I am delighted to welcome back to the new term all staff and students (continuing and new)! I hope that colleagues have felt as energised as I have about the renewal of our University community and the opportunity to support each other and our students in a face-to-face environment. I realise that we are all still recovering from a period of unprecedented disruption, and I would like to thank you all again for the commitment you have shown to each other, your students and to the University’s mission.
It has been over a year since my last blog, and taking a blog break was a deliberate decision on my part. During the pandemic, communications from myself and members of UEB necessarily needed to be operational and supportive of our navigation through one of the worst crises our country has experienced since the Second World War.
But now life is - if not ‘back to normal’ - at least in a place where we can afford ourselves a bit of reflection time as well as thinking about our future. Maybe it is a cliché, but there is no doubt that the social, economic, cultural and political landscape has changed almost beyond recognition during the pandemic. As we emerge from a dark period blinking into the sunlight, I would like to reflect on where we are as a University community and how we might begin to face the future with spirit and creativity.
While we have been navigating a pandemic that has had tragic consequences for many individuals and their families, the government policy environment has not stood still. We are facing months of new challenges for higher education, a pessimistic spending review, economic turbulence in supply chains, energy prices and skills vacancies, changes in student and staff expectations and no end in sight for the current culture wars. In my view, universities must be part of the solution to all of this, instead of exacerbating the problems. If we remind ourselves of our core mission to educate students, create new ideas and knowledge through research and use both of these to improve lives, we are in the best place to support our society through what is going to continue to be another unsettled period.
The current culture wars cause me particular concern, especially as we can see the damage these have done to universities in the United States before they have washed across the Atlantic. I have been thinking about Overton Window recently. Paraphrasing the idea, this theory focuses on government policies considered to be within the range of what the public will accept. I think we can extend this notion to what is considered an acceptable range of behaviour in public discourse. For a variety of reasons, we are now living through a period where behaviour that may have been considered outlandish, offensive or even illegal just a few years ago has now been normalised. I hope that our University community can resist this trend, which has no winners, has a chilling effect on public debate and intellectual integrity and does not contribute in any way to people’s happiness and wellbeing.
With all of these challenges, I feel we are in many ways fortunate at the University of Nottingham. We have outstanding staff, an incredible portfolio of both programmes and research, are financially strong with the capacity to invest and have an excellent strategy that has stood the test of a pandemic. We certainly need to make improvements in performance and impact in some areas, but I genuinely believe we have the capability and will to do that in the coming years.
I can see the ambition and service-orientation of many colleagues throughout the University, but there is also evidence occasionally of victimisation or entitlement. We have strong collective university values, but unfortunately there are rare examples where those values are not lived on the ground. People continue to seek permission to make decisions, and this hesitation can stifle the innovation that is one of our trademarks. We have highly motivated and committed senior leaders, but we need to offer them more training and support to help them thrive.
The opportunities we have now to develop our strategies around the Malaysia campus, Digital Nottingham and UoN Online (just to name three recent developments) are complemented by a chance to reset our research strategy, capitalise on our demonstrable achievements in innovation and knowledge exchange, and improve student satisfaction. Castle Meadow is currently just a collection of buildings, but they give us an opportunity to rethink, rebuild and transform the way we deliver our core mission in a world that is changing at dizzying speed and where student and staff expectations are higher every day.
I would value an honest conversation that ensures we can build on our strengths and address our weaknesses.The circumstances of the pandemic have meant that many of us pivoted to Teams for so many of our conversations and meetings last year, and I was no exception. In line with our approach to teaching this term, I am introducing a more blended style to my engagement with colleagues with both in-person and online events, which will allow for a more extensive set of engagements with the University community.
As well as resuming my blogs, I will be hosting a series of in-person events, lunches, dinners and staff surgeries – as well as hosting larger meetings for faculties and professional services departments via Teams. I am really looking forward to listening to and speaking with colleagues across the University this term. I know it has been a tough period for us all and I am keen to meet and communicate with as many colleagues as possible to understand your ambitions, concerns and, I hope, pleasure at being back on campus regularly.
I do hope you can join me and I look forward to speaking with you during the academic year.
Professor Shearer West
19 October 2021