As might be expected of it, our news media remains in “gotcha” mode, and it is swift to report acts of selfishness and greed in this pandemic. It makes, and rightly so, an exception for Health workers and those who keep the shops running; but it could, and should do more to celebrate what one might call “acts of quiet heroism.” It is in that vein that I will write about more parochial matters than usual.
Two weeks ago I came home, as usual from University; well, not quite “as usual.” The railway termini I traverse were eerily quiet, and when I bought my usual bite to eat for the train, the cheerful man at the kiosk told me he would not be working on the morrow as “business is right down.” Little did we know then what was to come, though, having a portent of it, I had taken care to pack a case as though I were going home for a vacation; though I knew that was was coming would be far from that.
Like most universities, mine exists to teach, and that teaching is mostly done face-to-face. My colleagues love their teaching and give so much to our students; but was it possible to replicate this on-line? It was with that conundrum that a few of us had been struggling for the previous two weeks. The previous day we had announced that we would be moving to on-line teaching after the week-end. It was a bold promise – could we keep it? Did it matter? This was a pandemic, surely the only thing that mattered was that people were “safe?”
As a Catholic university we celebrate our “ethos”; this would test it – and with it, us. A major restructure two years previously had done something odd for our times, it had aimed at the principle of subsidiarity – letting academics have as much freedom as possible to decide how they did what they did best. Would that survive in this time of trial? How would staff rise to the occasion? How would students respond? It was not as though most of us were adepts at this on-line learning lark. The Senior team had been meeting daily to plan for what was coming – but all I could tell my colleagues was to hold their breath and wait to see what the first week of on-line teaching would bring. As things turned out, it was the dog that did not bark in the night.
Assuredly not everything technical went smoothly, but something more important did – the spirit of generosity which we pride ourselves on cultivating. There was plenty to ignite that fractious spirit which rejoices in pointing out the shortcomings of others, and which asks why x or y was not thought of in advance, as well as more than enough material for anyone who wanted to blame someone else. None of that happened; that spirit proved to be a damp squib. Not only did colleagues prove themselves even more innovative and adaptable than even I had expected (and some of the examples we have collected of good practice are simply amazing), they were generous in mutual aid, good temper and generosity of spirit. If, as they do, times like this test whether you live your values, then colleagues – and students – came through.
Conscious that not all our students would have laptops, our IT team sourced and supplied them to those who needed it; its members went above and beyond the call of duty in helping staff and students. Our students mucked in an got on with it, responding to the evident enthusiasm and “can do” spirit of their teachers. I have never felt so proud of leading my teams.
For those students who had to stay in residence, the cleaning and catering staff continued to provide the usual service – albeit at a distance. Some of us even learned what 2 metres looks like! The security staff were there as ever, doing what they do best – providing a reassuring presence for anyone who needed it, knowing that colleagues in Counselling and Student Welfare were on hand for those who needed it.
What emerged warmed the heart. We really were a community. We pulled together with but one thought – that our students needed us and needed to continue with their studies. From the lowest to highest in the hierarchy we all served, doing whatever was necessary. We did not simply our duty, but whatever the spirit of service demanded. I had wondered what a Catholic university could look like – and amidst the fog of war I saw the vision emerge. Multiple acts of quiet heroism motivated by the ethos which tells us that everyone matters, and that there is no act of service which is too much. The chapel may have had to close, but we, those of all faiths and none, were out there evidencing the spirit of a Catholic university.
Nor, of course, are we the only ones. As I talk (remotely, of course) to colleagues elsewhere, I see the same story. Universities (and their managers) often get a bad press, and sometimes it is even deserved, but what I see (remotely) of my own university and others, makes me want to send up a quiet prayer of gratitude.
I miss walking the historic grounds of my university, and I miss my colleagues and the endless cups of coffee while we try to put things to rights, and I miss the students and their enthusiasm. But I know that these things will be there to come back to. But I know something even better, that we have drawn together as a community in a way we can all take pride in. What faces us yet, we cannot fully know, but with such a spirit, I dare hope that our patroness – the Queen of Heaven – will not think we have failed to rise to the occasion.