Leading from a distance: starting a v-c job during lockdown

University of Auckland vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater

The first 100 days are considered now-or-never opportunities for incoming leaders to disrupt entrenched practices ever since newly installed president Franklin D. Roosevelt took swift action to steer the US out of the Great Depression.

But in Dawn Freshwater’s case, disruption was “foisted” on her by a pandemic that forced her to spend her first 100 or so days leading the University of Auckland from lockdown.

The former University of Western Australia vice-chancellor arrived in Auckland on 15 March and started work the next day. The ramping-up of coronavirus restrictions led to the closure of campuses on 25 March, and Professor Freshwater, who “had only set foot on campus for two days”, would not return until early June.

READ MORE: No rush to the lecture hall in virus-free NZ

“I had hardly met any of the team,” she said. “I had no coordinates or orientation whatsoever. Then I had to make a decision to get everybody off campus.”

Ideally, she said, new leaders start by “taking soundings” on the organisation’s atmosphere, culture and potential. “I didn’t have any intelligence about the institution. I had information, but I didn’t really have intelligence. I had to work very quickly to scale up that knowledge and make decisions [because] we had to act immediately.

“I got to know the potential of the institution by how people reacted – the capability to go fully online, literally within the space of three days, and to get 1,600 programmes up and running, albeit not perfectly. It’s been fascinating to see what can be achieved very quickly. We’re talked about as monolithic institutions, as not very agile. We’ve fractured that concept.”

Professor Freshwater said the pandemic, along with Australia’s summer bushfires and the turbulence in Hong Kong, suggested that crisis management should now be considered part of vice-chancellors’ “armoury”. She says she had benefited from the “transferable” skills developed in acute hospital settings while working in mental health in the UK.

“When you have major incidents, everything else is put to one side,” she said. “The crash trolley is coming, so you make decisions in that context and afterwards debrief on what you could have done better.

“Of course, we’d like a longer run-up and a bit more time to reflect. But the reality is that you’re faced with a task [where] everybody has to go home, the campus has to be secured, the student experience has to continue. Who would’ve thought that becoming a vice-chancellor in contemporary society means crisis leadership is a critical skill set?”

The pandemic also ushered a “very steep” learning curve on Maori and Pacific culture. Professor Freshwater said she had anticipated taking time to study the distinct status of New Zealand’s Indigenous people and the university’s obligations to them under the 19th-century Treaty of Waitangi between Britain and Maori chiefs.

Such insights needed to be factored into her decision-making from the outset, she said, but plans for a Maori staff member to “mentor” her fell through. Stuck behind a desk for three months, she found it equally difficult to cultivate an understanding of the Samoan, Tongan and other Pacific communities that stamp their character on Auckland.

Professor Freshwater said the lockdown also “sharpened up” administrators’ sense of “what is missing when you don’t have a campus-based experience”. Zoom-based chats with students about their reasons for choosing Auckland proved telling.

“Of course it’s about reputation, the programme and the research-led teaching; but it’s much more than that – it’s about the whole experience of being on the campus, the engagement, the opportunities to interact, the diversity, that feeling of belonging,” she said.

“It’s great to do all the stuff we’re doing by digital means, but there’s not a lot of humanity in zeros and ones. We’re not The Matrix.”

Professor Freshwater said the pandemic had revived a “trust in evidence” that has been “challenged” in recent years. “It gives us a really good opportunity to rehabilitate expertise.”

It has also delivered new opportunities for two neighbouring island nations with strong ties, shared values, world-leading infectious disease control expertise and globally acclaimed controlled adaptation strategies. “We have a great opportunity to work together with our parallel experiences,” she said.

“Covid has laid waste to jobs, industries and supply chains. We can either bemoan that fact or think about how we have disciplines working together. Australia and New Zealand have managed the Covid crisis very well. The risk is that having managed it, we miss the opportunity.”

Back to listing