Voice

Q and A Conversation with Gwen Gruenig

Gwendolyn Gruenig has been with Statewide Institutional Research (IR) since 1999 where she currently serves as associate vice president. A life-long Alaskan, UAF graduate, former adjunct professor and student of psycology and statistics, she brings a broad range of talents and experiences to the position. The work of IR is vital to the budget development process, policy creation, institutional planning and the evaluation of programs and initiatives.

While the term "metrics" may not immediatly set off fireworks to the average person, Grunig is one of those people who sees an incredible amount of opportunity and possibilities in the field, and plenty of exciting ways that data can be used for the betterment of student experiences and success, and the betterment of the University Alaska as it undergoes the process of continuous improvement as part of Shaping Alaska's Future.

Metrics and data are getting a lot of attention these days. When I first got here, you were moved from the director of Institutional Research (IR) to Associate Vice President. Does this indicate an overall elevation of data and metrics in the guidance of university decision-making? 

I’ve been working in the area of institutional research for almost 15 years. The focus on metrics has progressively grown. We’ve used metrics in support of the budget for over 12 years now. A transition started under former UA President Hamilton and has continued very much with President Gamble to mature our use of metrics. Ten years ago we were focused on inputs; that made sense at the time. We were coming out of the "desert," where resources were very limited, and we didn’t have much to strategically change or grow our enterprise. Now that we’ve had a long run of good management and investment, we’ve tried to transition more to look at what we’re doing with the resources we have. Are we meeting our mission? Are we doing it effectively and efficiently? We are much more focused on outputs and outcomes now, in metric speak. I see it as a more mature use of metrics relative to how the university approached them when I first started.

Shaping Alaska’s Future has a huge metric element to it. It’s important to the process and to the evaluation of success. Can you tell me what you’ve been asked to do for this?

That’s been a longer-term project, started more than two years ago. Institutional Research and Analysis performs a support function for Shaping Alaska’s Future. Metrics aren’t valuable in and of themselves; it’s what you’re measuring, and how you can use them to understand and manage operations. There are lots of options on what to measure, and how to measure, the wide range of importanat university activities. Developing the current, working set of university metrics has been a big, collaborative group effort with ideas vetted widely through the entire system--student and staff governance, faculty, the President and regents--everyone. There are a few areas where we are still developing methods to measure key aspects. They are hard things to measure, like student satisfaction. We’ll need to do a statewide satisfaction survey. What should we be asking them? There’s a lot of focus on outcomes. We’re going to these big meetings this week. There may be some adjustments that make sense after understanding the results of those meetings. Its importanat to note that these aren't set in stone, either. The metrics we use to track success and how effective our strategies are to get there need to be evaluated and refreshed every so often to reflect new efforts and directions we're taking. Metrics are a living tool.

The main value of having something in metrics is that its always there, you can always look and see how you’re doing. It keeps it at the forefront. If you’re making decisions you can see how it’s going to impact what you’re trying to change.

Gwen Gruenig joins Statewide co-workers at the spring "Coffee with the President" listening as President Gamble discusses current issues at the university.

Where do you get your numbers? How are you collecting this data and where does it come from? 

The vast majority of our numbers come from the university’s management information systems. There are a number in use, but the main one you’re probably familiar with is Banner. Our office serves a data warehousing function. We pull data out of the operating system at certain times a year and "scrub" it, which is to format the raw data and categorize the information into value-added categories for reporting. That makes it easier for not only institutional research staff at each of our three universities, but also makes the information more accessible to business analysts and others who need to pull data they’re interested in. We provide the service of a common data source for most official university reporting, so people don’t spend their time pulling data over and over, struggling to get numbers that match. One plus one should equal two every day of the week, no matter who you ask.

There’s also data that comes from outside Banner, or outside the university entirely. Sometimes information can be collected and tracked by one functional area and not at all in other areas. For example, some units do a really comprehensive job collecting faculty citations because it matters for specialized accreditation. But if you’re an art faculty how do you measure your scholarly output? Do you compare a show to a publication to aggregate a university's overall faculty activity into a metric? Issues like that are fundamentally challenging, but important to figure out. Faculty work is important and valued in all the disciplines.

