AIR Statement of Ethical Principles

Data use for decision-making in higher education is critical for improving student success and institutional effectiveness. Those improvements are valuable only when achieved through integrity, professionalism, and fairness.

In September 2019, the Association for Institutional Research (AIR) Board of Directors approved the AIR Statement of Ethical Principles to modernize the principles guiding our professional community.


Webinar: Ethical Foundations for an Evolving Field

How do we navigate the ethical landscape of an ever-evolving field? This January 2020 webinar introduces the AIR Statement of Ethical Principles, which serves as a foundation for our work and is poised to adapt to constantly emerging trends.

Ethics in Action

The AIR Statement of Ethical Principles is an eloquent expression of integrity, professionalism, and fairness to guide the use of data in decision-making within higher education. Yet crafting a statement isn’t enough in and of itself; to fully appreciate and employ the principles, we must understand how they can be employed. Contextualizing the principles through examples helps make them tangible and relatable so that they remain germane to the work we do.

To that end, AIR is gathering scenarios from the data community that feature examples of how the ethical principles are called upon in our work. Those submissions are featured below, and the collection will grow as new material is shared with AIR. The content is anonymous, and the information presented is intended to provide material for personal reflection and frame conversations with colleagues who engage with our work, including collaborators, clients, consumers, and stakeholders. Learn more here.

Submit a Scenario

The AIR Statement of Ethical Principles does not serve as or substitute legal advice, and the scenarios are not detailed roadmaps for resolving challenges. Rather, this content is intended to build awareness of the ethical implications of data production and use in higher education and provide tangible examples to frame discussion. If you have serious ethical concerns, please contact your institution’s or organization’s legal counsel.

Examples of the Principles in Action

  • Manipulating “Reality”

    Scenario

    An administrator wants to portray the institution in a better academic light than the data reveal and pressures the IR office to include only the most successful groups of students in official reporting.

    Ethical Implications 

    We must always provide accurate and contextualized information that is appropriate to the questions asked. To intentionally mislead consumers, governing bodies/agencies, or stakeholders risks significant negative consequences on the institution.

    Framing Action

    • What definitions, rules, and regulations govern data we report?
    • What are the consequences for misleading either internal consumers or external stakeholders?
    • What are the consequences of reporting inaccurate data to governing bodies, government agencies or accreditors?
    • What conflicts of interest arise by failing to provide accurate and complete data?
    • What are the implications of failing to make our work accessible and transparent in order to obfuscate reality?

    Keywords 

    reporting, misleading

  • Know Your Limits

    Scenario 

    A committee that leads an institution-wide initiative crafts an extensive list of data-related questions to guide its work. Some are easy to answer, but others require a great deal of time and effort, as well as statistical expertise beyond the IR unit’s capability. The desire to be of service is strong, but the risk of taking on more than can be accomplished is high.

    Ethical Implications 

    We must recognize the consequences of our work, including the impact of capacity limitations (time, knowledge, and skills) on the service provided to stakeholders, the accuracy of information provided, and ultimately, on the effectiveness of stakeholders’ decisions. We must provide accurate information and analysis; to extend ourselves beyond our capability risks dissemination of inaccurate or incomplete information that is not properly analyzed or contextualized

    Framing Action 

    • In our efforts to be fair and transparent, and to share knowledge of IR and its application, how can we be clear about what we can and cannot do, and why? 
    • How can we partner with other professionals and units in the spirit of collaboration to find solutions for unanswered questions and to address limitations?
    • How can we benefit from the scholarship and practice of the field to ensure that our knowledge and skills evolve with the needs of higher education? 

    Keywords 

    capacity, skills, knowledge

  • A “Major” Problem

    Scenario

    A faculty member suspects that transfer students do not perform as well as non-transfer students in a specific major. As part of an effort to bolster support for excluding transfer students from the program, the faculty member requests records for all students in the major for the past 10 years, including gender, ethnicity, major course grade, transfer GPA, SAT or ACT scores, high school GPA, and time to degree. 

    Ethical Implications

    Our work has substantial consequences for the success of our most important stakeholders—students. We have a responsibility to protect individuals’ rights by being fair and transparent, avoiding conflicts of interest, and acting as responsible data stewards to ensure that we minimize bias and act in the best interest of our students.

