When I was invited to write this blog on “what the University strategy means to me,” the first perspective that I planned to take was from that in my role of Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. But as I began to plan what I wanted to say, I realised that it was impossible to divorce the perspective that comes from my leadership responsibilities for the EDI and people elements of the strategy from my own individual identity as a member of University staff, an active researcher, a teacher, and a citizen of Nottingham
After the strategy was launched, the message that I heard most strongly from colleagues was how pleased they were to see the notion of values placed at the forefront of the University of Nottingham strategy. The strategy recognises that nothing is possible for the University without its people – its staff and its students. The five values of Inclusivity, Ambition, Openness, Fairness and Respect relate to all that we do. And the strategy recognises that this is not just about our behaviours as individuals – it refers to how we design our processes, how we select our priorities, the messages we send to our visitors, and the expectations we place on those with whom we partner.
There is one word within the text supporting the University strategy however which is particularly meaningful to me – kindness. Academics are trained to argue, to defend our ideas, and we teach our students to discuss and debate. There can be a danger however, particularly in an academic context, that we get so caught up in our passion for our ideas, so deep in thought in our arguments for one position, approach or solution, that we forget that, particularly as we become more experienced in making our arguments and defending our position, what to some of us feels like passionate debate can to others feel intimidating, making them reluctant to express their own point of view.
A commitment from all of us to be kind does not need to stop the most excellent thoughts or initiatives from emerging, and should not prevent us from being able to express diverse views and perspectives. But a commitment to kindness can ensure that as we discuss and debate, with a shared aim to be ambitious to deliver our very best, we can be inclusive and respectful, and have regard for each other’s rights and feelings.
A strategy needs to be much more than a piece of paper – for a strategy to be meaningful, it has to help us as we make decisions. It is in this aspect that the goals of the strategy become particularly useful. In academia, we can very quickly fall into the trap of trying to do everything – as individuals, and as an institution. We tend to retain elements of our jobs because they have always been there, and are not often given the opportunity to take the time to step back, and try to think of how we could do things in different ways. This can mean that we end up working hard, and having lots of parallel aims, and we don’t always have the confidence to choose to stop doing things. This can particularly have an impact on groups who are under-represented, whom we have clearly identified in our EDI strategic delivery plan as being disadvantaged by many of the ways that we do things at the moment.
I see strong alignment between the value of openness, which refers to championing the free exchange of ideas, with the goal of fostering creativity, discovery and experiment. To achieve this, we need to encourage ideas from all, work to overcome our fears of failure. We also need to trust each other, through agreeing shared goals, but allowing freedom where possible to choose the way that we aim to achieve those goals. This will be most successful if we break down boundaries between disciplines and teams, and move beyond the hierarchical structure that is present within academia to ensure that all ideas from all members of our diverse community are given an equal voice.
When I chat to staff and students around the University I am often impressed by the richness and thoughtfulness of the ideas that they have about how we could do things better, but I’m also struck by how reluctant people are to voice those thoughts to their colleagues or managers, feeling that they might not be heard or taken seriously. A key element of the successful delivery of our strategy will be for us to change this culture, empowering people to collaborate in developing the very best University without borders that we can.
For me personally, the University strategy represents a recognised need for change, ensuring we retain the elements which make the University successful, but take risks where needed to address things that would benefit from working differently. EDI is about making the University better for us all, and I believe that the values within the strategy will help us as we work together to achieve the aims already set out in our EDI strategic delivery plan.
Finally, as a University leader, the strategy also asks me to take a personal responsibility to aim to embody the values in all that I do. I take this responsibility seriously, but recognise that it is a collective responsibility. I am therefore extremely pleased to have the support of so many students and staff as we work together to ensure the University of Nottingham is as inclusive, ambitious, open, fair and respectful as is can be.
Professor Sarah Sharples
Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion