David Rudden, managing director of institutional research (IR), describes his position as the “Chandler Bing job of higher education,” referring to the popular character on the TV show “Friends” who no one knows what he does for a living.
“Nobody knows what IR really does, but most people guess that it has to do with numbers,” says Rudden, who has been at Elgin Community College since 2008.
His passion for data grew by happenstance while working at Oakton Community College's IR office as a way to gain experience in research in preparation for a career in psychology. He said psychology and IR have the same goal in mind: To answer questions.
“IR is the same concept,” he said. “The numbers are just the means to that end.”
We caught up with Rudden to learn more about his life and his work at ECC. Here is what he had to say.
In your words, what do you do at ECC?
Quite simply, the role that my IR colleagues and I have is to help people find answers to questions they have about ECC, our students and our community so they can make better decisions. A lot of the time, those questions are being asked by the Department of Education or the Illinois Community College Board, but the questions come just as often from other employees at the college, sometimes from committees and workgroups, and occasionally from students or members of the community.
In the private sector, “data scientist” is a relatively new career that is somewhat analogous to what IR folks do. Both roles use statistics to do a lot of number crunching, but in IR we also spend just as much time interviewing-meeting with those asking questions to help talk through what the results mean and/or helping to refine the questions.
What is your greatest accomplishment since you've been here?
I'm proud to have helped establish the college's Data Rangers group, even though I can't take credit for that as a personal accomplishment. This group is a Student Success Infrastructure (SSI) subcommittee that serves as an internal analytic think tank. It includes people from various areas of the college, and we meet regularly to talk about the best ways to evaluate initiatives and look over charts/graphs/tables of student success data to identify important trends or find key data points that are then shared with the SSI steering committee.
For a data geek like myself, it's glorious and in talking with colleagues in Illinois and through Achieving the Dream, ECC seems to be rather unique in having a group that serves in this type of capacity.
What would you do if you were ECC president for a day?
I would love to establish an institutional ban on the phrase “research shows that…” because it almost always seems to be used to give a false sense of credibility to “facts” that end up being based on anecdotes, secondhand accounts and/or poorly remembered points from actual research studies.
Realizing that would be unrealistic, I'd love to establish an hour or two block of time during the week where no classes or standing committee meetings are scheduled, in order to set time aside for campus-wide informational sessions. I think it would be beneficial to have a small slot of time during the week where there are no other pre-existing work commitments that would allow individuals to share some insight and get feedback on work that they're doing for the college.
In our position within the Planning and Institutional Effectiveness (PIE) office, we're lucky to be kept aware of most of the cool and innovative projects and initiatives that are happening across the college as we prepare institutional reports for various external agencies-but that's not the case for many of our colleagues here at ECC.
If there was a movie about your life, who would you want to play you?
My initial reaction was to just think of a famous short actor with dark hair, so I immediately thought Tom Cruise. However, I didn't want to be accused of being completely unrealistic since he's probably a little better looking.
So, I decided to take the scientific route and see who an online survey (I used this one: http://www.magiquiz.com/quiz/who-would-play-you-in-the-movie-about-your-life/) would identify as just the right match for my major motion picture. Taking all of my physical characteristics, hopes and dreams into account, the result is … George Clooney.
I feel good with that, since it was obviously a scientifically unbiased selection.
What's on your “bucket list?”
I'd love to go to Disney World someday, as I have never been and neither have my two kids. We plan to go sometime over the next year or two, so I hope to cross this off my list.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I really like carpentry, even though I'm still working on that skill and don't have much time to commit to it. I built an arbor swing for my back yard a few years ago that hasn't fallen down yet, which I'm fairly proud of. My 9-year-old son and I have just started working on a treehouse at the end of the summer, so I'm looking forward to continuing that with him next spring.
I also love to read. I'm only slightly ashamed to admit that I'm a big fan of young adult novels. I love the “Harry Potter” series and have read those a couple of times, even before I had kids. My 11-year old daughter and I are now both reading the “5th Wave” series.
Where was the best place you've traveled to? Or, where would you like to visit?
Sadly, I haven't done much travelling, but I'd love to visit Ireland someday. My wife and I both have distant relatives there.
What's one fact we should know about you?
I'm a product of School District U-46. I graduated from Streamwood High School many years ago.
What's something about your job that others should know?
You might be surprised to know how much information is actually collected about each of our students. Even though the trend for using “Big Data” has taken over the private sector, it hasn't gotten a strong foothold in higher education yet, but it will eventually, and it'll be really interesting to see how that process unfolds in the not too distant future.
What would be your “theme song?”
“Easy Way Out” by the Plain White T's. I'm actually not a big fan of the song, but the message is about not taking the path of least resistance in life (despite the title, which seems to imply the opposite). It resonates with me as someone who almost always seems to take the longest or hardest route to accomplishing a goal or task.
What was your favorite class in school?
In my junior or senior year of high school, there was an advanced physics class that was created for myself and five to six other students who were doing well in physics. I think part of the purpose, if I remember correctly, was to give us time to train and practice for the Illinois Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) competition before it was renamed to Tests of Engineering Aptitude, Mathematics, and Science (TEAMS).
That was the only class that I can remember having that was student-directed. It became a kind of club where we all had our own computer to work on (which was not common back then), and we would practice and quiz each other without much direction from our teacher. He was only even in the room about half of the time and was only there to answer questions when he was. Plus, we took turns bringing donuts to class every Friday.
What was your first job out of school?
While I was in grad school, I waited tables at the Medieval Times restaurant in Schaumburg to help pay for classes.
It was a lot of work and the management was awful, but I loved the other people I worked with and the pay was better than I would have expected. Plus, that experience enabled me to cross “wearing tights professionally” off of my bucket list.
What quote best describes your philosophy?
“Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” - Anonymous, although sometimes misattributed to Albert Einstein
Complete this sentence: “I enjoy working at ECC because…”
I feel like I have a connection with my colleagues and the community here.