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The Ever Rolling Stream Rolls On
Professor Nick Petford is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Northampton.
As we gear up to leave Park Campus for Waterside it is only natural to feel a sense of loss. Park has been a great place to work and play and will hold a special place in many hearts, as summarised nicely by Bethany Davies from the Criminology team in a recent Blog.
When I took up post as VC in September 2010 I inherited a draft master plan for the University Estate. It was clear that the split campus was a concern to the previous management team and that both estates were starting to look tired. There were several options on the table. One was to move Avenue to Park. The other was expansion of Avenue and closer physical integration with Newton. The showcase element was a huge glass dome, bigger than the one at the British Museum, enclosing most of the courtyard space at Avenue under one roof. Both were impractical. Building Avenue on Park would have consumed most of the sports fields and greenery that makes it what it is. And the disruption of turning Park into a building site for 36 months would do little to improve the student or staff experience. But it would have achieved a single university site, unlike the Avenue plan that would have entrenched the status quo (with a big window cleaning bill to boot!). Not long after my arrival, and with a change in the way government wanted to drive the regional growth agenda, the newly established SEMLEP created in Northampton a 16 mile stretch of brownfield land bordering the River Nene as an Enterprise Zone. The rest, as they say, is history.
An enduring aspect of higher educational institutions is change. Depending on timing, from a personal viewpoint it can be a slow, almost glacial process. For others, caught up in periods of rapid transition, as we are now, the hurly burley can feel almost overwhelming. But change is always there. And Northampton is no exception. For those suspicious this is more spin than substance I can recommend The Ever Rolling Stream, a book compiled and printed in 1989 by the 567th Mayor of Northampton, David Walmsley, that charts the history of Higher Education in Northampton. In short, the key events culminating in the present University are:
1260: Ancient University
1867: Mechanics Institute
1932: Northampton Technical College (St George’s Avenue)
1967: University of Leicester University Centre, Northampton
1972: Northampton College of Education (Park Campus)
1975: Nene College of Higher Education
1978: The National Leathersellers Centre
1982: Sunley Management Centre
1989: Release from local authority control
1999: University College Northampton
2005: The University of Northampton
The picture is one of periods of relative stability (including a c. 700 year sabbatical!), punctuated by mergers and consolidation. Our most rapid phase of change took place in the six years between 1972 and 1978 and involved the relocation, merger and subsequent closure of four separate educational establishments that ultimately comprise Park Campus as we know it today. Each of these phases would have been a unique cause of excitement, stress, resignations, hope and probable despair! But together they have two things in common – they happened mostly outside our working experience, and (ancient university excepted), ended in success. In our history of relocations and mergers, the inevitable conversations between doubters and advocates are lost in time, one exception being the amalgamation in 1937 of the School of Art in Abington Street, with the Technical College, which seems particularly vexed. Against this backdrop we see Waterside simply as the next stage in our evolution.
The title for Ever Rolling Stream comes from the hymn ‘O God our Help in Ages Past’. It sums up brilliantly the feeling of loss and the inevitability of change:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Yes, think kindly of Park, and Avenue, mourn even as others will have done over those antecedents that culminated in our present estate. But don’t think you are the first to do so. Who knows, at some time in the future, staff and students not yet born will be contemplating a move from Waterside to a new horizon, as the ever rolling stream rolls on.
‘Leaving that to one side’ – Managing the too difficult
I love horology, my passion is antique grandfather clocks. My pride and joy stands in the hallway of my home. Lovingly restored, it makes me smile when it strikes on the hour. Each strike reminds me of the time and effort I put into getting it to work. I’m reminded of the trials and tribulations of having to understand how it worked, what was wrong with it and how to fix it. I have become quite adept at fixing clocks, I understand them, I know them. Each part of the clock has a specific job, each part is dependent on another, each part makes it a clock that works. From the smallest cog to the largest, take any one of them away and the clock no longer functions. It is the same for all time pieces, whether they are driven by weights, springs, or battery. They all have intrinsic parts that make them function, that are inter dependent.
My clock, to anyone else, is a grand functioning timepiece. They would have little or no knowledge of the inner workings, save perhaps, they would know there were inner workings. Perhaps too complicated to understand, the workings would have no significance to them unless they owned the clock and then only if the clock didn’t function, kept stopping or perhaps was running a little slow or a little fast owing to some fault.
