Whereas institutional researchers from the early twentieth century advanced the profession as the study of higher education “just as scientific investigation in the natural or social sciences,” the field suffered from arrested development under the direction of the Association for Institutional Research after 1965. The publications closely associated with the association and its leadership settled on a paradigm that laid the foundations for the stagnation of institutional research and the profession’s shift away from the scientific study of higher education in centralized administrative units.
Occasionally, however, an outsider to the consensus emerged to challenge the undisciplined drift of the profession. In 1990, Frans Van Vught, a European scholar in higher education, attended the Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research to argue the need for a scientific basis in institutional research. Correctly identifying the lack of the scientific élan among the association’s leadership, Van Vught urged institutional researchers “to develop such a scientific base for itself, or to drift away from the fundamental values that belong to the academic attitude to which institutional research is oriented.” Van Vught squarely placed responsibility for the lack of a scientific basis on the profession and the association, whose membership had grown to nearly two thousand five hundred members by 1989–90. He observed that the noticeable decline in the prestige for institutional research in the twenty-five years since the establishment of the Association for Institutional Research. He warned the association and forum attendees that to disregard the power of scientifically based knowledge accumulation, its practitioners risked becoming members of a “minor profession” or one that would cease to be regarded as a profession whatsoever.
Contrary to his obvious intentions, Van Vught’s 1990 presentation spurred a devoted defense by the AIR’s leadership in support of the unscientific aspirations for the field and undisciplined organization of institutional research professionals. Among the handful of responses to Van Vught’s challenge by members of the association at the forum, a former president of the AIR invited a scholar of higher education with no evident experience in institutional research to speak. George Keller, an education scholar from the University of Pennsylvania, describing his experience working with the AIR leadership, expressed his astonishment with the coordinated effort to rebuff Van Vught: “I now have a sense of what it’s like to have the National Rifle Association or the American Association of Retired Persons lean on you.” The inelegant allusion appears to have been intended as a sign of endorsement from the association. Keller went on to dismiss Van Vught’s argument explicitly as if to provide the formal counterargument to the European on behalf of the association’s leadership. Keller tersely advised attendees that institutional research is “an art, not a science.” In deference to the consensus paradigm, Keller explained, “For better or worse, institutional researchers seem to be married to institutions of higher education.” Against Van Vught, Keller aimed to dispel the illusion of control for a “staff function” like institutional research.
George Keller’s response to Van Vught was only one in a series of refutations released under the auspices of the Association for Institutional Research in the following years. These publications reasserted the categorical difference between institutional research and research on higher education as the distinction between applied research and basic research, and art not science. To learn more about the commitment of the Association for Institutional Research to its consensus paradigm and the undisciplined practice of institutional research, see my new history of the profession, Outsourcing Student Success, a history of institutional research and its significance for the future of higher education. Now available on Amazon.