University-Based Centers TIG Week: Why do you work at a UNIVERSITY? You’re an evaluator?! by Sarah Mason

Greetings from Oxford, Mississippi! My name is Sarah Mason and I am the Director of the Center for Research Evaluation (CERE) at the University of Mississippi. I also serve as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the AEA journal, New Directions for Evaluation.

As evaluators, we provide services in a myriad of ways. The AEA community is filled with independent evaluation consultants, small (often women-owned businesses), large firms, internal evaluators—the list could continue. And while working as an evaluator at a University-Based Evaluation Center shares many of the same features as working in these other spaces, it also offers a different perspective that makes UBCs a little unique. 

This posting explores the question “why have university-based centers?” and, in it, I will share two key reasons I think evaluators have a home at universities.

Lessons Learned

Building buy-in for evaluation. Let’s face it: universities are behemoths. They are large, bureaucratic institutions that are often siloed across disciplinary areas, role (staff vs faculty), and the tension between teaching and research. As university-based evaluators, we can use our work and our relationships to advocate for evaluation as a regular practice. Because our work is interdisciplinary, university-based evaluators connect with staff and faculty across a wide range of schools, colleges, administrative levels, and focal areas. Our capacity to make connections across the university campus is unique in the world of academia.

When we do good work for campus partners (e.g., by evaluating on-campus programs) and carry a consistent message in our conversations (e.g., “embed evaluation early on!”) we can help to spark awareness of, interest in, and support for evaluation campus-wide.

Changing the narrative around university researchers. A little under a year ago, our team started a new project with a national Foundation working in the region. In one of our first conversations, one of our partners said: “Look, I’m going to be honest. I don’t usually like working with university researchers. You’re unresponsive, you’re slow and you only work on what you want to work on. You come in, tell us what you think and then you leave. That’s not what we’re about.” Guess what?! That’s not what evaluation is about, either. This project offered us a perfect opportunity to change perceptions about what it means to work with a university. In that specific situation, our response was easy: “Lucky we’re not your standard university researcher then—we’re evaluators and here’s how we’re different.” We can show that there are different ways for community organizations to partner with universities in a way that serves community needs. This also creates leverage internally to talk about different ways universities can doing community-engaged work.

Being based at a university also offers unique access to faculty expertise, access to students (and prospective new evaluators), along with encouragement to publish in the field—but our work and our relationships also have great potential to change the narrative about evaluation and about what it means to partner with a university.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting University-Based Centers (UBC) TIG week. All posts this week are contributed by members of the UBC Topical Interest Group. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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