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  • 11.11.21

Ethical Use of Data: Scenarios for Discussion

  • by Julie Carpenter-Hubin and Donald C. Hubin

The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our students, prospective students, faculty, and staff is not yet known. Institutional research professionals can help support a better understanding of this impact by first reviewing their customary work. Given the circumstances of the pandemic and the differential impact on our communities, are standard survey questions relevant and sufficient across all populations? Do regular analyses and use of institutional and comparative data tell the most meaningful stories? How will the pandemic affect trend data from national datasets, and how can researchers best understand and explain any potential deviations from previous years?

While it is difficult to predict exactly what issues will arise at which institutions, the following scenarios seem likely to be relevant at many colleges and universities and are intended to initiate conversations.

Scenario One:

The University of Nowhere uses a predictive analytics system to support advising for undergraduate students. The system uses each student’s high school record, standardized test scores, and previous college coursework to calculate, based on algorithms developed from several prior years of student data, how likely a student is to be successful in a particular course. University of Nowhere provides students with access to their information so they can explore and see what majors they might want to consider, as well as which majors they might want to avoid. Students can meet with advisors to discuss their information if they wish.

The University recognizes that their current system will likely produce more accurate predictions for students who were less impacted by the pandemic. What are the potential negative effects of such a system, especially following a pandemic, and how can they be reduced? What additional variables should we consider, given the range of student experiences during the pandemic? Examples might include work hours per week, including care for siblings; parents’ education levels; and survey response data regarding prior year access to the internet. How might sharing data across institutions improve the University’s understanding of its own data?

Scenario Two:

Faculty experienced a wide range of challenges during the pandemic. Those with young children may have taken on their daily care and instruction due to school and daycare closures. Faculty in disciplines that depend heavily on grants to support their research may have seen a reduction in available resources. Colleges and universities should recognize the differential impact this may have on faculty research productivity. There are multiple measures and rankings of faculty research productivity at the national and international levels. Can institutional research professionals provide appropriate additional information to assure that faculty productivity over the pandemic period is viewed and compared appropriately by administrators? What comparative data will be needed and what are the sources for this information?


Julie Carpenter-Hubin served as Assistant Vice President of Institutional Research and Planning at The Ohio State University, retiring in 2019. She chaired the 2010 Association for Institutional Research (AIR) Annual Forum, served as the Association’s President for 2012–13, and is currently a member of the eAIR Editorial Task Force. Julie represented OSU to the Association of American Universities Data Exchange and served on its governing council 2004–07, chairing that body in 2005–06. She was a member of the National Research Council’s Data Panel, which advised the NRC on the data collection for its 2010 Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs. Julie currently serves as a peer reviewer for the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), and is a member of the HLC Institutional Actions Committee. Julie has consulted with and advised colleges and universities nationally and internationally regarding the structure and responsibilities of their institutional research teams. Julie holds a B.A. in German Languages & Literatures and an M.A. in public policy and administration, both from OSU.

Donald C. Hubin is Professor Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at The Ohio State University and the Founding Director Emeritus of the Center for Ethics and Human Values. He has been on the faculty of the Philosophy Department at The Ohio State University since 1977, serving as Chair of that Department from 2006-2013. From 2005 until 2015, Don was an Associate Editor of Ethics, one of the two leading journals in moral philosophy in the world. Don specializes in ethics, philosophy of law and political philosophy. He has worked on a variety of topics, including theories of distributive justice and the nature and justification of cost/benefit analysis. He currently has two primary research interests: first, the nature of practical rationality and the relationship between morality and rationality; and, second, the nature and basis of parental rights and responsibilities. Don received his B.A. in philosophy from the University of California at Davis and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.