Operating like a data detective, the Office of Institutional Research collects and analyzes critical university information, then provides reports to federal, state and university officials.
In a sense, IR is the “Dragnet” café of the university, interested in collecting and providing “Just the facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.”
Although IR operates below the radar for most people, its reports are nothing less than critical, often influencing how much money the university, departments and students may receive.
The lead “detective” at IR is Cathy Fulkerson, who was appointed interim director in December 2006 and named official director November 2007. Fulkerson follows Jim Roche, director from 2002-2006, who was promoted to associate vice president of enrollment management.
Fulkerson is no newcomer to WSU’s IR office, having served as an analyst and then assistant director since 2000. As such, she brings with her a myriad of ideas and experience that promise to make IR data easier to access and understand.
Uniting office efforts
One change is occurring immediately. Fran Hermanson, director of student affairs research, will begin serving on a half-time basis as associate director of IR while continuing the student affairs job half time.
The move is logical, as Hermanson’s and Fulkerson’s offices have worked collaboratively for years, using the same data sources, sharing information, and cc-ing messages to keep each other in the loop.
This move, says Hermanson, “will eliminate a lot of the guesswork and make us more efficient … so much so, that we are exploring creating a new position focused on assessment from our current resources.”
“A lot of customers or constituents are confused as to whether they should contact IR or student affairs research,” said Hermanson. “Now they can call one location and we’ll decide which analyst is the best qualified to do the work.”
Hermanson and Fulkerson also are weighing the benefits of moving the two offices into shared or adjoining spaces. “We’re analyzing this carefully to ensure that there is no loss of services from what we are doing now,”said Fulkerson.
Fulkerson realizes, however, that IR has an image problem. “Very few people understand what the Office of Institutional Research is or does. It’s very obscure.”
Besides supplying data to the executive director of planning and budgets, IR’s primary job is to provide data and reports to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the state Office of Financial Management and the state Higher Education Coordinating Board.
By law the university is required to report annual data on student enrollment, retention, graduation rates, degrees granted, employees and finances. Each of these is directly tied to state and federal funding and can affect accreditation, grants, financial aid, institutional planning and budgeting.
Unlike IR, the Office of Research and Assessment collects data focused on a program and student level, rather than on the universitywide level — including program assessment, tracking of cohort classes, individual student academic performance, student retention, program graduation rates, student graduation rates, graduate employment, student engagement and nonreturning students.
“Even though federal and state reporting, institutional planning and budgeting are our primary assignment, we also want to serve the needs of departments, offices, colleges and campuses,” said Fulkerson.
Three major goals
To that end, she has selected three major goals designed to improve IR services to faculty and staff. First, she wants to assess how well IR services meet institutional and constituent needs, particularly in connection with the strategic planning process, the president’s initiatives, the accreditation process and program prioritization.
To accelerate the assessment, Fulkerson is extending an open invitation: “If Institutional Research is not meeting your needs in some way, let us know. If there is something we do that you really like, or something we could do better, let us know. People can e-mail us, write us or call us. “
The information from this process, she said, will guide IR as it prepares to pursue its second goal — to “automate” as many data gathering and delivery systems as possible.
Make it easy
The backbone of IR’s information gathering system was set up in the 1980s and 90s, when paper reports could be weighed by the pound. During Roche’s tenure, IR began automating those processes and moving them online. Fulkerson said she will build on that foundation by automating the information gathering and presenting reports online.
“Faculty and staff shouldn’t have to spend their time gathering data, when we can automate and provide it as a service,” she said. “Our goal is to provide needed data in a timely manner, ready to use. Then faculty and staff can spend their time interpreting it and using it.”
IR will explore designing or using commercial software programs to deliver data “dashboards” and “scorecards” that will help the university track, measure and see how it’s doing in relation to its goals and peers, she said.
“We want to deliver information in a variety of formats that is easy for everyone to see and track on our website,” Fulkerson said. “Some people can see and track numbers well, others prefer graphs, and others like bullets and full sentences.”
Automation efforts also will free up the IR staff to do more in-depth analysis and research and to draw connections between data, program accomplishments and major university initiatives — like academic excellence, the pursuit of AAU status and becoming a great land-grant university.
“We need to be able to showcase WSU activities that represent excellence, so others can see it and strive for it,” Fulkerson said. “And we need to benchmark those activities and compare ourselves with programs at other universities that we know are excellent, so we know where we stand and what we need to strive toward.”
Change policy and procedure
Her third goal is to pursue “policy and procedural changes” that will make providing information and retrieving reports easier.
For example, retrieving data that provides counts on “ranked faculty” numbers — (associate, assistant, full, adjunct and clinical faculty) — should be simple. But, due to the wide variety of titles and assignments that faculty have, it is far from that. Different policies and procedures could change that.
Fulkerson, the first woman to hold the IR director’s position, earned her master’s degree in anthropology from WSU in 1988, with her thesis on the statistical analysis of archeological site locations. She worked as an independent archeologist, contracting with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, statistically analyzing the impact of logging and road building on archeological sites in old-growth forests in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.
In time, however, she worked herself back to WSU and found her way to the center of statistics: IR. “I love data,” she admits.
And although her priority is to streamline and automate IR’s systems, Fulkerson emphasizes that her top priority is to “preserve the integrity, quality and reliability” of the IR office and its data. So, know before your call, in the end, she wants the facts, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”