Six weeks into the closure of our University, we continue to adapt to a new set of uncertainties. The disruption to our daily lives, and to our normal ways of working, has been enormous. Beneath it all is a public health emergency that has made colleagues, friends and relatives seriously ill, and has in many cases led to personal tragedy. My thoughts, as ever, are with those who have been directly affected.
I am grateful to our collegiate community for its patience, hard work and solidarity in response to the crisis. The University is making every effort to ensure that it continues to offer staff and students – particularly the most vulnerable – the support they need.
I was reassured to hear, for example, that despite a huge increase in the demand for non-medical help since we moved into lockdown, our Disability Resource Centre has continued to offer mentoring, study assistance and study skills sessions. The good news is that it continues to meet the increasing demand and to operate effectively.
Nor have we stopped essential activities like reaching out to prospective students. Over the weekend, Prof David Cardwell, our Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Strategy and Planning, and Dr Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, took part in a dedicated University of Cambridge webinar, part of the Virtual University Fair China 2020. Some 6,500 Chinese students tuned in, and a follow-up session has been organised to answer the hundreds of questions submitted online.
Planning for recovery
We do not yet know what the months ahead will bring. The University’s actions will be determined by the state of the public health crisis, and by evolving government policy. But intensive planning is already underway to ensure that we are able to move towards resuming as much of our activity as possible, albeit in adjusted form.
A protocol for the reopening of buildings is being drafted by the Buildings Taskforce to ensure that, once government restrictions are lifted, we can re-occupy essential research facilities in a safe and orderly manner.
As far as education is concerned, we are working to ensure that the collegiate University will be providing teaching and support for learning from the start of the 2020/21 academic year. No one should expect a return to teaching and learning exactly as they were before the pandemic, but we are thinking through what the academic year might look like – and what the implications are likely to be for staff and students alike – in a post lock-down world. We hope to share plans with you in the coming days.
My message last week touched on detailed scenario-planning taking place across the collegiate University. Much work has taken place since. Following thorough and wide-ranging discussions with colleagues from central offices, Faculties and Departments and Colleges, we have identified four scenarios for the months ahead, ranging from the worst imaginable case to more optimistic sets of circumstances.
I must emphasise that these scenarios are not forecasts. As tools for planning, they present us with a range of likely or potential issues, and help us consider – and better prepare for – a range of responses. Over the next few days, senior colleagues will be sharing these scenarios with teams across the collegiate University to inform the decision-making in the months ahead.
Communicating in the times of Coronavirus
These messages are one of the ways in which I try to keep you all updated as we navigate the pandemic. Communicating frequently, openly and through various channels has never been so important, so I have made some time to speak to some specialised media outlets.
Last Friday I was interviewed by CAM FM, the digital radio station managed by Cambridge students. Their "Bridge the Gap" programme aims to keep students connected to the University during the period of confinement, and I was pleased to contribute to that effort.
More recently, I spoke to Dr Chris Smith, a clinical virologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, for an episode of his The Naked Scientists podcasts.
I am always encouraged to see the many and varied ways in which colleagues have risen to the challenges of the current crisis. The breadth and depth of expertise has been apparent in Cambridge contributions to tackling the pandemic, whether it is developing designs for safer emergency hospitals or producing the analysis about the economic consequences of ending the lock-down too soon.
More than ever, I have found the University webpages to be a source of interesting and highly topical information – from the profile of a researcher using mathematical modelling to understand the spread of infectious disease, to glimpses of life under lock-down for famous alumni in Cambridge history, to the Talking Politics podcast turning its attention to "lockdownomics"
Superb initiatives are being launched by our students, including the Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative, which connects university students across the UK with young people in need of tutoring for pre-GCSE, GCSE or A-Level exams, so that no child loses out on opportunities for education as a result of school closures.
Kettle’s Yard has asked many of the contemporary artists whose work it has exhibited to reflect – in art and in words – on what the period of enforced seclusion has meant for them. Here is the contribution by the first of the artists to answer the call – Colombia’s Óscar Murillo, currently living in the village of La Paila, for whom lock-down has been "a time to rethink and redirect".
One of the more enjoyable parts of communicating through these messages has been to share the films of colleagues adapting to new (and varied) working environments. Here is the latest.
I will write again next week. Until then, stay safe.
Professor Stephen J Toope