By Julia Christensen Hughes, April 2020
Julia Christensen Hughes is founding (former) Dean of the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, University of Guelph. She serves on the board of the GRLI and is currently dedicating her time to systems level change that will help to advance “business as a force for good”. @LangDean_1
The last several weeks have challenged us in ways most of us could previously never have imagined. We’re worried for our friends and loved ones; for all the people working in harm’s way, keeping our hospitals, grocery stores and other essential services operating; and for the future of humanity.
As members of the academy, we worry too for our universities, business schools, students and colleagues. For those of us with both formal leadership accountability and the emotional and intellectual energy, it’s not too soon to start sharing what strategies we are employing as well as considering how we might help shape a better future. Together, we can explore what is essential now, and what may emerge as the months unfold.
Through social media and countless Zoom meetings I’ve witnessed a creative outpouring of sense-making from fellow academics and practitioners in the global responsibility arena through articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos: exploring a “green reboot”, a “hard reset”, “four possible futures”. I have particularly welcomed participating in a movement called #GoodAfterCovid19.
Perhaps you’ve also noticed themes of renewed understanding, a reawakening of sorts, of what “really matters”. The concepts of responsible business and the common good — once relegated to niche or nice-to-have conversations — have been emerging in mainstream media. People are astounded to see what was once thought to be impossible emerging, as past practices are being challenged and overturned. Some of what I have observed, includes:
- The realization that we are all in this together. We need each other. Locally and globally.
- Medical Officers of Health directing government response, contributing to the growing recognition of the criticality of science and math to understand and mitigate our emergency.
- Academic researchers collaborating in new, interdisciplinary ways to solve society’s most pressing problems, while others are admitting to the “triviality” of past “scholarly” work.
- The redefinition of “essential”. Essential worker. Essential supply chains. Essential knowledge. Essential travel. Essential work. Essential consumption.
- A new appreciation for the importance of the arts in supporting resilience and community.
- Overturning laws, policy and practices that prevented the sensible from occurring. The recognition of the importance and possibility of well-funded health care for all, a living wage, and housing for the homeless. The impossible made possible. Over the phone medical consultations, foreign trained healthcare workers now being allowed to work in their newly adopted countries.
- The power of non-partisan decision-making in support of assistance for the most vulnerable, including in Canada emergency cash distributions, moratoriums on mortgage and rent payments for SMEs and the unemployed.
- (Some) business owners responding with generous action: cutting their own pay while keeping employees on the payroll (despite lack of work); empty hotels providing shelter for the homeless or women and children escaping violence at home; distilleries making hand sanitizer; local manufacturers retooling to produce essential medical supplies; grocery stores innovating to protect employee and customer health.
- The joy and possibility of environmental regeneration. Where consumption and factories have been shut down, where airlines have stopped flying, cruise ships have stopped polluting, cars have stopped moving, there are reports of blue skies, of clear water, of fish in canals, of people walking, biking, jogging in city cores (at a distance from each other). Are we moving closer to a “green new deal”?
- Increased appreciation for food sovereignty and the importance of robust local supply chains for medical supplies. A new appreciation for the risk inherent in a “Just in Time” system.
- Navigating to an “on-line” reality, for employees working from home and students and faculty creating new learning environments, underscoring the essentiality of reliable Internet service for all.
Over the past several weeks I’ve been drawn to conversations that have explored these issues and proposed ways to protect the most vulnerable while also beginning to imagine both a “new normal” and a better future.
The upcoming GRLI Deans & Directors Cohort will provide a supportive place to explore these ideas and the questions that follow, with thoughtful colleagues not only in our roles as academic leaders, but as members of society, committed to helping build a better tomorrow:
- Students. Our students are trying to complete their semester/year/degrees in difficult if not impossible circumstances, particularly where the Internet is substandard. What steps are effectively being taken to support them logistically and emotionally (undergrads and graduate students) at this difficult time?
- Faculty & Staff. Our faculty and staff are also adapting to new online learning and assessment environments. Many are struggling with their research productivity, while trying to homeschool children, look after elderly parents and deal with their own grief about what is happening in the world. What best practice is emerging?
The Immediate Future
3. Career Paths, Budgets & Shifts in Future Demand. With an economy suddenly turned upside down (staggering unemployment, a devalued stock market, government debt), and global travel that has come to a halt, what lies ahead for our business schools? What employment support will we provide to our recent graduates and alumni? What do we anticipate for our budgets? What about our donors? What do we anticipate in terms of student demand, including from international students?
A More Relevant, Possible Future
4. Potential Pivots in Curriculum, Research and Community Engagement. What do we think this means for reimagining the role of business schools in society? In who, what, where, why and how we teach and research? Are there possible positive outcomes that we might accentuate, encourage, nurture?
I invite fellow academic leaders to contribute their wisdom and to join the important and ongoing work of the Deans & Directors Cohort.
Julia Christensen Hughes is a Higher Education Disruptor and was the Founding Dean of the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, University of Guelph. Julia serves on the board of the GRLI and is committed to advancing business as a force for good.