July 18, 2005
BY Eric Rangus
The practice of institutional research (IR) brings discipline to an area that once was governed by the gut reactions of decision-makers. That’s not always the best way to do things.
“The basic function of IR,” said Daniel Teodorescu, Emory’s director of institutional research, his Romanian accent adding just the right bit of style to his clinical definition of the office he runs, “is to help decision making and policy making on campus by providing accurate, timely and consistent data collection.”
That data collection takes forms both qualitative and quantitative. It looks at a variety of audiences, internal and external. But the goal is uniform: improvement of the University. And for that improvement to take place, there needs to be access to the largest amount of information, and uncovering that infomation is the job of the IR office.
“Emory is a dynamic institution, and in the last 20 years there has been a great deal of innovation here and many policy changes, but every single change has been made first by looking at how our peers have done things,” Teodorescu said. “That doesn’t mean we’ve copied their models, but you have to see what’s outside and then build on your strengths.”
Institutional research is a relatively new field of study, dating back only about 50 years. As universities grew in both size and complexity, they realized decisions needed to be made on rationality rather than intuition.
The IR office, which is administered by the Office of the Provost, was established in 1991, and from the beginning it has had the courage to ask innovative questions and boldly challenge the University to take a critical look at itself. The results often are enlightening, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they come easily.
“I have been impressed with the openness of the culture here at Emory,” Teodorescu said. “I don’t recall meeting any significant resistance. There have been discussions that ended up with me convincing people of the need for a study in a certain area,” he continued, in his most diplomatic tone. “But there is an openness toward assessment and improving things.”
A majority of IR’s internally focused studies have been on faculty and research culture. Recently, though, that focus has turned toward students.
There are almost always projects ongoing in IR; often as many as five concurrent projects are being worked by the three-and-a-half person office, and practically none is routine.
Currently IR is working on the annual senior survey in Emory College, which looks at student satisfaction with its academic program and services. Other projects include the influence of course-taking behavior on achievement in the sciences (another Emory College project) and a study exploring the academic success of Oxford College continuees; their collective scores upon entering college may not be as high as freshmen on the Atlanta campus, but by the time they graduate from Emory College there no longer is a statistical difference from four-year Atlanta students.
“That was a surprising finding,” Teodorescu said. “I didn’t expect that, and that begs other research questions. What happens in the classroom at Oxford College? What are the unique qualities of that learning environment that produce such a high value added?”
Teodorescu came to the United States from Romania with his wife Mariana in 1991 as a student and stayed after earning master’s and doctoral degrees in educational administration and policy studies from SUNY-Albany. In 2000, the Teodorescus, who have two boys, became American citizens.
Teodorescu hails from the town of Pucioasa, about 60 miles north of Bucharest, Romania’s capital and largest city. “Pucioasa” means “sulfur” in English, and the town is best known for the warm-water springs that bubble up around it. For centuries it has been a resort for the well-heeled as well as those seeking cures for rheumatoid diseases.
Teodorescu graduated from Romania’s Academy of Economic Studies in 1989, but his first job was as a computer programmer. Soon, he became interested in educational studies and moved to Bucharest shortly after the revolution that overthrew communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (whose subsequent execution was broadcast on national television) to work in that area.
Teodorescu fortunately avoided the violence prevalent during the Romanian revolution. In 1991, seeking to further his exploration of educational research, he came to the United States as a graduate student. Moving to this country wasn’t easy. The Teodorescus had $100 in their pockets (a wedding gift from Daniel’s grandfather) and after staying in New York with a Romanian acquaintance, they were off to Albany all alone.
They lived in a studio apartment with a hole in the wall (strategically covered by a bookshelf). Mariana couldn’t work (although she does now, as a financial analyst in the Rollins School of Public Health), and it was difficult for Daniel to negotiate family responsibilities while still focusing on schoolwork and a part-time editing job.
“I think every immigrant goes through a period of insecurity,” he said. “But once you pass a certain psychological level, there is no way of returning. I remember, after three years—I was one year away from finishing my studies—we went back to Bucharest to look for an apartment. We realized that Romania wasn’t our home anymore.”
After graduating from SUNY-Albany, Teodorescu spent a year as a postdoc at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He moved from there to a statistician position at the College of Charleston, where spent one year before joining Emory’s Office of Institutional Planning and Research (as IR was then known) in 1997 as a research associate.
“When I came here, I was very impressed with the vitality of the intellectual life, the spirit of the community and the warmth of the people,” Teodorescu said. He was promoted to associate director in 1999 and in 2002 ascended to his current position as director of institutional research.
Now that he is an American citizen, there is no doubt that Teodorescu is in this country to stay, yet he still has strong ties to Romania. He frequently visits family there and finds occasion to work in Romania, as well. In November, he will spend two weeks there on a research grant from the International Research Exchange studying academic integrity and ethics at universities in Bucharest.
In the years since Teodorescu graduated, integrity in Romanian higher education has slipped considerably, he said. There is rampant cheating among students, and faculty and administrators are hardly immune from corruption.
“The new education minister has asked all universities to have an honor code by December,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how things evolve, whether having these principles spelled out on paper will change behavior.”
Teodorescu has other, more personal ties to his home country, as well. Earlier this year, the first of a four-volume history of communism in Romania, The Communist Genocide in Romania, was published in English translation. Teodorescu was the translator; the author, Gheorghe Boldur-Latescu, is his grandfather. Published in 1992, the book was one of the first from behind the Iron Curtain to chronicle the history of communism.
“I’ve always wanted to translate his work here,” Teodorescu said. “I finally got the time this year.” Next, he would like to translate the other three volumes, but rather than go in order, Teodorescu will work on the fourth volume next. “It focuses on his experiences as a political prisoner in some of the most terrifying prisons and labor camps in the Romanian Gulag,” he said.
Boldur-Latescu, who would later teach at his grandson’s alma mater, Romania’s Academy of Economic Studies, was imprisoned from 1949–51; a student resistance leader, he was locked up by the communist government for trying to help his fellow fighters in the mountains.
“He wants me to translate that last one more than anything,” Teodorescu said.