Special Features

  • Featured
  • 02.21.20

Ethics for a New Era: The AIR Statement of Ethical Principles

  • by Christine M. Keller, AIR Executive Director & CEO and Michelle Appel, AIR Immediate Past President

You are the recipient of a data request from a program director who believes that poor performance by students from a local high school is threatening the program's reputation. As part of an effort to build support for restricting admission to the program, the director wants the records for all students in the program for the past 10 years, including gender, ethnicity, major course grades, high school attended, certification test scores, high school GPA, and time to degree. What are the key considerations when responding to this request?

Nearly all of us who produce, analyze, or interpret data for decision making—whether itlead-ethics-webpage be for ourselves or for another person within our organization—can relate to the situation described above. It is true that the insights gleaned from the knowledgeable use of data and analytics can point to actions that advance the success of students. We also understand that data and analytics used without an appreciation of the consequences can have a real and negative impact on real people: the students, faculty, and staff represented by the numbers. However, the choices are not always easy or straightforward. Particularly in a time of wider access to more data from new sources, sophisticated but opaque algorithms, and powerful tools that can be applied with the click of a button.

The AIR Statement of Ethical Principles, released last month, was created to provide guidance when we are faced with hard choices by laying out a set of overarching principles for the ethical use of data within higher education. It is a statement of integrity, professionalism, and fairness that can serve as a foundation in a time of rapid change in technology, tools, and methods.

AIR has a proud history of being attentive to the ethical considerations of data use. The original AIR Code of Ethics was adopted in 1992 with several revisions and the addition of “professional practice” in 2013. With the current focus on data and analytics across all industries, and in response to member concerns, the AIR Board of Directors decided last year that it was time to revisit the Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. Our community had expressed concerns that the Code did not address issues prompted by new technology, tools, and “big data.” The Board worried that inclusion of all the details associated with the everyday practice of getting the work done within the existing Code of Ethics and Professional Practice risked losing the underlying beliefs and guiding ethical principles. Further, in the time since the 2013 revision, AIR had released both the Statement of Aspirational Practice for Institutional Research and the Duties and Functions of Institutional Research, which addressed the more pragmatic aspects of our work. With that in mind, the Board elected to start fresh, articulating the foundational values related to working with higher education data.

The new Statement of Ethical Principles includes 11 principles designed to be easy to remember and clear in their values. Each of the 11 principles has a main theme and focuses on relevant and timely issues: consequences, rights, privacy and confidentiality, data stewardship, accuracy and contextualization, appropriateness, fairness and transparency, conflicts of interest, accessibility, knowledge, and scholarship.

The Board sought to make the principles broad and expansive; with a goal of inclusion, not exclusion. The AIR community includes individuals who work in institutional research, institutional effectiveness, and many other related professions that encompass a variety of types of work in a multitude of settings around the world. The ethical principles needed to be applicable to and focus on the underlying beliefs that can be applied to the diversity of work and roles that span national borders. The Board wanted the principles to be a valuable guide to others in the higher education community who face ethical considerations in the analysis, presentation, and use of data; including our colleagues who work in information technology, student affairs, enrollment management, or the business office. The broad and inclusive nature of the ethical principles is an opportunity to emphasize our vision for the association: to be a global leader in the ethical use of data for better decisions.

The new principles reflect input from a large number of stakeholders. The AIR community was invited to provide feedback on an earlier draft of the principles, and additional input was sought in conference sessions and through other communications and events. The Board used that feedback to shape and amend the final principles.

The ultimate value of the Statement of Ethical Principles is in their application and use—crafting a statement alone is not enough. The 11 principles and their descriptions can be found on the AIR website and are available in a one-page, printable PDF to provide easy access and the ability to share it with colleagues. The webpage also offers other resources and materials, including scenarios to demonstrate how the principles could be used in practice and a recording of the January webinar that introduced the new Statement.

The scenarios are not detailed roadmaps or a substitute for legal advice, but they do provide tangible examples and questions for personal reflection and to frame conversations with colleagues. So, individuals faced with a situation will have a guide for starting a discussion and can be confident that the principles represent the common values and backing of the global AIR community.

The work with the ethical principles remains ongoing; it is not too late to add your voice and ideas. Submit a scenario or contact us and tell us what materials or resources would be helpful to you. 

The new AIR Statement of Ethical Principles and its accompanying materials are all of ours; they reflect the collaboration of AIR stakeholders, members, the Board, and the staff. We look forward to seeing how all of you apply them on your own campuses and to engaging in the ongoing discussions about this important topic.

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