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Having a new strategy coming into 2020, based on the values of its people, would have served a university community well. We all needed a true north to navigate the turbulence of a pandemic. Having an unclear strategy, and poor engagement of staff, may have left leaders and their staff drifting and directionless by contrast.

Even the most firmly grounded strategy has faced the most significant challenges from events that were thrown up in the last 2 years. Almost all universities suffered loss of revenue from international students that impacted plans to develop infrastructure and make other investments in capacity. All had to move to online learning, and reinterpret means of providing student experiences in the light of operating restrictions and student expectations. Many had to review the nature and range of offerings in the light of cost pressures, and most had research disrupted. In addition, all had to recognise the acute needs of their staff, students and partners as they dealt with uncertainty and anxiety. This required universities to develop leadership capacity and adjust their style, to keep staff engaged and committed.

At best, strategies maintained their overall direction. The least impacted strategies would have scaled back some elements that required resources, sped up elements where the need had become more urgent, or rebalanced for new priorities that emerged. The leaders of strategies in our institutions became significantly focused on maintaining hope and confidence of staff and student communities. This came at a time when it was most difficult to deliver either.

Any universities that lost sight of their moral compass, and their mission and purpose, at these times of stormy weather, will have exposed their crews to a perilous voyage. The height of the pandemic required compassion and care in leadership to ensure that required organisational changes and restructures were carried out with care.

Staying true to strategies through the crisis, helped to create a greater sense of direction and reassurance for some up until now. However, the ability to flex and rise above the short-term pressures, to plot a new innovative path to the future has also been needed.

At Griffith, one element of the new strategy was the creation of interdisciplinary research ‘beacons’ which draw together staff from across the university with external partners to tackle some of the important questions of our time. So far, Griffith has announced beacons in climate adaptation, disrupting violence, and inclusive futures for people with disabilities. They all draw on a variety of types of expertise to answer ever more pressing questions about the type of societies we live in and the future of the planet we live on. When we bring together experts in engineering, the arts, sociology and public health, we have the opportunity to create new ways of looking at old problems and to develop creative solutions.

Our societies are going to need universities that are creative and innovative now more than ever and the sector is committed to innovation despite all the many challenges that it faces. This requires universities, working with partners, to be innovative in the commercial and research sense that is the focus of government at present. It also requires universities to be thoughtful about their own missions and how they go about achieving them.

Inclusive excellence, for example, as advocated for as part of the New American University and the Fifth Wave of Universities by Crow and Dabars in the US, celebrates allowing all students to realise their potential. It places that goal alongside other distinguishing features of academic enterprise and community focus.

While the solutions that work well in the United States can not always be directly replicated in the Australian context, the notion that universities can be committed to inclusion at the same time as pursuing excellence in teaching and research is one that has great salience. It is one to which all of the members of the Innovative Research Universities, for example, are committed.

Griffith’s strategy, reflecting these priorities, is called Creating a Better Future for All and responds to its founding principles and values. These are of access to high-quality university education for under-served communities, just relations with First Nations people, and a commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Some universities were born to be different and in cases such as Griffith University, had founding statutes requiring them to offer courses distinct from local, more established competitors of the time. This created an underpinning culture of innovation and a distinct purpose that in some cases has endured almost 50 years later.

As the Innovative Research Universities reflect on their distinctiveness, as a group of universities, and how it can serve them in these current times, it is evident that innovation is more than just a part of their name. Innovation has been made the necessity of the hour, and offers a means of guiding engaged staff through the cultural challenges of the current period. It gives an opportunity to serve a critically important broader community purpose that is now expected of all universities.

We discussed these strategic issues facing Griffith, the IRU, and all universities in our conversation on the HEDx podcast last week that you can access here. As we emerge out of the crises of short-term restrictions and lockdowns, innovation will be key to exploring new ways of serving students and partners, and to engaging our staff. And it will thrive when a part of strategies, that are fuelled by a culture, that is based on shared values. Staying true to a shared, innovative, and well comunicated direction, will see leaders inspire staff to follow them with hope, confidence and purpose.

First published in Campus Review on 23rd February 2022
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-founder of HEDx
Professor Carolyn Evans, Vice Chancellor and President of Griffith University and Chair of Innovative Research Universities

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