Special Features

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  • 08.15.23

What a Coffee Cup Can Teach Us About IR

  • by Andrew L. Luna, Executive Director, Decision Support and Institutional Research, Austin Peay State University


Many years ago, at a former institution, I was in a back room deciding which countless old files could be discarded to make room for new ones. I was a new hire and eagerly used this time to learn some institutional history while culling out material no longer useful.

In my investigations, I noticed a lone coffee cup perched on the top shelf of a cabinet in that room. The cup was undoubtedly old because it was embossed with an institutional logo of years ago. The thing that intrigued me about that cup was a strip of paper taped to it that read “Do Not Remove!!” I pondered why it was there and what its message meant. Was this the cup of a former beloved director? Did the cup have special qualities that made coffee taste especially good? Was this cup used by some celebrity or dignitary? Remembering back to those mattress tags that warned us all not to remove under penalty of law, I cautiously left the cup alone.

At some point in my records searching, I came across the working papers for the institution’s fact book from the early 1980s. I mused at the rudimentary tables and antiquated typeface that clearly came from an IBM Selectric typewriter. I also noticed how all of the pie charts were the exact same size, manually drawn, and were precisely executed. Beside the first pie chart, I noticed a hand-written note outside the margin that stated, “All pie charts were created using the coffee cup in the file room.”

I laughed out loud. That old coffee cup had been used over 20 years ago to create circles for pie charts. I then picked up that dusty old cup and looked at it. I could see traces of graphite still affixed to its base from a pencil of long ago. That cup got me thinking about time, technology, and institutional research. Within the computing world, BASIC, COBOL, and Fortran have all but been replaced by Java, SQL, and Python. Lotus 123, considered the precedent spreadsheet program, was replaced by Excel, and programs like Harvard Graphics were replaced by PowerPoint. Almost on a daily basis, programs that were once a staple in our offices became obsolete.

Now we are facing the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) and its quick exponential growth across all facets of life, including IR. While AI programs have an insatiable hunger for more and more data, their results can be uncanny. Essentially, AI uses the power of computers to find patterns and relationships in huge data. To the AI computer or programmer, it makes no difference whether these relationships are spurious or genuine. Rather, the relationship itself becomes the panacea to the world’s insurmountable problems.

AI is not bad. It is a useful tool — one of many in the IR toolbox. However, IR offices were clearly successful before computers and AI, when hand-cranked calculators churned out data and coffee cups were used to make pie charts. It is generally agreed that the first piece of IR work occurred with a study done in 1701 by Yale University looking at the organizational structure of Harvard. From that point to the present, the focus of IR has waffled from reporting-based to research-based and back again. Among all of these changes, one thing is clear: It is the IR professional, not technology, that makes IR such an important and integral component to higher education.

If the IR professional has been seminal to the success of IR for so many years, will AI eventually lead to the extinction of our important roles? The answer may be in the affirmative if we stop asking the important questions of “how” and “why” and focus on the more mundane queries of “who” and “how many.”

In the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film "2001: A Space Odyssey," the computer HAL experienced a breakdown because it could not come to grips with its own fallibility of being too perfect. Will this deficiency of the computer eventually lead to the demise of humankind because we stop being human? The outcome may be imminent if we rely more on technology rather than our experience, intellect, and our own gut instincts.

Technology will always replace itself like the typewriter replaced the pen and the computer replaced the typewriter. Remember BlackBerry phones? Our brains, however, are adaptable and strongly equipped for critical thinking and reason within an imperfect and, oftentimes, illogical world. Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that a pen was only an object. Yet, in the hand of an individual, it could create poetry, equations, or music. We must therefore be self-reliant and pick up those tools to explore and exploit our own capabilities. I think Emerson would agree that we should not solely succumb to the reliance on the latest technological fad or gadget to think or create for us.

After all, the AI of today will be the coffee cup of tomorrow. If we, as IR professionals, keep this perspective in mind, institutional research will still remain relevant for years to come.


LunaAndrew L. Luna, Ph.D is Executive Director of Decision Support and Institutional Research at Austin Peay State University and is also a speaker.




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