Sunday, 23 November 2014

Sometimes, on the way out of our personal Plato’s Cave a good Cheese Board is worth enjoying

It was a slightly fore-shortened working week last week. I was up in the House in Scotland for a long weekend, and didn't come back down South until late Monday evening. Having spent a wonderful weekend with friends, and True Confessions, I didn't open up the work, work files on the computer at all during the weekend, it was a rather headlong dash into the week. Tuesday came and went in a blur of meetings and must meet deadlines. Wednesday was different.

Wednesday was School Development (and School Congress) Day. These happen once a semester and last week’s event marked the 7th anniversary (19th Nov 2007) of my very first presentation to the School as Head of School. It was a strange experience preparing the presentation. I went back to that first presentation. In those days I was very comfortable in using metaphors in describing the world as I saw it. So it was perhaps no surprise that my very first presentation was entitled ‘Illuminating the Darkness: Escaping Plato’s Cave’. The first words of my presentation script were ‘the University and its environment are going through a great deal of change. The world is a turbulent place and however much we might crave stability, the turbulence is likely to continue – what we need to focus on is finding our way out of our Plato’s cave!’. For information onPlato’s Cave read here.

Even if I say so myself, the presentation was brilliant. Building upon my first 100 days of being in post and my analysis of where we were as School, I touched upon the: Bureaucracy and Busy-ness of our work; frustrating decision making; soliloquised student experiences; hierarchical heresies; technological timidity and triumphs; the autonomous academic; and the impact of horizontal scepticism. Yes I had lots more time to think more deeply about the world I inhabited than I perhaps have these days.

Of course the world has moved on but the challenges we face as a School have remained much the same. For a moment I was tempted to re-present that original presentation. It seemed apposite and I wondered if anyone would notice. The last slide of that first presentation displayed the names of all my colleagues working in the School at that time (surround yourself with great people). There were 154 names on the slide. Whilst many of those people were still working in the School, a great number are no longer with us. They have moved on to other Universities, retired or have sadly died. Today there are 243 colleagues working in the School. Back then we brought in £13m a year, now its £29m. Our student numbers have increased from 1779 to 4782.

Things have changed but some things remain the same. Friday saw me on my way to Abu Dhabi to scope out new opportunities for our programmes. I was travelling with my long time fellow Head of School Sue. It was her last trip as she is retiring at Christmas. We have shared some good times travelling together. On this occasion, being good corporate citizens we had eschewed our right to travel Business Class and had booked Economy tickets. Arriving at the airport we were greeted by a charming young man from Etihad who enquired if we were interested in upgrading to Business Class (for a small fee it has to be said). Sue and I looked at each other, and without hesitation said yes.

I am glad we did. We had space to reminisce and reflect on our shared histories. The space was important as it was a poignant and challenging day for Sue. A year ago to the day she suffered a great personal loss. The space meant we were able to spend some quality time in quiet celebration of some good times, personal, professional and for both of us, looking at what are likely to be very different futures. Of course being good corporate citizens we also put the 7 hour flight to good use and opened up the odd spread sheet (actually most spread sheets supplied by the Planning Department are odd) and did some work, work. 

Abu Dhabi – well it’s proving to be an interesting experience. Massive opportunities of course, but there are challenges too. Perhaps some of these are reflected in the exponential growth of the Emirate (as has been the case with others), a growth in real material terms (the city scape here is phenomenal) but also in expectations and societal aspirations. What’s clear, however, is that these are people not just looking to see if they can leave the shadows of Plato’s cave behind, but are determinedly striding towards the caves exit.