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From Being to Resilience: Being Prepared for What We Can’t Predict

11 Sep 2020 | Cindy Vallance In the third in the series of blogs and events exploring ‘Developing sustainable resilience in higher education’ – our member benefit theme for September 2020 – Cindy Vallance, Advance HE Assistant Director, Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery, showcases living examples of resilience.

I would like to pick up from my colleagues' recent blogs – Doug Parkin’s Developing Sustainable Resilience in Higher Education  which launched our Advance HE member benefit theme for September 2020 and Clare Pavitt’s on Inclusion and Resilience  (both members of the Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery team of Advance HE) that initiated this series of explorations. This blog connects this thinking to our July webinar, Higher Education - Who Belongs Here? by showcasing lived examples of resilience. Additional blogs will follow this month that explore resilience in teaching teams and resilient organisations and higher education, all in advance of the webinar and Twitter chat that will enable members’ direct engagement with the theme. Details of the upcoming events are provided below.  

How can those in both formal and informal leadership roles in higher education providers today prepare for what we can’t predict? COVID-19 has demonstrated that there continues to be enormous uncertainty about the future and has exposed the very real vulnerability of those who are already in marginalised groups; those that do not hold privileged majority group positions. We are in uncharted territory and we will create our individual and collective futures through the approaches and decisions we take now.

How can we in HE position ourselves so that we do not simply return to any kind of old ‘normal’ – like a rubber band stretched nearly but perhaps not quite to breaking point – with the best that can be hoped for a return to its former dimensions? Instead, how can we grow our individual and collective resilience to create environments where all can feel they belong, thrive and grow? What kind of energy, attitude and mind set does growing leadership capabilities and organisational resilience require? While attention is often focused on what we should do to encourage resilience, we should also ask ourselves how should we be in leading resilience? Given that the pandemic has highlighted inequalities, how can we seize the opportunity to craft a future that is more caring and inclusive?

In our July 2020 Higher Education – Who Belongs Here global webinar we spoke to three senior university leaders who reflected on their approaches to creating environments of belonging – approaches which in turn can support new ways of being and the growth of resilience.

Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of Witwatersrand, South Africa and incoming Director of SOAS, UK in January 2021 acknowledged the importance of recognising the heterogeneity of staff and students who make up all university communities. Sometimes the interests of these communities align but often they are in tension. Therefore, a fundamental responsibility of any individual in a leadership role is to enable conversations, to manage trade-offs and to create cohesiveness. Critical to this work is the ability to listen and pay close attention to a diverse array of voices – including those who may all too often be silent or even silenced. Adam’s concept of radical pragmatism means keeping a close eye on the need for social justice within the world that exists. He advised the importance of paying attention to the lived realities of those around us, to listen intently to the direct experiences of those who have not been heard and to act in partnership with them to create new solutions together.

Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, shared her leadership approach to create a climate of deliberate and proactive inclusivity and transformation; one that is not just against racism, sexism or about polarising and dividing people into binary camps, but one that is pro diversity. She highlighted that to change mind sets is ‘not a walk in the park’ – it requires fierce championing for true change to take place and one group of people in elite circles working only with each other to solve the problems of today will not create solutions that work more widely. An ideological leadership outlook requires an examination of how we understand the politics of privilege, the power of privilege and the history of patriarchal institutions. She shared how her personal experience has shaped her own leadership. She challenged us to ask ourselves how often does assimilation win over assertiveness and to consider: how can those in leadership roles stand their ground in support of enablers of change; to be authentic and unapologetic forces for change themselves; to be determined, decisive, and fearless in efforts to align education to society?

Nael Alami, Provost of MUBS, Beirut, Lebanon shared some of the challenges of the environment he was grappling with at the time including gender bias, refugee harassment and a failing economy exacerbated by COVID-19. He shared the account of how those who worked within the University joined the students on the streets in the autumn 2019 protests and that they returned to the University only when the students were ready to do so. Nael focused on the concept of empathy, of listening, of validating others’ experiences and respecting where others are coming from. He shared his thoughts on how to create a system to enable voices to be heard, gaining credibility by creating systematic listening environments and shared governance. He shared how their small specialist institution changed their committees to make decisions through an approach of simple majority votes and how they engaged actively with students to bring together both elected and random volunteer students to enable more voices to be heard. He discussed principles around building credibility and trust, creating officially sanctioned conversations structured to promote social equality and engaging students in meaningful cooperative engagement activities within the university and the surrounding community. Nael also highlighted that leaders must be ready to engage in sometimes painful discussions but that it is only possible to be inclusive if leaders are ready to face these challenges on behalf of their organisations.

Of course, we are all now well aware of the horrific explosion in Beirut’s port area on 4 August which occurred less than two weeks following Nael’s participation in the July webinar. Nael will return as one of our speakers at the 24 September webinar accompanied by two UK-based speakers. How can organisational leaders create an environment of resilience when faced with crises of such a high order of magnitude of human suffering and loss?

So - how should we be in leading to create organisational resilience?

According to these leaders, the qualities of listening and paying close attention to a wide array of voices and then working in close partnership together is critical. Standing our ground in support of enablers of change means being authentic, determined and decisive. At the same time, being prepared to have difficult and painful conversations including acknowledging the limitations of our own experiences and whatever privileges we might have. This means being prepared to learn, being open to challenge, being humble and being willing to move out of our own comfort zones. Maintaining a sense of empathy, compassion and trust with staff and students alike enables us face and overcome challenges that we cannot predict and to find a way to continue to thrive and to grow in our organisations. 

Finally, a word about self-compassion in supporting resilience. Granting ourselves permission to look after our own wellbeing and to be kind to ourselves while we also take responsibility to continue to grow and deepen our own self-knowledge, is critical to maintaining resilience. How do we need to be to create a sense of shared agency and leadership with others? To be at our best, we need to take care of ourselves.


Developing Sustainable Resilience in Higher Education – Advance HE, September 2020 Member Benefits theme

The suite of benefits for this theme will consist of:

  • A blog series focused on developing sustainable resilience, which began with an introductory piece by Doug Parkin and then four shorter follow-on blogs leading up to the webinar below:
    • Inclusion and resilience, Dr Clare Pavitt
    • From ‘being’ to ‘resilience’,(above)
    • The art of the resilient teaching team,
    • Resilient organisations and higher education.
  • Webinar – Thursday, 24th September 2020, from 08.30 to 10.00 BST.

    This webinar will explore and discuss developing sustainable resilience with a guest speaker taking each of the three levels (individual, team and organisation) to share experiences, approaches and reflections, particularly related to surviving and thriving in the current pandemic age.
  • Twitter chat – Tuesday, 29 September 2020, from 16.30 to 18.30 BST.

    A Twitter chat to consolidate upon the webinar and for the community of participants to share their own tools, tips, techniques and experiences for developing sustainable resilience.

Forthcoming Advance HE events and initiatives related to this theme:

Find out more about our work in Fostering Inclusion


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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