by Justin Rose, Senior Director of Institutional Effectiveness & Digital Learning, Southeastern University

Organizational and institutional commitments to ethical action are indispensable at a time when our larger societal commitment to values-based action appears to be in the throes of a volatile period of fractiousness and disintegration. However, these commitments are only as powerful insomuch as they are regularly rehearsed, applied, and embedded into the lingua franca of their lived contexts. The AIR Statement of Ethical Principles numbers among such commitments that have extraordinary potential energy but must be intentionally and carefully leveraged within the institutional research context in particular and the higher education space in general. The headlining assertion that precedes all of the explanatory language in the statement reads “We act with integrity.” This notion of action that emerges from uncompromising character and coherence, undiluted by the sort of moral compartmentalization that plagues so many fields and organizations, should be of paramount importance for institutional researchers who seek to move far afield from the shortcomings and controversies that have stained the reputation of postsecondary institutions in news headlines in recent years.

This commitment to integrity is elaborated in the subsequent detailed section of the statement, and each component offers a timely opportunity for critical reflection on whether and to what degree we as institutional researchers, both as individuals and collectively, are embodying the aspiration to act with integrity. The recognition that our work has consequences should be common sense, but at a time when we are witnessing the ramifications of sweeping decisions in the national higher education and political landscape, it is important to hold up this fact for contemplation as we approach the future. A logical extension of this attention to consequences is the need to recall that all of our stakeholders and constituents have rights, and that recent massive breaches of data security in the corporate and education sectors have been injurious to the protection of privacy and confidentiality, which should give us pause when developing initiatives and projects that may advance our capacity for data-informed decision-making but simultaneously present an affront to the preservation of those rights.

In the same vein, the emergence of a global health pandemic and the concomitant demand for timely, actionable data that it has generated reinforces our need to be responsible data stewards. In light of controversy over claims of the manipulation of data, frustration with confusing or poorly constructed dashboards, and lack of clarity on which source is most reliable for the average citizen data consumer, more than ever before IR professionals must champion the provisioning of accurate and contextualized information, holding ourselves and our peers accountable to only delivering analysis that is appropriate to the parameters of the available data within the context that it is produced. It is no secret that a great deal of the information being promulgated is over-conditioned by partisanship and politicized in order to shape public opinion. Therefore, IR professionals should recommit themselves to fair and transparent research, both in its methodological and conclusive dimensions. In our efforts to transcend the partisanship we witness in the context of COVID-19, we must also avoid conflicts of interest that threaten to compromise our commitment to integrity in general, and to the public good in particular.

Finally, though the current pandemic has perhaps hastened a number of sea changes in the higher education domain, paradigmatic shifts are already underway and will continue to transform and disrupt the status quo in our institutions and systems. If IR is to do more than merely aid in the survival of our organizations, and actually advance the capacity for flourishing in the near and distant future, we must recognize that there are particular characteristics of the disruptive forces at work that are both inherently resonant with our ethical commitments and offer opportunities to break out of the more dated modes of delivering our professional contributions to colleges and universities. One of those characteristics is a dedication to making our work accessible whenever possible. We have to imagine a space beyond our territorial and largely provincial preoccupation with proprietary control of knowledge, and engage generously in the discursive community of ideas, drawing on and generating relevant and emerging scholarship in addition to our work as practitioners.

Like any sustainable ethical model, the AIR Statement of Ethical Principles amounts to more than the sum of its parts, especially when embodied by dedicated, forward-thinking members of the institutional research community. Its potential for buoying higher education in a season of profound uncertainty makes it all the more relevant and worthy of contemplation by those of us within the profession. To the extent that we rehearse, apply, and embed it in the infrastructure of our working lives, the greater its capacity for utility in the work we do every day.

Originally published in the Association for Institutional Research.