All were quietly appalledTed Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1997, p.19)
To imagine mankind annihilated.
What would heaven do
With a globeful of empty temples?
Only by spiders?
(This blog post is modified from a shorter piece I wrote for our library staff newsletter.)
Our university buildings closed on Thursday 19 March, and along with it we closed our two physical libraries and moved to online learning support and delivery of teaching. At the time I felt exhausted but relieved, having thought about very little other than coronavirus, Covid-19, “the virus” or just “it” the past weeks. I had felt higher education was slowly, slowly—and then quickly, immediately, today—moving toward closing. Thursday was the point where we were confident we had a plan in place to support students with nowhere else to go, including those living in our accommodation and vulnerable student groups such as care leavers and those estranged from their families—so we were ready to close.
Incident management within a crisis is very different from the day-to-day working of any university. Higher education governance, committees and processes are designed to support a complex system that works to semester, annual, and multi-year cycles. We work with considerable uncertainty year-by-year, but within frameworks, expectations, and practices that provide certainties. But within a critical incident, university leadership needs to immediately engage a very different skill set, putting aside our usual tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainties and instead focusing on what is essential.
As the pandemic developed things changed each day, and accelerated the week of 16 March. At the time, it felt like being physically on one of the now-familiar exponential graphs of Covid-19 cases. Things that seemed certain or agreed 24 hours ago were overtaken by events and dropped. A few days later, that timescale had shortened to 12 hours or less. With our immediate horizon changed to what needs doing today, and our medium-term horizon changed to two or three days from now, organisational hierarchies and reporting lines are much less relevant. Colleagues do what needs to be done, and communication becomes more frank, urgent, and honest. For leaders, it is vital to perceive the underlying concerns expressed, and to be as generous as possible in our reading of colleagues’ words and tone.
At my university the library team was amazing at moving smoothly and efficiently to online learning support and delivery, while dealing with extreme stress and worry in our lives outside work. I could not have asked for better colleagues in the library and as peers—both our own heads of departments and deans of our academic schools, and also my wider peer group of library directors who worked collaboratively in sharing experience and knowledge. For me it’s worth stating that almost all of this advocacy and sharing happened behind the scenes, particularly in how we supported each other to advocate to our senior leadership teams for closing physical libraries and learning spaces. Chris Bourg’s blog post (15 March) and Helen Rimmer’s blog post (22 March) are significant public statements of this. Elsewhere in education and in libraries in other sectors, I saw advocacy being carried out at genuine professional risk. I am immensely grateful to colleagues who contacted me with their words and arguments that in turn made my advocacy much more effective.
At the same time as managing risk and immediate concerns of incident management, there were short- and medium-term scenarios we needed to plan. Once we had made our immediate, rapid and orderly shift to online delivery of teaching we needed to think about the longer term. The Covid-19 pandemic is currently open-ended. We are adjusting to new ways of working and finding out what is most effective in our own teams and our wider circles. This isn’t a blog post for sharing tips as at the time of writing I’m still decompressing, but my immediate thoughts on our shift to sustained online delivery are about the change of gear from dealing with immediate practical concerns, to ensuring we maintain resilience as a team and an educational community.
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