• Featured Special Feature
  • 06.16.20

Post COVID-19 Campus Planning and Decision Making: IR’s Seat at the Table

  • by Henry Y. Zheng, Associate Vice President for Strategic Analytics, The Ohio State University

COVID-19 and the Post Pandemic Reopening Decision

In March 2020, with the spread of the COVID-19 virus, higher education institutions nationally made a difficult decision to transition largely to online or virtual learning. Two to three months later, these institutions face another tough decision: whether they will resume normal campus operations for fall 2020, choose to go online, or implement hybrid learning. These decisions need to be made in a deteriorating operating environment including huge budget shortfalls, enrollment declines, a global health crisis, and employee and student anxiety about returning. For these institutions, the post-COVID-19 decision to reopen the campus and the manner it will be reopened are consequential and even existentially significant. Given the high stake of the decision process, the question is: will IR be at the table when such important decisions are being made? Will IR professionals’ technical skills, institutional knowledge, and analytical prowess be utilized at such a critical time? Having consulted with a group of IR leaders across the country, I, as part of the decision team at my own campus, offer some initial assessment of IR’s roles and engagement with regard to AIR’s Statement of Aspirational Practice for Institutional Research.

AIR’s Statement of Aspirational Practice for Institutional Research

AIR’s Statement of Aspirational Practice for Institutional Research calls for a proactive and collaborative approach to data and analytics. It challenges institutions to take a more holistic view of IR’s capacity and encourages institutional researchers to work across the institution with other departments and units. In this aspirational vision, IR professionals are active collaborators within cross-institutional committees. Armed with institutional knowledge to pose key questions and equipped with technical skills to integrate data from different sources, IR professionals are in a unique position to offer knowledge, analysis, contextualization, and interpretation that turns data into actionable insights. In the ideal state of this aspirational vision, IR leaders and professionals will be actively engaged by university leadership in institutional decision making situations.

IR Leaders at the Decision Table

To facilitate the decision making process, many universities set up special task forces, committees, or workgroups to lead the campus reopening decision process. From an aspirational practice standpoint, it is desirable that IR leaders are at the decision table when it counts the most. Based on feedback from a convenience sample of IR leaders from 12 universities, we have both good news and not so good news. The good news is that we have IR leaders who operate at the highest level in this decision process. Five senior IR leaders consider themselves heavily involved in the post-COVID-19 planning and decision process and are part of the leadership team(s) or workgroups. One IR leader indicated that she co-chaired her university’s Infrastructure and Health Technologies Committee and is also a member of the Fall Academic Planning Committee. Three senior IR leaders indicated that they are part of the leadership group that helped determine the structure of the committees, coordinated the meeting agenda, and prepared most of the meeting materials. Other IR leaders reported that they were effectively involved by providing data and analytics support to the planning teams. Overall, it seems that senior IR leaders are either at the decision table or are actively responsible for supporting those who are at the table. The not so good news is that two senior IR leaders reported that they were not meaningfully engaged and were not included in any working groups. There are of course many different reasons for the lack of engagement of IR leaders in such a critical decision process. One IR leader believes that a lack of data-driven culture by the senior administration is a big factor. Some university leaders still see the IR office as a reporting shop and have not viewed IR as an active participant in decision making situations.

IR Offices’ Contributions to Planning and Decision Making

While their leaders played different roles in planning for the decision process, IR professionals at these universities are all engaged to provide data and information to the decision process. Three universities reported that their IR staff have been extensively tapped to provide direct support to various committees or workgroups. Several universities saw an uptick of requests for data and analysis. Overall, the top five most frequently requested data analytics services provided to the post-COVID-19 decision process include:

#1: Survey research on how COVID-19 impacts stakeholder (faculty, staff, students, etc.) sentiments on returning to campus

#2: Enrollment projections or retention analysis

#3: Development of dashboard or data visualization specifically for the planning process

#4: Data modeling of various planning scenarios related to enrollment, class size, and budget

#5: Monitoring external developments, peer institutions trends, and health data for decision support

Lessons Learned

It is encouraging that within the limited sample of IR leaders who responded to my quick questions, the large majority are either at the decision table or have been actively engaged. How can we do better? Joan Graham, Rochester Institute of Technology, indicated that IR professionals must act fast. “Our experience was that people are eager for information but that it needs to be provided quickly and in an easy-to-use format, given the fast pace of our committees.” Rana Glasgal, Northeastern University believes that IR leaders need to build reputation and trust by being more proactive even before a decision crisis. We “need to be proactive to be involved in such efforts. Leaders don't always know what data they need, so I have had my staff create some analysis and pass them to leadership even though they didn't ask for them in the hopes that they find them helpful.” Two IR leaders feel that it is more important that their staff are engaged because it is a great professional and leadership development opportunity. Tim Chow, Rose-Hulman indicated that “I believe we, as a team (probably not as much if just counting myself as an individual contributor), are playing a role in the data-informed decision making efforts.”

Thank you to the senior IR leaders at these institutions for sharing their experience and opinions: East Carolina University, George Washington, IUPUI, Lehigh, Miami (OH), Northeastern, Notre Dame, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, SUNY Buffalo, and SUNY Stony Brook.