    Framing Action

    • Do we support all request and lines of inquiry, regardless of the intended use of information? If not, what conversations do we pursue, and with whom?
    • How do we illuminate historical information, motivations, assumptions, and biases to ensure transparency?
    • What role do we have to educate stakeholders about individuals’ rights and the potential consequences of misuse of data?
    • How can we share knowledge of the data function and encourage accurate and contextualized application of information to encourage fair and transparent use?
    • How can we help facilitate and contribute to conversations on equity and data use across the institution?

    Keywords

    bias, equity

  • Evidence of Unfair Treatment

    Scenario 

    An employee requests detailed employment records for all staff in a unit, including name, gender, ethnicity, and salary for the previous 20 years. The individual plans to analyze the information as part of an effort to uncover evidence of unfair treatment.

    Ethical Implications 

    We have responsibilities to protect individuals’ information, privacy, and rights; consider the consequences of our work; and mitigate potential conflicts of interest.

    Framing Action 

    • What are our responsibilities for vetting requests we receive? What do we need to know to vet requests?
    • How do we illuminate historical information, motivations, assumptions, and biases to ensure transparency?
    • What policies, including decision making protocols and data governance structures, guide our consideration of requests to ensure that we are responsible data stewards?
    • How can we work with stakeholders to identify the knowledge sought, which may be different from the initial questions posed?
    • How do we ensure that contextualization isn’t obfuscated for any reason?

    Keywords 

    privacy, rights

  • A Question of Confidentiality

    Scenario

    A data professional is a notetaker for a series of student focus groups to gather feedback on a specific program. Only one student shows up for one of the focus groups. The project lead decides to continue as planned. The student recounts a situation in which a professor’s behavior made the student uncomfortable. The professor’s behavior wasn’t a clear-cut breach of the institution’s faculty code of conduct, but it was inappropriate. The data professional worries that inclusion of the student’s experience in the overall focus group data will breach the informed consent agreement that ensures confidentiality.

    Ethical Implications

    There are times in which the “correct” action is not clear. When we aren’t sure how to proceed, we must consult additional resources. This could involve a review of relevant institutional policy, including the requirements for obligated reporting, and how that is balanced with individuals’ rights and protection of privacy and confidentiality

    Framing Action

    • In what ways could our activities risk breaching individuals’ rights, privacy, and confidentiality? How can we minimize the risk?
    • How can we ensure that we are responsible data stewards and that information and analyses are appropriate?
    • What are our responsibilities to report concerns—from a moral or legal standpoint? What office or individual at our institution can provide advice or guidance for us? For students?
    • What is the line between confidential and anonymous, and how do our policies and practices address use of sensitive data? 
    • How does our handing of information impact stakeholder participation in our studies?
    • How can we encourage ongoing conversations about ethical behaviors and their relation to policies and procedures, especially when faced with “ethical gray areas” in our work?
    • How can we leverage scholarship to navigate situations with unclear ethical implications?

    Keywords

    students, research

  • The Rogue Storyteller

    Scenario

    An administrator requests data with the intention of creating a dashboard to inform an important decision. The data professional counsels the administrator about how to appropriately use the data and makes recommendations for how the information could be reported and displayed. However, the administrator disregards the advice and creates a dashboard with misleading comparisons that aren’t supported by or reflected in the data. 

    Ethical Implications

    Our role often includes consultation with stakeholders and fulfillment of data and information requests. Acting as responsible data stewards, we must ensure that analyses are appropriate in light of the questions asked, provide accurate and contextualized information, ground the work in relevant scholarship and practices, and reflect knowledge of the field.

    Framing Action

    • What institutional policies and practices exist to provide oversight of the use and reporting of data and information?
    • What are our responsibilities if stakeholders disregard the advised appropriate, fair, and transparent use of information we provide?
    • How do we illuminate historical information, motivations, assumptions, and biases to ensure transparency?
    • How can we leverage knowledge of the field to advocate responsible use of institutional data and information?
    • What are the ramifications of misuse of data and information on decision-making and institutional effectiveness?
    • What institutional resources or sources of support are available when we feel that our reputations as data professionals who act with integrity are at stake?

    Keywords

    data governance, policy

  • Selection Bias

    Scenario

    An analyst notices a startling decrease in the number of students who report a specific measure collected as part of the college admission process and retained in their student records. Exploration of the change reveals that those data are systematically deleted from the records of students within a specific subgroup. 

