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Business Influencer Article: Leading a University During a Pandemic


Professor Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wolverhampton reflects in The Business Influencer Magazine on what it's like to lead a University through a pandemic.

Without a doubt this has been the most challenging period in my career.  As a University academic who loves teaching, research and engaging with communities and industry, the pandemic has been a fundamental challenge of leadership, commitment and values.

Like many others, we could see the pandemic coming.  My son for example was several weeks into the Barcelona lockdown and, as a University, we had already witnessed the closure of the courses that we teach in Hong Kong for different reasons. However, seeing it coming is very different to actually experiencing it.

As a University, we have a particular culture and a set of values which may be different to those of other organisations. We do seek to make small surpluses to re-invest in development but we are a non-profit making organisation.  We are committed to being the University of Opportunity; a significant proportion of our students are from low income families, nearly 50% of our students are from BAME backgrounds and 50% are mature students.

As a University with our mission, we feel strongly that our buildings and facilities should be open and accessible to all.  Our academics are recruited and empowered to challenge conventional thinking and that is also what we encourage our students and researchers to do.  Indeed, trying to manage academics and students is often said to be analogous to “herding cats”, which is exactly the culture required in order to challenge conventional thinking, and foster discovery and invention.

We always seek to make decisions based on evidence and on the interests of our students, so moving to a situation where the only certainty was uncertainty challenged our approach to decision making.  We had already set up a planning group and started to pilot whole areas working remotely.

The challenge we had was to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of nearly 30,000 students and staff, to make sure that our students had access to learning resources and facilities, and to be able to give notice of any changes without knowing how long we had to plan.  We had set up a traditional Gold and Silver command structure with daily meetings in which decisions were made and followed.  This was undoubtedly due to the need for clarity of purpose and a mass communication strategy.  I was involved in daily briefings to staff and students and ensuring clarity of messages focusing on safety and wellbeing was paramount.

We moved from normal face-to-face teaching to online learning within two days and yes, it was variable but students and staff were safe and communicating with each other.  We were gradually emptying buildings and closing them, sending staff home to work remotely.  We kept learning spaces open as long as we could and I regularly visited whatever University spaces were open, talking to staff and students.  It was very important to me to ensure communication and openness with the University community.  Then came lockdown and, although most staff and students were at home by that point, we still had 500 students living on campus and therefore a clear need to support them, including those who were self-isolating.  We also had to close down research experiments in the fight against cancer, which will have had a serious detrimental impact on the project.  We had to keep some staff on campus to keep the buildings secure and safe and to look after residential students.

So all of this might sound simple but then there was also our role in supporting the emergency effort.  We teach thousands of students on key worker courses – training nurses, teachers, paramedics, pharmacists and others.  We worried about what this meant for trainee teachers in schools, as the situation in schools was uncertain.  The NHS simply wanted our students on the wards, in the pharmacies and on the ambulances.  We wanted them to be safe and to contribute to the emergency effort.  There was then the well-intended but bureaucratic proposals being made nationally and regionally to create clearing house to supply services to the NHS.  We basically ignored them as Chief Executives of NHS Health Trusts were contacting me telling what they needed.  All of our students went out and helped and I was really proud of them.  They come from our local community and wanted to serve that community.  We just negotiated that they would be safe and have the PPE they needed.  Then came our staff volunteering their help in making PPE and sanitiser, so we opened up buildings to make visors, PPE and cleaning fluids.  Our facilities colleagues simply enabled it and our drivers delivered it.

I vividly remember having a Sunday afternoon conversation with the Chief Executive of an Ambulance Service NHS Trust.  He wanted our Paramedic Science students on the front line, whereas Health Education England wanted to make sure that their studies were not interrupted. This is a really difficult call but a decision had to be made and so we enabled our students to join the service.

I mentioned earlier the change of approach that we had to take in decision-making.  We changed how we teach, how we assess and then planned for the future in quick and decisive meetings with a “needs must” approach.  The key to this was the extent of our communication.  We planned with our students and staff, and communicated frequently and loudly.

We developed an approach that focused on planning to re-open fully and we emphasised the need to listen to our students and to communicate openly through webinars and other means.

It has been a challenging time for me, my senior leadership colleagues and for the wider University as an organisation, but we have managed to face these challenges by working together and will continue to do so as the challenging times continue.

For more information please contact the Corporate Communications Team.

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