IR Triage

crossroadsMany offices at the College receive requests for information from agencies, researchers, peer institutions, and others, and it can be difficult to judge which are worthwhile and which are not. A department chair recently asked me about how to decide which requests require a response. Since many of these requests find their way to the Institutional Research office, I have developed an implicit set of decision rules over the year, and so in order to assist her I tried to make these explicit. Each request is individual, but this provides some guidance and reflects how we think about the College’s responsibilities (to share information appropriately) and resources (to use staff time wisely).

1) First try pointing to readily available data to address the question or the question they ought to have asked. (They should be willing to do some work to parse what they need.)

Standard places I direct people to:


especially majors (degrees by department)

Common Data Set

College Catalog

Departmental web pages

2) a. Determine the value of the survey or request to the College, department, or professional association.
b. Estimate the burden of collecting the data requested in part or in whole.
Compare 2a and 2b.

Value – How will it be used? I would never feel obligated to spend time on something that was clearly being used solely for a company’s marketing purposes. There needs to be a benefit to the College or an indirect benefit by helping an association that supports students, faculty, staff, or higher education in general. Of course, you can’t always tell, and some consulting groups are good at making their research sound like it’s for the benefit of all, when it’s really for the benefit of a particular client or their own reputation. Sometimes it’s a peer, and we want to be a good citizen in responding, because we will certainly be on the requesting end some day. For an academic or professional association, I would rely on the department’s judgment about how important a collection is to their field, and then work with the chair and others in weighing the burden of collecting against the value.

Burden – How difficult (time-consuming) is it for to get? Do I need to bother other people, and what is the burden to them?

If 2b > 2a
Politely decline. I have a standard response to help streamline this, and I always try to point to appropriate online resources. I’d love to be able to help all who make requests, but it simply isn’t possible.

If 2a > 2b, go to question 3.

3) How sensitive is the information? Will it reveal information about individuals or small groups that might make them uncomfortable or put the College at some risk (reputation or revealing information protected by FERPA or other policies)?

If sensitive (e.g. faculty salaries within a small department) I would defer to the “data owners” about whether it’s OK to share. For faculty salaries in the department, the Provost and the Chair would be in the best position to make the decision; for characteristics of student majors, the Registrar, Dean of Students and the Chair – perhaps the Provost as well, and so on. Sensitivity might also be weighed against benefit.
If not overly sensitive – try to respond.

Ultimately, any response must be placed appropriately among competing priorities.  Activities in the IR office are driven by centrality to our mission, but even if we are not able respond to a request, we strive to be as helpful as possible by providing an explanation for our decision and, if possible, a referral to appropriate resources.

Published by

Robin Huntington Shores

Currently the Director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Swarthmore College, Robin has worked in Institutional Research for over 20 years at a range of institutions.