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  • 11.11.21

Campus Leaders Reflect on IR, Ethics

  • by Michelle Appel
Campus Leaders Reflect

A consistent theme in the reactions to the AIR Statement of Ethical Principles has been concern over the tension between what campus leaders want and what IR/IE practitioners see as the correct or ethical path. We asked three practitioners whose career paths took them to campus leadership for their perspectives. Dr. Marsha Krotseng, a former AIR President, held a series of increasingly responsible positions in West Virginia, Georgia, and North Dakota before assuming the presidency at Bluefield State College; she is now retired and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for Harrisburg Area Community College. Dr. Kelli Armstrong served in a variety of IR positions in the Boston area, including a long tenure in progressive positions at Boston College, and was named the President of Salve Regina University in July 2019. Dr. Mitchell Nesler has had a long career in IR and administration in New York and served as Interim President for SUNY Empire State College. He is currently the Vice Provost for Strategy and Planning at the SUNY System Administration, and he serves on the AIR Board of Directors.

What ethical areas do you see as important to using data in higher education?

Krotseng: IR professionals don't collect data just because they can or for the sake of doing so but because specific data elements can be turned into information that sheds valuable light on student behavior and success, faculty and staff characteristics, or institutional culture. The data should be meaningful, contributing to a deeper understanding of the campus and helping foster student success. In that light, maintaining privacy, confidentiality, security, and who has access to the raw data are crucial. Integrity also is essential in the collection, analysis, use, and dissemination of data and information. Ensuring the highest level of integrity includes being transparent about the use of data, objectively analyzing the data to discover the story they can convey, and then placing that story in the appropriate context as it is communicated to both internal and external stakeholders. Providing that context for faculty, staff, and administrators can help minimize potential misinterpretation or misuse of the data. This is particularly important when sharing information with the media and general public.

Three examples highlight current imperatives regarding the ethical use of data: 1) In states and systems where at least some funding is based on specific outcomes such as enrollment, student retention, completion, or employment, there must be some means to ensure that all institutions are using the same definitions and protocols in reporting given the high stakes involved. 2) Colleges and universities are reflecting upon questions such as “What data should we be collecting to ensure equity and inclusion for all groups on our campuses (students, faculty, and staff)?” and “How can we collect and use those data in an ethical and acceptable manner?” 3) Higher education is reexamining the ethics, relevance, and appropriateness of using certain data that have traditionally been collected and reported such as SAT/ACT scores.

Armstrong: I think that with increasing pressure on institutions to compete for students as we approach changing demographics, we need to watch carefully how we report financial data. This is true on an institutional level, of course, as some institutions will be navigating difficulties in coming years but also when it comes to describing student and family debt, and the ways in which we allocate funds for student support. Additionally, we need new ways within ethical frameworks for how we capture diversity. Are we accurately reflecting the changing demographics of our populations or merely trying to report increases in outdated categories?

Nesler: There are probably two main ones: 1) Having a complete understanding of data and appropriate statistical methods so that IR professionals and others at an institution are reaching valid conclusions. I have seen people perform inappropriate statistical tests on data based on inadequate training in statistics. These folks were not intentionally attempting to deceive an audience—it was really more a lack of understanding of what type of statistical tests are most appropriate for certain types of data. This impacts statistical conclusion validity—the person reached incorrect conclusions and presented those conclusions to senior leaders who in turn made policy decisions based on faulty information. I believe this does not serve a university or its students. 2) Some senior leaders will seek data to validate decisions that have already been made rather than making decisions based on data. This is a challenge for IR professionals because as we all know, if you torture a set of numbers long enough, they will confess to anything. I have heard stories from colleagues over the years that they have been pressured to manipulate figures to tell a particular story, to support rankings for example. I am very fortunate that I have never been in that type of position—I’ve had really outstanding supervisors over my career who have never put me in that position, but I know this is a concern for people in our field.

Have your views on the ethical use of data in higher education changed over the course of your career? How (or why not)?

Krotseng: An inherent commitment to ethical standards and ensuring integrity in the use of data have been fundamental guiding principles throughout my career thanks to graduate program mentors and AIR colleagues who demonstrated these attributes early on. My views on the ethical use of data have not changed as much as they have evolved from being implicit to becoming more “top of mind” in recent years as new technologies provide enhanced capabilities to obtain and use (or potentially misuse) data. Twenty-five years ago, the ethical questions I faced most often centered around what data could be released, and to whom, under FERPA regulations and ensuring that office publications redacted data where individuals might be identified due to low frequencies. Today, the pervasive use of technology and artificial intelligence rely on vast reserves of data to identify and target the needs of individual students. While such personalized learning and early alert systems, for example, can greatly benefit students, they also dramatically increase the frequency and type of ethical dilemmas surrounding the use and sharing of those data beyond the original intent. The same is true of algorithms that institutions apply for a variety of purposes—for instance, phone-based apps that can nudge students to complete assignments or meet with a tutor also can track students' locations and movement throughout the day. As a result, ethical considerations must be at the forefront of current decision making, with such issues being explicitly examined and addressed prior to implementing technology solutions.

Armstrong: I still rely heavily on the talents and training of an IR team to help me sort through the most accurate portrayal of data, and this group feels grounded to me and trustworthy. Where IR could be helpful for institutional positioning is finding ways to put our best foot forward, particularly with the plethora of surveys that are ill-defined.

Nesler: I was probably more rigid earlier in my career, where my thinking has evolved to allow for a more nuanced understanding as I get older. Higher education institutions are complex, and ethical issues that impact all aspects of the academic enterprise are also complex. Obviously, we can’t flex on integrity, but I can appreciate that there are gray areas that require multifaceted thinking.

What advice would you give to IR practitioners about conveying ethical issues to campus leaders?

Krotseng: Integrity and trust are among your most important attributes as a professional. Use them in your decision-making and continuously evaluate your work and actions to ensure that the integrity and the trust you have established with your constituencies are never compromised. Once compromised, they are very difficult to regain. The AIR Statement of Ethical Principles is a valuable tool you can reference and share with campus leaders should you have concerns about the ethics of a particular situation. Your AIR colleagues also can offer support and advice regarding specific ethical considerations they have faced.

Bear in mind that you are collecting and analyzing data to produce insightful information that will benefit students and accurately portray your institution. In doing so, it is important to consider the possible unintended consequences of your work or any potential misuse/misinterpretation of the data and take the appropriate precautions/steps to minimize such misrepresentation.

Armstrong: Campus leaders are navigating so much these days, particularly with COVID. IR can have a reputation (not at Salve!) of being the speed bump. It is so important not to lose the role of truth teller, but it would be incredibly helpful to leaders to also have IR partners who offer alternatives (e.g., “I’ve seen that we’ve been reporting our data this way, and technically this is inaccurate. We could consider using xx data within the context of y to make the same point….”).

Nesler: Use common sense and treat people respectfully. Everyone in higher education will want to use data in an ethical fashion. Always take the other person’s perspective—try to understand their position and see how you can help them understand the data they are looking at and the gradations and intricacies of them. Keep in mind you are the expert, but you also have to “manage up” when interacting with campus leaders. Leaders typically have a lot on their plates too, so easily digestible bits are always appreciated.


Michelle AppelMichelle Appel is a Director in the University of Maryland's Office of Institutional Research, Planning, and Assessment and is currently on loan to UMD's Workday implementation serving as Reporting Lead. Michelle has more than 25 years of experience in IR and has served as President of AIR, NEAIR, and MDAIR. During her time as AIR President, Michelle led the effort to draft and adopt the AIR Statement of Ethical Principles.