    Ethical Implications

    One of our greatest responsibilities as responsible data stewards is to ensure that data of the highest quality are available for decision-making. This includes the minimization of bias through fair and transparent collection, use, and maintenance of data. Failure to do so can have profound consequences, including those that impact students and, ultimately, their success. Further, mishandling of data infringes on the rights of stakeholders.

    Framing Action

    • How can we make data accessible without sacrificing quality and security?
    • What are the consequences for incomplete or inaccurate data through deliberate manipulation, inadequate policies or structures, or other? 
    • What conflicts of interest arise when data quality isn’t maintained? How are accuracy and contextualization affected?
    • How can we ensure accountability related to data maintenance and use?
    • How do we resolve problems once identified?

    Keywords

    equity, data security, data quality

  • Apples and Oranges

    Scenario

    The president reviews a benchmarking dashboard before it is presented to the board of trustees. Data for the dashboard were pulled from IPEDS, but the president wants to present the most recent spring graduation figures instead because they reflect more positively on the institution. The data professional reminds the president that a comparison cannot be made between the institution’s most recent spring data and older IPEDS data from benchmarking institutions. The president understands the concern but uses the spring graduation rates for the comparison anyway. 

    Ethical Implications

    It is imperative that we provide accurate and contextualized information appropriate to the lines of inquiry pursued. We share knowledge of the field to inform stakeholders of the risks of sharing misleading information, avoid conflicts of interest, and ensure our work is fair, transparent, and accessible

    Framing Action

    • What definitions, guidelines, and regulations govern data use, including how comparisons are explained? Is there clarity on the consequence of our work when those terms aren’t met? 
    • How can we ensure that we are responsible data stewards and that our information and analyses are appropriate, documented, and replicable?
    • How can we obtain buy-in from decision-makers to uphold standards of professional practice and ethical principles for data production and use?
    • What institutional resources or sources of support are available when we feel that our reputations as data professionals who act with integrity are at stake?

    Keywords

    benchmarking, integrity, context

The Evolution of AIR’s Ethical Principles

As the higher education landscape has evolved over the years, so too have our ethical guidelines to remain relevant and useful.

  • January 2020: The AIR Statement of Ethical Principles was published.
  • September 2019: Feedback and suggestions were incorporated into the final draft for comment, and the principles were approved by the AIR Board of Directors.
  • May 2019: After a year of collaboration, the AIR Board of Directors presented a draft of the principles at the 2019 AIR Forum in Denver, followed by a broadly-communicated open comment period.
  • 2018: The Board embarked on an examination of the current Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (Code). Of particular interest was how the Code addressed the emerging topics of data analytics, big data, and vendor relationships. It became clear that both ethics and best practices had been blended into a single document.
  • May 2013: The Code was amended, and the title was updated based on committee recommendation.
  • December 2001: The Code was updated.
  • December 1992: The Code was adopted by the membership. It was developed to provide members of the association with some broad ethical statements with which to guide their professional lives and to identify relevant considerations when ethical uncertainties arise.

"I am genuinely proud to be part of an organization that puts such a significant emphasis on ethical principles and behavior. The AIR Statement of Ethical Principles not only provides IR professionals with guidance regarding the ethical use of data and information, it also informs our leadership and our colleagues of the values and behaviors they can and should expect from us."

Julie Carpenter-Hubin 
Assistant Vice President for Institutional Research and Planning at Ohio State University (Retired)

"Colleges and universities should use the AIR Statement of Ethical Principles to develop policies and practices that govern our use of data, analytics, information, and evidence in support of institutional effectiveness and equitable student success. These principles undergird professional practice and are critical to sustaining public trust in what we do. More important, the statement provides an assurance to our students and their families, our faculty and staff, and our communities that we are committed to acting with integrity."

Archie P. Cubarrubia  
Former Vice Provost for Institutional Effectiveness at Miami Dade College

"I applaud the Association for Institutional Research for putting forward these principles to guide professionals through the ethical challenges that can emerge in the analysis, presentation, and use of data. This type of guidance is important to the field and will help ensure that, as available data continues to expand, they will be used for the benefit of students and the improvement of higher education. "

Iris Palmer  
Senior Advisor for Higher Education and Workforce, Education Policy Program at New America