21 Jul 2022
The Covid-19 pandemic has made even more real the role of universities in and for society. We always knew that our walls are not impermeable and that we are not immune from the events of the world. We also, in turn, have a profound impact in and for the world, a world where we felt less close but more open to each other.
Covid-19 has created many issues where universities are the solution. Where there are problems, we provide science. And humanity. Where there is fake news, we provide evidence. Where there is inequality, we provide access to opportunities. We have a responsibility to do better in all of these.
Over the centuries, pandemics have changed the landscape of human life. The catastrophic Black Death of the mid-14th century unleashed profound economic and social changes that created the conditions for the Renaissance. The search for a vaccine to combat the (unfairly labelled) Spanish Flu led to the development of other vaccines, and to our understanding of the nature of genes. The Bauhaus emerged in the midst of that pandemic, changing not just design paradigms but creative pedagogy itself.
Instead of a retreat to protectionist self-interest (although there is evidence of that too), the existential threat of a pandemic seems to stimulate the creative imagination and empathetic response. Close and collective danger has a clarifying effect: we understand the need to make the world better for future generations.
There is every reason to hope that the scientific, cultural and social outcomes on this occasion will be more extensive, and will occur more rapidly, than was the case with any previous pandemic. Universities, part of whose function is to nurture competing ideas within a respectful culture of dialogue and debate, will be the engine and laboratory for such outcomes. We also play a critical role in providing and testing evidence in a post-truth world.
Our ability to look over the horizon and wonder what’s there – like all great explorers, adventurers… and researchers – will be increasingly important in our search for new knowledge while – recognising, as Minister Harris says in this magazine, the need ‘to apply knowledge and expertise in previously unimagined ways: to be creative and inventive, to solve problems, to work collaboratively and experimentally, to think conceptually and imaginatively.
An inter-disciplinary, social justice approach to global problems will become more important, even as knowledge becomes more specialised. There is evidence of a K-shaped economic recovery from Covid-19, where the better off do even better and those who struggle, struggle even more. Considerations of respect, of equal opportunities and of reskilling, will therefore be relevant to the next chapter of our endeavour as humanity. And, paradoxically, just when we think that the past has nothing to teach us we may realise that the lessons of history are more important than ever. Those of us who were not seduced by Francis Fukuyama’s sense of the end of history (which would have made for a less interesting world) have the unwanted vindication of the tumult of not knowing what happens next: an uncertain place where the ability to live with ambiguity is a necessary part of the learning and lived experience.
In an article in this magazine, Dan Carey, director of our Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies points out that it isn’t just the outcomes of pandemics past that are instructive but also their management at the time. A world of dizzying change can give the false impression that everything is new.
Human behaviour doesn’t change as much as we might think. The insights of our psychologists and behavioural scientists have assumed a new level of relevance in this crisis. The arts as expressions of the human condition and human experience are vital to our wellbeing and our re-imagining of humanity and of our own humanity. Universities are deep reservoirs of knowledge as well as teaching and research. The successful university will craft itself to be part of an interconnected cultural and economic ecosystem, the output of which will be a constant stream of innovation that benefits humanity.
Universities are deep reservoirs of knowledge as well as teaching and research. The successful university will craft itself to be part of an interconnected cultural and economic ecosystem, the output of which will be a constant stream of innovation that benefits humanity.
Consider how our own university in Galway has lived our values during the pandemic. Exemplars of openness and excellence, within two weeks of the initial lock-down, a research team was enabling healthcare professionals to offer novel, emerging therapies to extremely ill patients. Our top academics in the fields of haematology, immunology and ID were enabling rapid profiling of the immune response of severely ill patients with a view to guiding therapeutic options, profound contributions to sustaining humanity.
By the end of April we were working to expedite diagnosis of COVID-19 in a clinical setting, using artificial intelligence enabled analysis of CT scans, improve long-term patient recovery and reduce disability after COVID-19 critical illness with microRNA-based approaches, and identify mental health needs and best practice for psychological support of front line healthcare workers for this and future pandemics.
The breadth and scale of intellectual capacity meant that in addition to the crisis response we could continue our work of planning a better future for our communities. By the end of May we had completed a proposal, begun just as the pandemic struck, to build an Innovation and Creativity District in the heart of Galway, connecting the university to the city and wider region, physically, economically and culturally.
Ireland is poised to be at the forefront of post-Covid innovation and cultural creativity. We are home to the world’s leaders in Medtech, Data Science, Pharma and IT. We have painfully come to understand the need for consensus around the need for compact urban growth, regional balance, and human wellbeing as a meaningful measure of success. We now have a Government Department dedicated to higher education and research. We understand the exigency of sustainability. And, it seems that we are grasping the critical importance of creative learning and transversal skills.
If the pandemic has been a spur to immediate action, the enabler for the university to be an instrument of social change has deeper roots. Throughout 2019, NUI Galway conducted an immersive process as part of a five-year strategy with one overriding question: what is our purpose – the question posed by Simon Sinek in his book on strategy Start with Why. The answer we arrived at is that we exist, through respect, for the public good. This may appear obvious but is not always so in the contested narrative of public debate. The most obvious implication of that answer is that we must also be the best for the world.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, after a relentless portrayal of a dystopian world, ends with the father bringing the boy to what appears (albeit ambiguously) to be safety or salvation, remembering in disorder a re-ordered world.
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
From fear and suffering, light emerges. McCarthy’s other great novel, The Crossing, takes the reader on another dark journey that ends with the line:
He sat there for a long time and after a while the east did gray and after a while the right and god made sun did rise, once again, for all and without distinction.
In life, we are on a road together. And this is surely a crossing point. As the year turns, we hope that the sun will rise once again, this time for all, without distinction and that, as educators and as researchers, we will have a continued curiosity for a world that hums with mystery.