Privacy is a really big concern. How do you deal with that?

There is a lot of concern right now, and rightfully so, with how personal information is being used by government and big business. As both a consumer and producer of data, and the mom of an eight-year-old, privacy and data security is really important to me on many levels. Its also clear priority for the university, and there are very strict protocols and processes in place to prevent accidental disclosure, or a breech, of personally identifiable information belonging to students and employees. I feel like it’s a privilege to be allowed to work with people's personal information, and it’s important to be a good shepherd with that data. We only use information for good. We aren’t reporting on individuals, but looking for overall patterns for groups of people to help inform policy and day-to-day decisions. Privacy protection is a big deal and I can only imagine will get more important over time.

During your years in research you have seen a lot of trends in higher education. What story does the data tell you about UA students and Alaska's education system, population, and patterns that others not as familiar with these trends and projections may have missed or may not see?

One of the things I care about a lot that I see in the data--and I’ll preface this to say that UA can only partially influence this--we’re lowest in the nation on the percentage of low-income high school students who go on to college and have been for more than a decade. I don’t think that’s news to anyone. Its one area where the State as a whole could focus more attention and do the greatest good. Things are starting to move that way--there’s more needs-based aid distributed to UA students than ever before--but a lot of other factors affect low-income students choosing to go to college at all.   

I’m working on behalf of the university with other State agencies now to develop a statewide longitudinal database system looking at K-12, postsecondary and employment patterns for Alaskans over time. Its called ANSWERS, and is being developed using federal grant funds, with the tool is scheduled to be completed by 2016. This effort is being led by the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, in collaboration with the University of Alaska, Department of Education and Early Development and the Department of Labor and Workforce development. It has the potential to give Alaska, as a whole, better information and the capability to answer importanat questions and inform policy surrounding Alaska's educational outcomes over time. It will utilize de-identified individual data, and adds value by providing the ability to identify long-term patterns for groups of people over time. For example, knowing the childhood educational experiences that are most successful at driving education and employment success later in life can help identify what young Alaskans need to be more successful in school and get good jobs over time. You know, lead a happy, healthy life. I’m really excited about that work.

This tool, and other existing cross-agency collaborations, provide support for the information needs of Shaping Alaska’s Future. We’re also building upon the partnerships we already have with Department of Labor and Workforce Development as well as Department of Edcuation and Early Development to generate even better decision-making information.

We talk a lot about UA having non-traditional students. Using the universal “we” here. We can be kind of vague about it, but you have to give answers in numbers and figures: how do you “prove” something like non-traditional?

The institutional research term we'd use is post-traditional. Its odd to try and use "non" traditional when most of our students fall into this category, so post-traditional seems to be a better term. In reality, there isn't a clear cut way to identify these students because there's a range of factors. It’s a continuum of traditional-ness. There’s five or seven different factors based on national standards, for example: if you're a single parent with dependent children, low income, attending part-time, older than 25, or under 25 and financially independent of your parents; if you have a bunch of those characteristics you’re definitely post-traditional. If you have just a few of these characteristics, you may be on a somewhat traditional path and just not be a classic first-time freshman--a recent high school graduate seeking a bachelor’s degree and attending full-time--and you might need different kinds of support from a student services and academic advising perspective.

Numbers and data alone do not provide answers or necessarily provide clear direction. Often the footnotes in something like UA in Review includes the analysis of data. What do you look at when evaluating data? Is the process intuitive? Based on industry standards? What guides the story-telling behind the numbers?

That’s the fun part, of course. There’s a checklist. You put yourself in the shoes of the typical reader, and try to anticipate potential mixups. You define tricky terms and provide links to the original data. You just try to give people the tools they might need to come to their own decisions, or replicate the results if desired. Typically we make observations but we’re not making judgements at Institutional Research and Analysis. We collaborate a lot with the university’s functional operating areas to try and determine why something is happening or moving in a certain way. A lot of stuff is outside the university’s control. You may not know that until you talk to someone. That’s a very important piece beyond just numbers.

Can you describe how you got into this field? Your graduate degree is in statistics; is that when this line of work first appealed to you? Where did it take you next?

