In 2001, Spelman College received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a project to improve the quality of the institutional research enterprise throughout the campus. What we learned from that effort should be of interest to any institution seeking to demonstrate its commitment to high educational standards and achievement for students.
Accreditation, though voluntary, is the key to recognition by peer institutions and governmental bodies that an institution is an appropriately organized, adequately managed and functioning higher education system. More than ever before, institutional effectiveness, or IE, is the factor that interferes with efforts to obtain or reaffirm accreditation. Every unit of an educational institution should have a mission that relates to and supports the broader institutional mission. The extent to which there is evidence-based alignment between operational units determines how effective the institution is judged to be.
In addition to the regional concerns about accreditation, the recently published report by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education highlights the momentum building for higher education institutions to articulate clearly their educational missions and to demonstrate that they are accomplishing those missions.
The loss of accreditation by some historically Black colleges and universities speaks volumes to the need to address what amounts to a critical condition that threatens the survival of still other minority-serving institutions.
The first and most important aspect of a successful IE process is that it permeates the institution. A single individual or office may be assigned to direct or coordinate IE activities, but the process cannot be accomplished by a single entity alone. A systemwide approach must be taken.
The second factor that is critical to the success of an IE plan is that everyone should understand what it is and why it is important. Every employee should know at least the rudiments of the IE plan and where they fit into it. An IE plan that has been adequately infused into the organization will become familiar enough to articulate with ease.
The third factor that determines the success of an IE effort is that everyone should comply with the plan. While it is obvious that a plan not being adhered to is ineffective, it may not be clear that a plan that is only partially adhered to is also ineffective. This is where some institutions encounter great difficulty.
Under ideal circumstances, everyone in the institution sees the value in the IE plan and voluntarily contributes to its fulfillment. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. The most direct way to compel compliance is to link IE compliance to the budget process. Units that do not participate fully should have their budgets (or some significant portion of the budget) deactivated until compliance is obtained. Is this too Draconian an approach? When one considers the possible outcomes of lost or threatened accreditation, it seems not to be unreasonably harsh.
The role of institutional research offices in helping institutions achieve their missions should not be overlooked. In an ongoing process of understanding how the institution is functioning in key areas, the achievement of intended educational outcomes is as much a concern of the institutional research office, or IR, as any other performance indicator. There are some essential IE functions, such as course evaluation, which are often conducted by the IR office. Because they are steeped in data about how the institution is functioning, IR staff should have much to contribute to the IE process.
Perhaps the most important link between IE and IR is that an institution should be the first to know, and be keenly aware of, its weaknesses. The centrality of data for decision-making means that whether the data are positive or otherwise, they form a core of knowledge within and about the institution that contribute to the next cycle of planning and evaluation. The IR office, when fully operational and fully integrated into the decision-making scheme, senses and reports the health of the organization. In the absence of a well-functioning IR office, the institution may be in the tragic predicament of being unaware of, or unresponsive to, significant shortcomings.
Because staff changes are unavoidable, it is imperative that the IR function is distributed amongst a group of individuals who are capable of stepping in for a departed colleague. Similarly, the philosophy and momentum underlying the IE plan should not lie with a single individual, but with a number of persons who can articulate the rationale for the plan and keep it moving forward.
Beyond personnel needs, technology demands tend to be higher in IR offices, where large data files are amassed, analyzed and securely stored. Dedicated technology support, if not available within the office, should be anticipated as a reasonable need for a strong IR office.
In conclusion, although the needs of an IR office may be great in terms of personnel and other resources, the investments in institutional research should pay significant dividends in the form of improved IE, better quality data to support decision-making, and smoother paths to reaffirmation of accreditation. There is no better description of money well spent.
Dr. Myra N. Burnett is vice provost of academic affairs at Spelman College in Atlanta.
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