Chronicle’s Salary Database Violates Privacy

To the Editor:

Last Monday, The Chronicle debuted a segment in its “Chronicle Data” section that is described as “a new interactive tool to search and sort comprehensive information, going back more than a decade, about faculty and staff salaries at thousands of institutions.” Previously, the source was the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (Ipeds) data instead of AAUP data, the number of institutions expanded from about 1,200 to about 4,800, a move we applaud. However, the organization of Ipeds employment categories leads to some concerns for reporting.

Most significantly, individual salaries can be discerned for some people but not for others. In looking up an individual institution, if there is only one person in a category, his or her salary is available for all to see. In addition, if there are two people in that position, they can easily figure out the salary of their colleague. We’d like to be clear that we are not opposed to transparency. We are however, opposed to transparency for some, and not for all—and that leads to our next concern.

NCES has historically been very careful to prevent identification of individuals, and private institutions have a culture of not sharing sensitive data such as individual salary. As institutional researchers, we spend considerable time educating faculty, students, and staff members about the ethical uses of data. Among the things we stress is the importance of confidentiality—of not jeopardizing the privacy of respondents’ information. It is disheartening to us that the standard practice of only reporting categories with five or greater respondents is not employed by The Chronicle here, and disturbing that the NCES did not insist upon this as a condition of sharing the data.

Our final concern has to do with the categories themselves. Ipeds collects employment data using the Standard Occupational Classification System. This set of employment categories is new to higher education, and we have been using it for only three years. Because the categories are intended for the business sector, higher education is still struggling to figure out how to categorize some staff members who don’t fit neatly into business occupations. The director of a campus health-care center might fall under “Management” at one institution, “Healthcare Practitioners” at another institution, and “Community and Social Service” at another institution. Athletic coaches can be categorized under a grab bag that includes legal occupations, media, and social service. As a result, the data is not yet comparable across institutions. Institutional researchers across the country are working with one another to try to align our categories, but we are not there yet, given the wide range of titles and responsibilities in higher education.

Susan E. Canon
Director of Institutional Research
St. Olaf College

Laura Palucki Blake
Director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness
Harvey Mudd College

C. Ellen Peters
Director of institutional Research and Retention
University of Puget Sound

Editor’s Note: After finding last week that the Ipeds data included individualized information, we updated the website to conceal salaries in cases with fewer than three people in a category.

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