The University of New Orleans’ Survey Research Center (SRC), which has earned a national reputation for conducting reliable independent research, is marking its 30th year in existence. Since 1986, the center has conducted 85 survey research projects, including its signature Quality of Life series, which is commonly known as the UNO Poll.
“Our goal at the SRC is to continue to provide an ongoing picture of how voters view local government services and the general quality of life,” said Edward Chervenak, director of the Survey Research Center. “We do our best to keep tabs on public opinion in the greater New Orleans area and explore beliefs and values on a wide range of social, economic and political issues affecting residents in the region and across the state.”
The SRC began three decades ago as a project in one of political science professor Susan Howell’s classes. Howell, the founding director of the SRC, started with no budget, no computers and no identity. Many universities had small survey operations and Howell thought UNO could benefit from the research and teaching opportunities that a survey center provides. In the politicized environment of New Orleans and Louisiana, Howell also believed that UNO would benefit from the positive publicity of a survey not affiliated with a candidate or party.
“The class project was a pilot survey on the aquarium tax referendum,” Howell said. “It was a success and the provost funded a survey of the upcoming 1986 New Orleans mayor’s race. We purchased 10 phone lines in a classroom. At the time, the students and I joked that we would look back and remember when the center was 10 phones in a box.”
The mayor’s race survey was a panel survey, meaning that UNO researchers followed the same voters throughout the campaign. According to Howell, it was the first of its kind in New Orleans, and that 1986 survey served as a launching pad for what the SRC would become today, an academic survey center with a reputation for neutrality and accuracy.
The Quality of Life series also began in 1986. According to Chervenak, these surveys are a public service because they give the voters of New Orleans and Jefferson a voice between elections. The emphasis is on evaluations of government services. The Quality of Life surveys are conducted on a regular basis, which means UNO researchers can observe which government services are improving and which are deteriorating in the eyes of the voters. The surveys provide valuable input to local government officials, should they choose to utilize it.
In addition, student participation in the SRC’s projects fulfills the University’s mission as a research institution. Undergraduate and graduate students are taught how to conduct research in a scientific manner. More than 1,000 UNO political science students have participated in a survey as interviewers. Approximately 30 political science graduate students have held assistantships with the SRC and several have secured employment at survey centers around the country, including the National Opinion Research Corp. and the Public Policy Institute of California, or started their own survey centers at universities where they teach.
The SRC has also given UNO’s political science department a regular presence in the local, national and international media. Faculty members are often sought out by news organizations to offer in-depth analysis on local, state and national politics.