To reimagine the future universities need less efficiency and more care

When it comes to organisational change in universities, Kate Tapper believes the secret is creating a space to enhance the capacity to care.

Kate Tapper is a leadership coach working with clients across Europe and the United States.

Let’s reimagine the future of universities. How does that sound to you? For some people, senior leaders in particular, it sounds deliciously inviting, irresistible in fact. A collective imagining where our minds can soar with possibility. What a blessed relief from the tedium of operational logistics and immediate decisions.

For others, it strikes a cold blow to the heart. The reality of colleagues’ collective exhaustion and anxiety looms too large; the distance between strategic possibilities and lived reality is just too great. We are all utterly drained by the pandemic and ready for spring renewal but we have different appetites for change.

Of course, whether we like it or not, change is already in the pipeline – new ways of working, new technologies, new curricula, it’s all coming. In the meantime, we are tired, tired, tired. And our own renewal demands care, not just self-care but care from those around us – our teams, our managers and those making decisions that shape our future.

Why caring matters

But care is not a very university-ish word, is it? It belongs to another sector – health maybe or childcare? We like to think that universities are caring places but it’s not their showpiece. It’s not what we lead with. We lead with clear-headed reason, calm reassurance, considered authority, and rational thinking.

But care is central to pretty much every university mission statement. Universities pronounce that they care about students, care about staff, care about teaching quality and research integrity, care about their communities, their impact and their footprint. So, who is doing all this caring? What does it look like? How much does it cost? How is it valued? How much capacity is there in the system for anyone to feel enough to care?

The thing is, caring takes time and energy. It takes time to ask how someone is and listen, really listen, to the answer. It takes time to help someone with a problem. It takes time to go to group events and take an interest in others’ work. It is so much quicker to direct someone to sharedmailbox@, to send a link, to “streamline” one’s diary. In fact, caring looks so inefficient, it is vulnerable to being cut altogether when we imagine new ways of doing things.

You will have seen this insidious creep yourself over recent years. Before the pandemic, did you notice people meeting less frequently in the coffee area? Did you find it hard to get people to go to “optional” talks or events? Were people unavailable to chat, hunkered down over a desk every lunchtime? Were the corridors quieter? It’s not that people are all uncaring and selfish, it’s that their capacity to care has been eroding for years.

For pure survival, we find ourselves slashing away at anything non-essential, because there is just too much to do. When this happens, you’ll notice it is the same people who do the caring – the kind colleagues who leave their door open, who help you out, respond to the student, or attend the guest lecture.

Be warned, those kind people are increasingly asking whether they can continue. Being kind and being clever are not mutually exclusive. They see how others march forward, advancing their career and their prospects without a care, and wonder if they should adopt the same strategy.

And here’s another warning. A big one in CAPITAL LETTERS with flashing lights around it. This is not about the university dictating or administering care. Rather, it is about creating the space that people need to spontaneously care for each other.

Building a better way

Caring feels good, we want to care. People collaborate naturally when they care, sparking new ideas, crossing boundaries and silos, motivated by what they care about. People excel when they care about their work. They think bigger, achieve more. When people are cared for, they grow, flourish and fulfil their potential. Care is not a nice-to-have cosy feel-good factor, it is essential, and we need to cultivate it.

To do this, we need to end our love affair with efficiency. Engineers, ecologists and economists can all tell you that efficiency is the enemy of resilience. We have made such a god of efficiency that we find it hard to even imagine it might be a bad idea. But if you make things too efficient, too lean, too productive, then there is no slack in the system.

If there’s slightly more pressure than expected, the thing (or person) breaks. When there is no give in our schedule, our capacity to respond with care to others shrinks. We spiral inwards, protecting ourselves, just holding it together is all we can do.

As we think about the future of universities, we must not allow efficiency to be the driver of change. Instead, we need to ask:

  • What gets valued around here (I mean really valued, not a list of values on paper)?
  • How do our tiny interactions show care?
  • How do we make time for other people’s problems?
  • What action must we take to address systemic problems?
  • How do leaders show care?

And, underpinning it all…

  • What will we choose not to do, so that we have room to care?

We need to take a long hard look at detached, logic-driven thinking and ask ourselves if it can deliver all that universities say they care about. If not, then we need to re-examine how we see, acknowledge, value, and reward care and stop leaving it to warm-hearted and undervalued staff who take on all the emotional labour.

To build capacity for care, we must stop franchising it out and build it together. Only then can we become a resilient community that can innovate, reimagine and respond for a better future.

At Wonkfest Digital on 9-10 June we’ll be thinking through how universities can Build Back Higher after the Covid-19 pandemic. Find out more about Wonkfest Digital and get your ticket here

2 responses to “To reimagine the future universities need less efficiency and more care

  1. Kate. I love this article. It reflects so clearly conversations with leaders at all levels. As you say, we need space to be better resourced and more caring. This reflects some conversations I’ve had with leaders reflecting on the last 14 months, and the need to create more space by having even more clarity on organisational and individual purpose, and not chasing every opportunity. This requires a decision to add more strategic thinking and reflection time into the diary i.e. creating space, which can also support a more compassionate and caring culture. I know many reading this may have just taught 30 hours of lectures in a week and will wonder how on earth they can create that space. Just like mindfulness, when you are busiest and don’t have time is when you need some thinking time the most. Be caring and compassionate to yourself, and create space to be caring and compassionate to others.

  2. The greatest changes that I’ve experienced in university life happened with the personal personnel department became the (in)Human Resources directorate, to go back to a personally connected personnel department instead of a machinery managing edifice where we are little more than cogs in the machine to be used, all too often abused and when worn out disposed of as cheaply as possible, would be a good start.

    Many of those in the highest roles are selected by council, a body filled with business people. based on CV statements such as ‘an agent for change’, which usually means ruthless and uncaring towards existing employee’s, especially those who are less ‘efficient’, though going by the number of NDA’s in the sector some have won out against them. The drive for ever greater efficiency, doing more with less, is now also showing up in the numbers of ill health retirements, something universities and USS can ill afford.

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