‘Nature does require her times of preservation, which perforce I, her frail son, amongst my brethren mortal, must give my tendance to.’ – Wolsey in Henry VIII, Act 3 Scene 2
By the time colleagues read this, the status of the COVID-19 outbreak will have shifted again. The rapidity of developments globally has required a fluidity in working with received business continuity wisdom coupled with an agility to make quick, often far-reaching institution-wide decisions based on limited or in the worst case entirely fake information.
Sound familiar to anyone?
This latest situation has not been helped by public reactions which – especially on social media and in the tabloid press – are mutating as fast and as unpleasantly as some viruses (though fortunately not this particular coronavirus).
The result is the most challenging and difficult set of circumstances I have had to deal with as a Registrar and COO.
At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I thought I’d use this blog on the theme of internationalisation to share some personal reflections. This is not so much from the operational or detail level as the UAE’s response is very different from the UK’s at this time, but more in the spirit of a problem shared being a problem halved.
Briefly, here is the context to frame this: in a quick succession of circulars and directives from the Ministry of Education, the first of which was issued on Saturday 29 February, the UAE has moved from suspending events and gatherings at schools, to closing all nurseries, schools and universities to students for four weeks until 5 April.
The first two weeks students will take as an early spring break while academics mostly work from home preparing distance learning materials to be delivered online during the second two weeks. Administrative staff will continue to work their usual (or in some cases vacation) hours on campus, supporting students and academics remotely.
Staff and students at all educational institutions are encouraged not to travel outside the UAE; where international travel has occurred, staff and students are required to self-isolate at home for 14 days on their return, regardless of where they have travelled from or whether they are showing any symptoms.
I’ll let you unpack all of that for a moment.
Some things to throw in the mix to add piquancy: VoIP is a regulated service in the UAE (meaning free-to-use apps such as FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp calls etc. do not normally work); and until now the regulator which controls university quality and accreditation has strictly controlled online and distance learning.
So what is it like to deal with a scenario we might have planned for in dry disaster recovery and business continuity committees but which most of us happily haven’t had to dust off?
I’ve sat through those planning sessions in the various UK universities in which I’ve worked. I can honestly say that there are some fantastic, forward-thinking and genuinely skilled staff who get it (mostly below the senior executive level and often coming into HE from sectors like the military, police and emergency services, where they’ve had real-life experience of major incidents).
However, I’ve never met a VC or similar who has shown much more than a passing (possibly reputational) interest in gold/silver/bronze reaction teams, quick response suites, delegated authority, or the actual nitty-gritty of keeping the lights and wifi on in a large organisation faced with known or unknown unknowns coming at it in waves.
Perhaps others have had more fruitful engagement and I’ve been unlucky – to be fair, certainly some Boards of Governors/University Councils I’ve worked with have been quite keen and better equipped. This is especially where the institution is lucky enough or has had the foresight to recruit governors who’ve been involved in that field.
But it has always seemed to end up as a cost/benefit analysis, where the cost of comprehensive business continuity strategies inevitably outweighs their perceived benefits.
So my takeaways from the current situation can be summarised as follows (this is far from over so talk to me at the autumn conference if I make it, to discover how it panned out…):
- Distrust all social media – think Trump and act oppositely
- Remember the tabloid press sells product – it doesn’t exist to offer solutions or solve problems
- Do not be swayed by what your staff/colleagues/boss/cleaner/neighbour or the bloke in the shop tells you is the state of the world or what their friend’s kids’ school is doing and why you should be doing the same
- Network with trusted HE colleagues like crazy – it has never been more important to share factual information, frequently and frankly
- Don’t be afraid to act quickly; equally don’t shy away from changing a decision when new information becomes available – agility is the watchword, not stubbornness
- Be honest and open about what you’re doing and why, especially with colleagues and indeed other institutions – this is not a time to be competitive or secretive
- Be wary of sharing what might seem like harmless or fun memes and such, even with informal WhatsApp groups – no need to be po-faced about the situation but a lot of the fake news flying around can make staff nervous and it only exacerbates already twitchy anxieties
- Take control – others either won’t, will look to you to, and/or will be grateful when you do (including your VC)
- Spend time talking with your staff – now more than ever visit their offices and departments, ask about their families and how they’re coping (eg childcare is a real issue for people here with all schools closed)
- Be as flexible as you can organisationally but stay firm in your purpose – the end result will be a stronger institution
- Walk don’t run (metaphorically as well as literally) – no one likes panic
Anyway, enough platitudes from me – those with colleagues in China, Italy or indeed closer to (my) home, Iran, are in much more drastic scenarios than I am. I started with Shakespeare so in these fevered times I’ll end bathetically with Jerry Springer:
Till next time, take care of yourselves, and each other.
Hugh Martin is the Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, AHUA’s first international associate member. He can be contacted at email@example.com