On the Horizon: The Future of IR

Mary Sapp is Associate Provost for Planning, Institutional Research, and Assessment, University of Miami, Retired

e0506_20A_mary_sapp_6200.jpgAIR: Congratulations on your retirement from the University of Miami. What does the next chapter in your life look like?

My husband, Stephen, and I now live in Reston, Virginia, after receiving an invitation from our son and daughter-in-law to move closer to them so we could spend more time with our grandson (now 3) and granddaughter (now 9 months). Time with family will continue to be a priority, as will our continued enjoyment of travel, visits from out-of-town friends, taking our boat out on the lake where we now live and are enjoying the change of seasons we missed in Miami, and all of the attractions and cultural opportunities available in D.C. and northern Virginia. (I’m happy to assure everyone still working that retirement can be great!) That said, I’ve started looking for some consulting or non-profit work to do so I can continue to use the skills I’ve acquired over the years. I’ve also recently joined our homeowners’ association board, which is currently conducting a survey to gauge interest in changing some of our design standards.

eAIR: During your more than 30 years in IR, what do you believe are the most important contributions you made to the field? To AIR?

I think one of my most important contributions was organizing and staffing AIR’s first Foundations Institute. AIR’s Professional Development Services committee, which I chaired, used results from surveys we conducted to develop an institute that offered professional training in a more focused and structured setting than the Forum, at a more introductory level, and at a reasonable cost (yet without losing money). The first of what became AIR’s Foundations for the Practice of Institutional Research Institute was held in 1993, and its success led to the development of other similar institutes dealing with more advanced topics. The inaugural Institute allowed participants to enroll in five of the six modules offered, each taught by different faculty using material developed the prior year by task forces of experts on that topic. In addition, the plan was for the new Institute to provide more than just training for Institute participants. Modules developed for the Institute were also offered by Institute (and later other) faculty as Pre-Forum workshops and at regional and state IR conferences through a “Train-the-Trainer” program. In addition, instructional materials for five of the six modules were turned into monographs published as part of AIR’s Resources in Institutional Research (RIR) series.

Another contribution was the introduction of the AIR Alerts in 1997 as a way to identify emerging data policy issues that might have an impact on IR offices and to summarize each issue and its implications in a concise but substantive way, in a timely manner, and in a format that could be shared with others at the institution, thereby helping to elevate the stature of IR on campuses and to expand the image of IR to encompass policy analysis in addition to data analysis. The intent was to keep institutional researchers up to date on developments in higher education so they could be proactive in dealing with issues rather than reactive. Alerts were sent electronically and also saved on AIR’s website over a 15-year period, when they were replaced by the current IR in the Know feature in eAIR.

eAIR: Based on your many years of experience, what do you believe is on the horizon for the future of IR?

The “basics” of IR will continue to be critical—institutional researchers will continue to need to ensure their data are accurate, their methodology is sound, their results are summarized and presented effectively, and they are focusing on key issues. Some of the changes I see on the horizon are a continuation of the changes in technologies that affect the availability and analysis of data, decentralization of institutional research as other offices continue to gain access to and use these new technologies to do their own analyses and to inform decision making locally, a broadening of audiences for IR analyses, a need to respond to more outside pressure for accountability, and an increasing demand for information (not just data) to support evidence-based decisions. These changes will require institutional researchers to spend more time coaching/teaching others and building networks of colleagues who work together to ensure accuracy and comparability of reports generated, to introduce efficiencies (e.g., sharing queries that have been vetted by IR and IT), and to encourage appropriate methodologies and uses of data. The ability of IR offices to use their skills and experience to interpret findings and to understand nuances of data and analyses will be important as others become empowered to do their own analyses, which may not be consistent or sometimes even technically correct.

eAIR: What advice would you give to someone new to AIR regarding getting the most out of their membership?

My main piece of advice is to get involved, learn what your peers are doing, and start building a network of colleagues. Be intentional in your professional development by attending the AIR Forum, regional, state, and other related conferences, and reading eAIR, Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, and other publications to keep up on important issues. I would learn best practices and new skills, confirm what you’re already doing, improve by “borrowing” good ideas from your colleagues, meet new colleagues, and build friendships. Also, in addition to keeping your technical skills up to date, you should work on enhancing your presentation, organization, and people skills. You should also monitor key issues so you can ensure that you do what’s important, not just what’s urgent. One final issue is integrity in the face of institutional pressures that sometimes encourage taking shortcuts: Remember that you are a member of a critical profession with a code of ethics that leads us not only to do things the right way, but also to do the right thing.



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Total Comments: 3
Bill posted on 7/21/2016 2:22 PM

Thanks for sharing your good insights and for your profound and ongoing contributions to our profession.

Bill Knight
John posted on 7/21/2016 3:29 PM

Very nice job. I especially liked the reminder about ethics at the end. - John Muffo
Larry posted on 7/21/2016 9:14 PM
Congratulations on arriving in a new era of life...enjoy family, find challenge in home owner's association, travel, and discover new opportunities. I have had great rewards teaching in an Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute where the goal is to "enable our members to thrive in life's second half."

Larry Fincher