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3 Questions: The fact finders

Lydia Snover and her Institutional Research team gather data to help the Institute to study itself.
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Lydia Snover, Director of Institutional Research at MIT.
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Caption: Lydia Snover, Director of Institutional Research at MIT.
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Lydia Snover, Director of Institutional Research at MIT.
Lydia Snover, Director of Institutional Research at MIT.
Image: Melanie Gonick, MIT

When publications such as U.S. News and World Report roll out their annual university rankings, typically with MIT among the top schools listed, some may wonder where the data they’re based on actually come from.

The source of that information is MIT Institutional Research, which collects and compiles data on many facets of the Institute, or, as Director Lydia Snover puts it, on MIT’s “people, money, and space.” The Institutional Research (IR) website is a wonderland of data that tells the story of MIT’s evolution over recent decades. There are surveys of faculty, graduate students, undergraduates — and even undergraduates’ parents. Users can also take a deep dive into the demographics of different subsets of the MIT community and peruse financial figures on research expenditures, tuition, and more.

Public universities have been providing this kind of information for decades to state and federal agencies that fund them. It’s unusual for a private university such as MIT to have such a robust IR operation and to share so much of its data publicly, but Snover has long been a leader in the field of IR at the national, and even international, level. She was recently awarded the John Stecklein Distinguished Member Award from the Association for Institutional Research, for advancing the field of institutional research through extraordinary scholarship, leadership, and service.

MIT News caught up with Snover to talk about IR at MIT, her philosophy about transparency, and why she’s a fan of the Institute’s data warehouse.

Q: What are the main types of data that your office collects, and what are they used for?

A: We bring together data from lots of different operational areas at MIT — including human resources, the registrar, admissions, and facilities, to name just a few — to simplify it in some ways and create metrics that can be used by departments, labs, and centers to help them meet their goals.

We complete all information requests for university rankings, guidebooks, and various consortiums. We also administer surveys for organizations like the Consortium for Financing of Higher Education as well as some of our other peer institutions. The majority of surveys we administer are just for the MIT community, or subsets of it. We administer over 100 surveys a year. We support the accreditation process and assist when asked with grant applications.

We provide reports for department heads in preparation for meetings with the Corporation’s visiting committees. We’ll put together a 10-year profile that includes department-level trends in staffing, retention, enrollment, sponsored research expenditures, how graduate students are being funded, things like that. We can compare those numbers within MIT and for a subset of metrics with other peer institutions.

People like to talk about making data-driven decisions, but we prefer the term “data-informed.” We collect data that help MIT’s senior officers make decisions about what’s best for the Institute.

A lot of the data we collect are available on our website, including our survey data. We have philosophy that if we ask people to fill out a survey, they’re entitled to see the results!

Q: How has your mandate changed in the last 20 years, and what do you see in the office’s future?

A: Institutional Research was established in 1986 and initially we focused primarily on physical planning. Over the next 15 years we began administering surveys, responding on behalf of the Institute to external data requests, and providing briefing materials. In 2000 we moved to the Office of the Provost, and our portfolio has continued to evolve and grow, both in terms of the services we provide to MIT leadership and the greater MIT community, and our involvement in sharing data with other universities. The staff has evolved as well to include analysts, programmers, experts in survey design, data visualization, database design, statistics, and qualitative analysis. MIT IR has an extraordinarily gifted staff.

Nationally, large institutional research offices were needed mostly by public institutions to respond to state legislatures. Private universities and colleges have slowly built up their capacity, in large part to provide internal analysis. In 1988, MIT joined the Association of American Universities Data Exchange (AAUDE), a consortium which facilitates data sharing with other AAU universities on things like the composition of faculty at the department level. The number of private AAU universities participating in the AAU Data Exchange has gone from a handful in 1990 to all 27 since I and others began encouraging our colleagues to become active.

Before MIT became involved, members were mailing each other this information on paper — you’d have file cabinets of paper! — so MIT first volunteered to provide an FTP server to facilitate electronic exchange of data. Now the AAU Data Exchange has a data warehouse, which has made the whole system very efficient.

One area were we focus a lot of attention, through our surveys and other data collections, is on what happens to our graduates: What percentage are going into industry? What are the companies that are hiring them? It used to be that all universities cared about was how many students go to graduate school, but MIT sends a lot of graduates to industry.

One new project is working with Professors Susan Hockfield, Sangeeta Bhatia, Nancy Hopkins, Fiona Murray of the MIT Innovation Initiative and the Boston Biotech working group on some interesting issues in gender representation in biotechnology, looking at company leadership, issuance of patents, and other areas.

Q: MIT’s IR office is relatively big for a private university. Why is that?

A: The scope of work for MIT’s Institutional Research Office is unusual because we’re involved in many projects that are important to MIT but not typical for institutional research. For example, at MIT we work with MITx data and sponsored research trends. 

We’re very lucky and unusual because at MIT we have centralized data systems but local decision making. The fact that we have only one registrar, for example, and centralized accounting systems makes it much easier for my office to pull data together and analyze it.

I can’t emphasize enough how important the MIT data warehouse is — to everyone at MIT, not just to us. If you’re an analyst in an office like ours, you’d have to learn query languages for all the different databases. You would also spend a large proportion of your time compiling and cleaning data. But IS&T set up this system so that data could feed into one central warehouse, and you don’t need special programming skills to pull information out of it. The MIT data warehouse has been the envy of most of our peers.

MIT is the best place in the world to do institutional research because we have faculty who aren’t afraid of the data, even if they show there’s room for improvement. There’s an engineering mentality that permeates MIT. If we find we’re different from our peers in a way that we need to fix, then we identify that and fix it. You never think you’re the best because there’s always something to improve on.

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