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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Institutional Research offers introspection for Macalester

Graphic courtesy of the Department of Institutional Research

Graphic courtesy of the Department of Institutional Research
Graphic courtesy of the Department of Institutional Research

As a student, it can be easy to forget the non-academic aspects of life. Macalester is often reduced to a series of classrooms, residence halls and frantic visits to office hours. Macalester has various functions that extend beyond offering classes, and these are carried out by staff members.

Macalester is filled with staff members who, despite rarely working with students, spend most of their time here thinking about them. Two such individuals are Polly Fassinger and Adam Johnson, the Director and Research Associate of the Department of Institutional Research. The department isn’t easy to find, tucked away in a small corner of 77 Mac, but its size is not at all representative of its importance to Macalester.

In Fassigner’s words, the department exists to “help Macalester better understand itself.”

The Department of Institutional Research collects data about various aspects of Macalester for the sake of improving the college. Some of the research is fairly descriptive and comes from surveys sent out to the student body. Reports regarding the number of students, their gender or racial distributions and where they come from all originate from census information collected by the department.

“Quantitative data is a good starting point…for figuring out what Macalester looks like,” Johnson said.

And the information collected by the department of Institutional Research is used on campus in a variety of subtle, yet significant ways.

“We aren’t policymakers in this office,” Fassinger said, “But we give information to policymakers…to help them understand and interpret the data.”

Recently, Fassigner served on a committee to address the issues surrounding non-tenure track faculty. The department collected extensive information on the subject and used the results to make various recommendations regarding the conditions these faculty members face at Mac.

“I think it was a very successful demonstration of how research can be beneficial to the community,” Fassinger said.

Institutional research also plays a role in helping academic departments grow. Data collected about the size or popularity of majors are often used to justify hiring new faculty members. In the past, the Department of Institutional Research has worked with Student Affairs and the Civic Engagement Center. Quantitative data can allow these offices to understand the impacts of their programming and make changes to improve the students’ experiences with them.

“[This research has] reinforced how focused all of the departments are on students,” Johnson said. “All of our conversations are around stu- dents and their experience at Macal- ester and how well the administrators are serving their college experience.”

The Department of Institutional Research is one of the many offices on campus that concerns itself fully with improving students’ experiences at Macalester, both through the data they collect and through the resources they offer to students.

“We’re anxious for students to get to know us a little better,” Fassinger said. “We want to show students that we have the data and we want people to understand what’s available.”

Fassinger suggests using their data, which is easily accessible online with a Macalester email, to dispel rumors on campus.

“I’m often surprised that people choose to repeat information without checking the validity of the information,” Fassinger said.

The department can also act as an academic resource.

“We’re both social scientists and have a lot of experience in re- search,” Fassinger said, referring to herself, a sociologist, and Johnson, a psychologist. “If students need advice about research projects, we can be a source for them for thinking about what they might be interested in. We’ve got ‘em covered.”

Johnson added, “We have summary statistics and reports available that can be used … If students don’t want to do all the first-hand research themselves, or if they’re doing something about educational policy, we have numbers that can speak to that.”

The Department of Institutional Research is an asset to students and to this college in many ways. Even those who choose not to use the data themselves benefit from the administrative decisions the department has influenced and informed. The next time you see an Institutional Research survey in your inbox, realize the answers may not seem immediately significant, but they can help Macalester continue towards institutional excellence.

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