Unexpected experiences
“It fills me with enormous gratitude that – at the moment of greatest challenge – our collegiate community rallied and rose to the occasion.”
Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor

Over the past few months, weve heard stories of resilience and creativity from individuals across the Cambridge community. In the final article in the series, Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope shares why these give him a sense of optimism for the future.

To remark that the past year has been unusual is an understatement. Things that seemed unimaginable this time last year – the clear and present risk to public health, the shutting down of our institutions, the cutting off of our social contacts – were, quite suddenly, the new pattern of our lives.

When, a year ago, I said that “Change is certainly something we must actively address as a collegiate University”… our current situation was not what I had in mind. One hopes that institutional change can come from within, but sometimes change is thrust upon us.

And so it fills me with enormous gratitude that – at the moment of greatest challenge – our collegiate community rallied and rose to the occasion.

Looking back through the personal accounts that comprise the Unexpected Experiences series has re-affirmed my strong belief that our community is built on the unshakeable foundations of creativity, resilience and resourcefulness.

College colleagues – from Heads of House, Senior Tutors and Bursars to nurses, domestic staff, catering managers and porters – were swift in responding when our students were asked to return to their homes – and made huge efforts to care for those who stayed behind. It was heart-warming to hear from the catering manager Matt Rowe who provided emergency food supplies to students, and the Master of St Edmund’s, Catherine Arnold, who learned how to be an emergency porter.

Facilities managers, heads of institutions and departmental administrators were extraordinarily effective in closing down more than 300 buildings safely and securely – and later, in managing the fraught process of reopening most of them. Safety officer Katy Pitts told us how she could probably now write the How-To manual on re-opening a biochemistry department in a global pandemic.

Colleagues in Faculties, Departments, Colleges and the University’s Education Services and Information Services worked tirelessly to modify the ways in which teaching and assessments were delivered to our students. And of course the students themselves had to adapt. I was especially inspired by Toni Fola-Alade, the finalist who went offline for two months despite living alone at times and now says he “will look back at this period as one of the happiest and proudest achievements of my life.”

All of us adapted almost overnight to new ways of working. Our Human Resources division produced guidance and developed new systems to ensure business-critical activities could continue. The University Counselling Service moved quickly to offer remote support – an experience that will influence the service going forwards, according to Head of Staff Counselling, Michelle Reynolds.

It has been a joy to see our libraries, museums, Botanic Garden and Festivals teams offering online resources at a time when we were all thirsty for beauty and for a sense of connection: George Doji, Beverley Glover and Lucy Spokes tell us more.

In response to the urgent need for diagnostic testing, and in partnership with AstraZeneca and GSK, a brilliant team gathered to assemble a testing facility largely staffed by volunteers like May Yeo and others from across the University.

Over the summer, scores of colleagues were involved in setting up and managing the University’s sites for testing of symptomatic staff and students. A unique programme of asymptomatic pooled testing for students in College accommodation has now begun, as Mike Weekes explains.

When the COVID-related disruption of open days and national exams caused disarray, our Admissions teams pulled off the extraordinary feat of ensuring that all students who made their offer were admitted for 2020 if they still wanted to come. Glen Rangwala and Sam Lucy were at the forefront of overcoming these challenges.

Meanwhile, our researchers jumped into action. Dozens of new research projects began on the nature and transmission of the virus, on finding therapeutics and a vaccine, and on understanding the impact of anything from mental health to social behaviour. When lockdown was in operation, some like Simone Eringfeld pivoted their research with agility, while others like cancer biologist Richard Gilbertson took the opportunity to start a new initiative. Many of our experts have been looking at recovery beyond the pandemic.

There was no end to the creativity shown by our community in its efforts to see us through the critical period. I wish to express my profound thanks to all – students, staff, alumni and friends of the University – for efforts over the past seven months.

The world has changed, and so must we. It is likely we must live with COVID for the foreseeable future, and as a community we must learn to manage it.

And while we cannot eliminate all risk – that is impossible – we are doing everything in our power to minimise it. I look to the coming year with some trepidation, I admit – but also a huge sense of possibility. Through moments of joy, of tragedy and crisis, I have felt we are building an ever-stronger community.

For now, we must keep our eyes fixed firmly on the future, forging ahead with the necessary work to make the University an even better place to study, to work, and to engage in the creation, curation and communication of knowledge.

Words: Stephen J Toope
Design: Zoe Smith
Photography: Nick Saffell
Typography: Balvir Friers
Series Editor: Louise Walsh