to take leadership roles” (p. 147). IR professionals are willing to do more if given the resources and access. Being present on the executive council provides an opportunity to help set the research agenda and gain a measure of control over how issues are framed.
Just as IT capitalized on the shift from data processing to information management, IR should capitalize on the shift from information management to information intelligence.
Although higher education was slow to embrace the information management movement, change occurred eventually, and not by happenstance. Today, the CIO is prominent in most higher education institutions. The position is so entrenched that it is hard to imagine a different structure. In the future, the same could be true for IR.
Hearn, J. C. (1996). Transforming U.S. Higher Education: An Organizational Perspective. Innovative Higher Education, 21(2), 127-139.
Keen, P. (1997). The process edge. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Nolan, R. L. (1990). Too many executives today just don't get it. CAUSE/EFFECT, 13(4).
Penrod, J. I. (2005). Reflections on a career as a four-time CIO. Research Bulletin, 21. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERB0521.pdf
Penrod, J. I., Dolence, M. G., & Douglas, J. V. (1990). The chief information officer in higher education. Professional Paper Series, 4. Boulder, CO: CAUSE. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/PUB3004.pdf
Swing, R. (2009). Institutional researchers as change agents. New Directions for Institutional Research, 143, 5-16.
Synnott, W. R. & Gruber, W. H. (1981). Information resource management: Opportunities and strategies for the 1980s. New York, NY: Wiley.
Transforming higher education in the information age: Presidents respond. (1991). CAUSE/EFFECT, 14(3).
Winkler, C. (1980). Manager must be superman, conferees told. Computerworld, 14(43), 20.
Zastrocky, M. R. & Schlier, F. (2000). The higher education CIO in the 21st Century. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 1, 53-59. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/EQM0018.pdf


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