Compare the clock to an organisation, the workings are the departments, units or what ever you want to call them. The manager is the owner, the person that winds the clock up, occasionally ensures it is cleaned, even serviced, they make sure it works and works correctly. The manager might decide they no longer wish the clock to chime and they have that part of the mechanism removed. Perhaps they no longer want the clock to have a second hand, that too can be removed, even the minute hand. It would still be recognisable as a time piece. Organisations go through such changes all the time. Who though would the manager call on to make these alterations? Who would advise what is best? A specialist of course, someone who knows the inner workings of the clock, who understands how it works, who understands that some pieces can be removed and that others cannot. Well not if it is still to function as a time piece rather than a useless lump of furniture in the corner. Of course, if the inner workings of the clock could talk, each would be able to tell you what their function is. If you want to make alterations to the clock, you need to understand how it functions, not just that it functions.
Understanding what the right thing to do is often difficult for managers in organisations particularly when dealing with change. They pride themselves on seeing the bigger picture, sometimes they do, sometimes it’s simply a mirage. And like departments in organisations, the chime, the second hand and the minute hand, with all their associated mechanisms would argue that they are needed, that somehow the clock would fail if they were not there. The manager believes this is not the case and dismisses such protests. But such are the intricacies of the inner workings that knowing what will cause something to fail and what won’t is often difficult to discern. When an expert tells you that a cog in the timepiece is failing do you leave it to one side or address it? Do you bury your head in the sand and hope the problem will go away? A good manager listens, a good manager discerns what is important and what is not. A good manager recognises that there are times when understanding the implications of a faulty cog are more important than the grand vision (or mirage). But that means sometimes getting into the workings of the clock, being shown how it functions and understanding what the problem really is. If you want to maintain some sort of time piece, as a manager, you cannot afford to simply ‘leave things to one side’. Ignoring issues because you don’t understand them or you only see the mirage will leave you in a void where time has stopped.
Anxious about being anxious
The fact that the digital readout on my car tells me that it is a due a service and that it needs to be looked at because something is very wrong does not provide comfort, just a nagging concern that it might break down soon, but how soon? On my way to work I left a message on my wife’s mobile phone, ‘it’s only me, just calling to say on my way to work’. She didn’t answer the phone, she’s out riding the horse, has something happened? Mid conversation with a work colleague, my phone’s just pinged, I must check it, it’s only my mate asking me out for a drink… ‘Nice one, next Thursday?’… What was that you were saying Susie? It’s not that the conversation is unimportant it’s just that I might miss something important on the phone. Checking emails, that email I sent an hour ago still hasn’t been responded to… back to Susie.
An hour later… must check my emails. What’s on Facebook, another notification has come through… must respond … ‘like’, there done. Better check I haven’t missed anything. Ebay… I’m still the highest bidder… should I increase my bid… just in case, Ebay says it would be a good idea. Google the item… what’s it worth… back to Ebay… Increase bid. Must check it again soon. Text from wife, all is good. Check emails… check phone … check Ebay… Check Facebook… all quiet, are they working..? Is it a network problem? Thank goodness I haven’t got a Twitter account to worry about. Now I have to write a blog entry… what to write about, will anyone read it let alone like it? Off to my seminar, I wonder if the laptop will work, will it connect to that new screen and stay connected, last week it kept disconnecting… will the technology work… busy, worry…
Before the days of connectivity and the great digital advancement, I didn’t worry about such things. But then I wouldn’t have phoned my wife on the way to work, in fact I wouldn’t have spoken to or heard from her for the whole day until I got home. I wouldn’t be worrying about the car because it would either be working or have broken down. Any correspondence I received would be in my in tray on a desk and would be dealt with and put into an out tray, the pending tray, or the bin. The pending tray was usually just waiting for the bin. Nothing to ping and rudely distract me from my conversation with a colleague. No need to worry about whether I was the highest bidder, I would be at the auction bidding, it would be happening there and then. I wouldn’t have been connected to a world of ‘friends’ producing meaningless drivel about where they were having their cup of coffee or the fact they liked some article in a paper about mass rape or murder. As for the laptop and the screen, paper never let me down.
We live in a digital age and everything is at your fingertips and it’s available right now. But what does that do? It may give you an edge in some respects but it also makes you edgy. I look around and see and hear about so many people suffering from anxiety, old and young alike. Perhaps the cause is not technology alone but it certainly doesn’t help. Maybe I worry too much, maybe I’m just becoming anxious about being anxious.