Lap-Pun Lam, director of WSU Institutional Research. (Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)
PULLMAN, Wash. – Lap-Pun Lam is a quintessential numbers guy.
Eleven months ago, Lam left the 78-degree blue skies of Phoenix, Ariz., to interview for the director of Institutional Research position at Washington State University Pullman. Hello 28-degree morning temperatures!
Not dissuaded by the weather, Lam returned four months later, on March 1, moving into his office with little fanfare. Since then, he has remained in a relative stealth mode, working steadily with his staff to keep WSU’s Office of Institutional Research operating efficiently in the midst of major changes.
“I like to be working quietly,” says Lam with a smile.
Not business as usual
|Institutional Research team: (top row l-r) Filaret Ilas, Coleen McCracken, James Downes; (bottom row l-r) Fran Hermanson, Corinna Lo, Lap-Pun Lam. (Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)|
Institutional Research’s plate has been overflowing since before Lam arrived. In addition to all the normal duties, IR staff members are working fervently with Information Services (IS) and the Registrar’s Office to migrate decades’ worth of data to the university’s new Web-based, enterprise system.
“We are in the process of changing our data system as we adapt to zzusis and PeopleSoft, so it’s no longer business as usual,” said Lam. “We’re exploring the new functions this system offers, and we’re working with Information Services and the Registrar’s Office to determine the best and most efficient way to set up our data system.”
Those databases are what IR depends on and lives in daily to accomplish the job.
It’s kind of like trying to paint your house and change the siding in one step. You’d better be very organized and patient.
So what is it that IR does?
“As the Office of Institutional Research, we are students of the institution in that we have to be constantly learning about WSU,” said Lam. “We study all aspects of the university and provide information to administrators (universitywide) so they can make good decisions. To do that, we meet with a lot of people from different fields and functions.”
Misunderstood as bean counters
Lam’s work history
Generally, IR is misunderstood, Lam admits, and is viewed as “bean counters.”
“While that is partially true, it is only a percentage of what we do,” he said. “Our job is also to provide the story behind those numbers and tell a compelling story.
“While some say we are bean counters, others see us as providing high-level statistical modeling that no one can understand,” he said. “In reality, we’re somewhere in between.”
IR needs not only to understand complex issues and data, but then be able to translate those into layman’s terms that everyone can understand.
What’s the question?
Beyond the data and facts, IR strives to “understand the questions and the needs” of its clients, whether that is the president, provost, regents or administrators, he said.
“We are in an era of information overload, so our job is to determine the specific issues they are trying to study, to find the best information and then deliver it in a way that allows them to do their job better,” he said. “Providing facts is important, but we also need to provide context.”
Juggling: Accreditation, rankings, budgets
In the midst of moving and redesigning its databases and websites, IR continues to fulfill a variety of other ongoing, long-term duties.
For example, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities recently switched from the traditional 10-year accreditation cycle to a seven-year cycle.
“That means the work is broken into one- to two-year stages that come consecutively, so we never get a break,” said Lam.
“We’re currently working with a variety of functional and academic units to prepare a three-year interim report due in March 2013. And, because we are the department that manages most of the university’s data, everyone comes to us.”
IR also works with offices universitywide to provide data to:
- federal and state agencies, like the Washington State Office of Financial Management, regarding budgets, expenditures, retention, graduation rates, etc.
- selected publications and agencies for academic rankings, like U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review, etc.
- the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, for its annual report on enrollments, program completions, graduation rates, faculty and staff, finances, institutional characteristics (pricing, admissions, entering freshman profile, student services, etc.), and student financial aid. The data, provided by all institutions participating in federal student financial aid programs, is available to students and parents.
a wide variety of surveys — like the National Science Foundation and Princeton Review — regarding research capacity, graduate program capacity, etc.
IR also keeps track of how WSU is doing in comparison with its peer universities and members of the Association of American Universities.
“Making these (peer university) comparisons is really more of an art than a science, because each university is different in its size, academic emphasis, areas of research and so on,” said Lam.
Why Tempe to Pullman?
So why move from Tempe, Ariz., to Pullman, Wash.? In addition to the job opportunity, Lam said he also wanted to get away from the 115-degree heat.
“It’s really interesting: A lot of people from Arizona want to move here, and people here want to move to Arizona. So the way I see it, it’s even Steven,” he said with a laugh.
“I like the four seasons. I grew up in Hong Kong, which is a big city with a subtropical climate,” he said. “Then I came to the U.S. as a foreign student and earned my undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. So, I’m personally familiar with the whole international process and have experience in cold weather, but I was much younger and had greater tolerance.”
Lam recalls some April-May snow storms at the UW-Green Bay that resulted in campus footpaths framed by 4-5 feet high walls of snow.
When asked if he braved the weather to watch the Packers play football, he said, “No, I grew up in Hong Kong with soccer and basketball. I enjoy an occasional football game, but it’s too slow for me. I really enjoy basketball.”
While at UW-Green Bay, Lam earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1985, followed by his master’s degree in administrative science in 1987.
He began his career in higher education in 1990 working as a research analyst for the Arizona Board of Regents. The following year he moved to Arizona State University (ASU), where he stayed for the next 20 years, working his way up through the ranks from a planning analyst to the director of management analysis, 2010-2012.
During his time at ASU, he also earned his Ed.D. in higher and adult education in 2006.
Lam said he was drawn to WSU by several factors in addition to the weather, including the opportunity to be the director of a major university’s institutional research office.
“WSU is very similar to ASU with a focus on undergraduate and research education. So I felt that much of my experience is transferable,” he said.
With two children, ages 9 and 12, another attraction was the Pullman School District: “I wanted them to grow up in a college town environment, and the schools here are known to be top notch,” he said.
The door’s open
Unlike the football program, Lam and his staff plan to continue to work in a stealth mode. But that doesn’t mean they’re unapproachable. Lam quickly points to IR’s mission and number one goal: to “provide timely and accurate data to meet the needs of all internal and external requestors.”
“Our doors are always open and we’re always happy to help anyone,” he said.