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On Being an IR Professional During Challenging Times

As an institutional researcher, I have never gotten a 2:00 a.m. phone call notifying me of a data emergency. I’ve never been asked to come to campus immediately to assist the data crisis response team or make pivot tables. Never.

However – my colleagues in housing, student affairs, and academic affairs have gotten those late night calls – many times over. (Huge thank you to those of you who do that work.) While the acute emergency situation may only last a few hours, the resulting work can occupy leaders’ attention long after the initial phone call. Often for days, weeks, even months.

Such is the case for the coronavirus, as well as other sudden, challenging times faced by colleges and universities. Institutional leaders are working VERY hard to organize information and support students’ needs in a rapidly changing healthcare landscape. The days can feel both short and long for leaders in crisis mode – working at full speed from early mornings through late nights.

Group of diverse professionals gathered at a large conference table engaged in a meeting during challenging times.

Challenging Times Call for Careful Action

Typically, institutional researchers are not involved with major events like development of a coronavirus strategy, unless one has multiple roles (e.g., head of strategic planning, chair of emergency planning).

For my friends and colleagues that know me, I’m not very patient. I always like to be doing something, even in the most challenging times. Something sounds better than nothing and (statistical) odds are that I will be heading in the right direction, even if there is a slight detour from time to time.

So – while many of the senior leaders at the institutions we serve at IEHE are laser-focused on their response to the coronavirus, here is what I’m doing to help my bridge services clients (temporary, long-term and outsourced IR services) during this time when fewer IR requests may be coming in.

Get Ahead on Information Requests

Working ahead of schedule is always a good idea. Other offices on campus may find themselves with a little down time since leaders are incredibly busy managing response to these unprecedented events. They too may appreciate working ahead of schedule because their office may get super busy when things calm down. Additionally, no one knows who may be out of the office for an extended period of time. So, getting your annual information request on the radar ahead of schedule can minimize out of office challenges later. Keep in mind the person out of office may be you. Which is an even better reason to get the requests out early. 

Send Friendly Reminders

Campus leaders are extremely busy right now. Sending a friendly reminder about an upcoming due date can be helpful. Be sure to acknowledge that a lot is going on right now, and that this is a friendly reminder. This helps ensure that important institutional deadlines are not missed. For example, the IPEDS spring surveys are due April 8th. I’ve recently sent an “electronic nudge” to our folks to remind them of their upcoming data submissions. And I added a “meeting invite” to their calendar noting that this is friendly reminder (not an actual meeting). I provided the details from the email in the notes section to help jog their memories as the due date approaches.

Alarm clock set to 3:00 next to a small plant in a white pot. These are challenging times.

Find Data That Can Help

IR offices have access to different types of data. Real-time data is paramount in these sudden events. As such, it is important for the office(s) with full access, contextual expertise, and real-time data to provide information as quickly and accurately as possible. This may or may not be the IR office. However, if you believe you have data that can help leaders, speak up to you supervisor and make suggestions. This could include both immediate and longer-term needs.

Be Empathetic During Challenging Times

Long hours are hard on everyone. And while campus leaders are used to dealing with crises of all kinds, those emergencies rarely have the potential to impact their own health or those of their families. It can be difficult to manage emotions and handle the stress of challenging times while trying to make the best possible decisions on behalf of students and the broader community.

Show kindness wherever you can. Even if it’s only a quick call or email to say, “I know this is a difficult time. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to assist you. And let’s have coffee when things calm down and we all get back to normal.” Your colleagues in the crisis response trenches will appreciate it.

Please take care of yourselves and reach out if I or IEHE can be of any service or support. And stay tuned for an upcoming blog from IEHE on a list of anticipated data analyses and studies IR professionals should be thinking about to better understand new trends and patterns of student experiences, learning in an online environment, continued needs and concerns, etc. 

The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.