Universities are complex organisations that bring together extremely large constituencies – staff, students, visitors, local communities, businesses, service contractors, and stakeholders of a wide range – all with very different needs. Part of their remit is to manage the risks that arise from such complexity. These include risks to staff and student wellbeing, financial risk, risk to infrastructure, and of course, risk to the university’s stability, longevity, and reputation. These are all highly complex matters that are made all the more so in the era of rapid change that is documented by a 24-hour news cycle, in which damaging events can be widely shared globally in a matter of seconds, and where economic, social and political uncertainty can affect recruitment and capacity building. While it is impossible to predict some events, universities can ensure that certain measures are in place to mitigate and recover from adversity.
The rapid-fire news cycle and ubiquity of social media with its mass dissemination of information has caused difficulties across the sector in recent years. Recently several UK universities suffered considerable fall-out from the dissemination of videos and other news media showing serious instances of harassment, and in some cases these were distributed before university authorities were able to respond, causing further difficulties. Universities may now need to consider having a dedicated, rapid-response PR and legal team that can monitor news and social media, respond to alerts, and provide appropriate and timely responses via the same channels. PR teams need to be well connected to media outlets themselves, while legal briefing should also be on an ‘on-call’ basis when necessary.
Manage the narrative – both external and internal
Beyond crisis management there is also the ‘slow’ management of the public narrative of any given university, which has traditionally been the bailiwick of a university’s marketing and/or external relations department. While this continues to be the case, it is also clear that universities need to reflect on how to manage their narrative internally, i.e. to both staff and students. For instance, universities that undergo major structural transformations can rapidly lose the confidence of staff and even students if these are poorly handled, which can damage recruitment and retention of both staff and students down the line. Internal change management is not just about ‘selling’ a narrative to stakeholders, but is also about hearing their views, taking them on board, and being flexible and adaptive when a particular course of action and /or line of narrative is failing. And above all, such narratives must be underpinned by transparent, shared values that everyone – staff and student alike – can sign up to.
As well as responding to the recent past or the present moment, universities also need to look forwards in order to anticipate key events or developments coming down the line. An example of this is in the field of technology, where current advances in AI and in the Internet of Things, for instance, represent both a challenge and an opportunity to universities in terms of how these will be deployed across their own estates. Climate change and depletion of resources is another example: how might these affect infrastructure? Can on-going programmes of maintenance and estate planning anticipate where needs might lie in the future? And of course, the key to future proofing is to build capacity, to invest in staffing and build capacity, through governance that is not only responsive, but is analytical, and that has the tools to anticipate trends and future demands in expertise.
Drive policy, and look outwards
Having a say in public policy discussions is crucial for ensuring the sector’s resilience. This can happen at different levels, including building capacity via the REF impact agenda to make your university the first port of call when expertise is needed in specific areas, and by showing engagement and leadership in the collective university community and stepping forward to play a part in sector-based organisations (OfS, UUK, HEFCE, etc.). Beyond policy engagement, look to build connections through public engagement more broadly, in local and regional communities, as well as through the contribution universities can make to national and even global development. Universities are well placed to demonstrate the benefits of the expertise they nurture to a wide audience.
A further keystone of resilience is the ability to absorb the lessons of adverse events, to reflect upon them, and to use these lessons to guide future action. Universities need to have robust monitoring and review systems in place in order to analyse the event and the university’s response to it, and to extract from it key points for future development.
Of course, systemic resilience is not only about governance, but about building adaptive, flexible and anticipatory thinking throughout the institution. A university is only as good as the people who make it work, and a secure workforce that feels it has a stake in the both the present and the future of the institution will be the basis on which the institution can be proactive, anticipating change and planning action, as well as being agile in its response to events.