That’s a long story. I had a diverse set of interests as an undergraduate and ended up getting my degree in psychology. I took the only job I could get with a psychology bachelor’s degree at the time, working at the detox center in town. It’s where families from all over the state sent loved ones to sober up. I would also observe suicidal people. It was extremely rewarding work. I did that for nine months and I could just see burnout ahead. It’s hard to save that bit of yourself just for you, and not just give it all.

After that I decided I should think about doing something else. I knew I liked helping people. I’ve always known I wanted to work in a service capacity. I liked computers and numbers, and had actually liked statistics. Dana Thomas, now Vice President for Academic Affairs, was my STAT200 teacher. So I decided to go to graduate school and into the statistics program. The degree is actually a really good fit with social science fields like psychology and education.

I ended up getting a graduate research assistant position at the UAF Planning Analysis and Institutional Research department in 1999, and have essentially been working in the field of institutional research ever since. I really enjoy the work. This is the best way I can contribute, so far in my life, and think we do some real good for students. What motivates me at the end of the day is the student who is going to have opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

When you taught introductory statistics at UAF, what did you try to portray to students about this field? What makes it exciting to you? 

That was also a really great experience. I think approaching problems systematically is what statistics is all about. It’s teaches you about how to logically approach problems. There’s a certain comfort and order that statistics brings to the world. It really can add a lot of value when you find things in patterns that people wouldn’t intuitively recognize. But if you approach things systematically--which is what statistics allows you to do--with certain rules and tests, you can start to find patterns and meanings out in the universe.

That’s a really hard class too. It’s a gatekeeper class and a large portion of students typically don't pass that class. I really could empathize with a student who hadn’t had math in 10 years and that’s the last class they needed to graduate. I really enjoyed it, and feel like I’m still helping students by looking at broader patterns and helping guide the decisions of the people who directly serve them today.

It’s a good experience for me to have taught. I worked at UAF all along during the time I was in school. I think its good to have a wide range of experiences in this job and it provides a lot of perspective.

Let's switch gears to the more personal side. Have you always lived in Fairbanks?

Yes. I’ve always lived here. It’s worked out that way in a good way. I spent seven years going to UAF, and almost 15 years working in institutional research.

I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but with your height, did you play basketball?

I did, yeah. Basketball, volleyball, track--I did hurdles and high jump. But I also did debate and academic decathlon in high school. Academic decathlon was by far my favorite. We went to nationals and placed very well given our small state size; not so much for the other activities.

The 1993 West Valley High School Academic Decathlon, Alaska State Champions!

Your son Cameron, he’s in third grade. What are the challenges being a working mother?

It’s wonderful and challenging at the same time. Its one of the reasons I love working at the university, the flexibility. I may be working at night or the weekends, but at the same time I can go pick up Cameron at school. This one of the most beneficial things about working here at this time in my life.

There’s a lot of care and feeding that goes into an eight-year-old. There’s math homework, and reading homework--building Legos. My work outside work is done at 6 a.m. or 10 p.m. otherwise I’m playing mom. I think it’s good for him to see his mom with a career. He helps me put boundaries and limits on my working. We have fun, going for a walk with the dog and hanging out.

Besides being mom, what do you enjoy outside of work? How do you like to spend your free time?

I like to travel, take vacations for fun. I don’t know, sleep is good. I’m a homebody and like spending time with special friends. Work gets hectic, it’s nice to relax, go for a walk, read or meet friends for a glass of wine. If I have a day off I try to leave it unscheduled if possible. Life is often overly structured otherwise.

What do you see in your future? What trends and projections do you see in your own life?

In all honesty my day-to-day life is focused on Cameron right now. But when I think of me, its about my life, my next step. Before I know it…I’m half way to retirement right now, at this job anyway. There’s a lot to do in Alaska with data and information. Social media data mining is really neat I think. It’s just barely starting to be on the university’s radar. It's mapping out how to place a message to get it to the right people. It’s the newest wave of communication. I’m thinking hard about what I should be doing 10 or 15 years from now because I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people with my interests and skills. But I’m very happy and challenged by what I do right now, and want to prepare for the future, too.

Gruenig, left, explores Haleakalā National Park in Maui by horseback.
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