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Managing Fear, Building Evidence in Tough Times


Maguire Associates has been serving colleges and universities for 25 years. We have witnessed many periods of economic uncertainty in that time, always working with clients to calibrate what is happening and collaborate on how best to respond to it.

Clients have been expressing understandable anxiety recently about the economy. Institutions are worried about making their enrollment numbers, ensuring their students have needed financial resources, protecting their endowments, or adjusting their annual fund and capital campaigns.

We are all truly in this together. So, in that spirit, we offer two related insights for managing and leading through tough times and the constant hype that can make them seem worse:

  • Managing Fear: Fear is natural and understandable. We need to give ourselves permission to be worried – up to a point. Some level of fear can actually play a useful role in helping institutions focus on the right questions and break down the organizational silos that otherwise reduce their effectiveness. Still, we have seen some colleges and universities make short-sighted, self-defeating decisions in difficult and demanding times.

    Happily, we have witnessed many other institutions rise to the challenge with creativity, grace and poise. Frequently, it is not the initial problem that imperils an organization, but how it works through fear to handle the situation. Many have later regretted cutting the very budgets needed to weather the storm effectively and build constructively for better days ahead.
  • Building Evidence: Evidence is the enemy of needless fear. In these cases, knowing what’s going on is always better than not knowing. However, it can be difficult to know what is really and truly happening in the midst of a challenge without access to the facts. Those institutions that succeed in tough times build and maintain a culture of evidence and the internal systems, processes and expectations to support it.

    Now is certainly not the time to jettison your well thought-out strategic objectives, as tempting as that can be in these circumstances. You may want to reprioritize them, however, or reallocate the budgets that support them. How are you measuring and recalibrating your priorities, and which of them is most important or at risk right now?

    We are suggesting to clients that they track and monitor applications earlier and more often than usual, discerning in detail whether and how the composition of the applicant pool differs from previous cycles. We are also suggesting that it is essential at this moment to protect your investment in current students by soliciting their feedback and actively ensuring their satisfaction. It is far less expensive to retain a student than it is to acquire a new one. Who among your students is at risk right now and how will you know?

Tough Times

Gut instincts can be useful in challenging times, but don’t purely become a “guttician.” Hard evidence provides the discipline and perspective needed to overcome fear and manage through daunting circumstances. Without real-time situational awareness, however, individuals and institutions risk acting mindlessly no matter their capabilities and track records.

Being mindful in turbulent times means taking a deep breath, pausing for reflection, communicating like never before with colleagues across departments, and developing and utilizing the evidence you need to make the best decisions. Times like these make it difficult to maintain this discipline in the face of fear and impatience. But times like these are when we need that discipline most.


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