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blue monday or blue skies? a university's search for meaning

The end of January each year is an unusual time even in a normal year. In the northern hemisphere, the end of January sees some of the coldest and darkest days. It is when credit card payments, for the holiday that has since passed, become due. The new year’s resolutions from just a few weeks ago may have already lapsed. And some of us are left with the new gym club membership we won’t use. The next holidays might be a long way off, and the three weeks we have spent reflecting on work, life, and what we have done with a year, are about to be overtaken by a fear that a treadmill is about to start turning again. And when we venture out on any journey to work, the congestion is at a peak as schools, university students, and workers return, in many cases forlornly, to places they would rather not be.

Having the luxury of being in the Southern Hemisphere makes the contrast seem stark at the best of times. Imagine what it must be like to return to academic life in the UK or North America this week in 2021? Our thoughts are with all of those facing such genuinely bleak days in such places.

The phenomenon of how the combined effects of all the various challenges of the post-holiday blues, come together in the third week of January, got spuriously termed Blue Monday in the UK in 2005. An equation, and then a second variant, were published showing the combined effects on national happiness levels of variables such as motivation deficits, trip delays, debts, time until next holidays. It was rightly debunked as pseudoscience and nonsense. It turned out to be a marketing campaign from a UK-based travel company trying to get people to book summer holidays.

The idea that anyone can tell us whether we are happy, or have hope, or not, is also nonsense. We wake up each morning and it is us that decides whether we are going to be happy. What does all of that mean to staff, students, and leaders of our universities, returning to work or study or leading our institutions, at this time of year, in 2021? Perhaps it is an opportune time to change the lens and think about assessing the overall health of the institution rather than exposing ourselves to more of the same types of data on revenue lost and staff cuts. And use that different lens as a basis for doing something about it.

This year is the most unusual of times for sure. We can choose to wake each day to the latest doomscroll of local outbreaks and global events, and await the latest announcements of university finances and job losses, with real fear. And while the prospect of international students returning is getting no nearer, waking up each day with a focus on assessing ways to embrace opportunity rather than reacting to the covid19 crisis may provide the life support needed at this time rather than reacting to it. We all wish for our great Institutions to become happier, healthier and stronger places.

A great place to start may be implementing a positive organisational mindset, taking a realistic sense of how well we sit in a strategic and cultural sense, looking at what we can do in a new, fresh and innovative way, and leading with passion, purpose and imagination.

Some of the leaders in our universities have been appointed, nurtured and matured through their academic records, ambassadorial qualities, statesmanship, and reliability, which may have served them well in stable times. Fewer were chosen based on how radical their thinking was and their capacity for transformational change. They have not been the key criteria university councils have adopted in a VC search. This might seem strange when you consider that VCs lead institutions full of young people, developing new ideas, challenging convention, and fermenting innovation and radical change.

If 2021 is not the year when our universities transform it will almost certainly be the year they are disrupted. I think it most probable that both will happen. This might be the best time to try to change our focus from the bleak environment out there, move on from the grief of the lost revenue, and the continued lack of international students, and give up on the idea that government is going to bale us out. If we really think normal or anything like it is coming back, or that last year’s strategy just needs a tweak we are almost certainly wrong. Maybe we should re-read “Who Moved My Cheese” and “Out of the Maze” again quickly and see this for what it is, the year of opportunity. I spent part of the holiday re-reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. It is a story of how the human spirit, at the most challenging of times, can identify a purpose in life to feel positive about, and then can immersively imagine that outcome. This might hold some pointers to what is needed by all our staff and our leaders right now. The next blue sky is not far away.

We saw some of this way of thinking from Professor John Germov who, as Acting VC of Charles Sturt University, kicked off our 2021 season of HEDx podcasts last week. You can hear his interview here. He used our HEDx Health Check to verify that, actually his university is in a position to make plans to do new things for their local community, staff and students this year. He is looking beyond the most recent financial data, required under the compliance of Annual Reports, from a year when everyone’s data inevitably looks bad. He sees hope because he wants to, not because anyone told him he should. Which version of “what are we going to do in 2021” are we each going to buy into from the advantage of our position in the world?

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