Inside Track: The questions we all need to keep asking

What is the role of universities in the world? The start of a new academic year may be the perfect time to ask ourselves this key question.

Professor Simone Buitendijk, the thirteenth Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds.

The answer will help us stick to the right path and deliver our primary mission. 

My first attempt at an answer would be: to help create a fairer future for our world with research-informed solutions and research-led education.

But it’s not for me alone to define our purpose and mission. We need to collectively own them, believe in them, and realise them. 

So, in addition to our new strategy, Universal Values, Global Change, and an ongoing refresh of our values, in the coming year I want us to get to the heart of what we are about. This should help us define for ourselves why we choose to get up every morning to work for a university, and help us deliver for the world, and for our students. 

To this end, I’m working with the University’s senior leaders to craft a new mission and vision for the University, in a way that encapsulates what we stand for.

A key foundation for delivering that mission is recognising that the global challenges – from eliminating poverty and hunger, to creating affordable, clean energy, to ensuring greater equality – need comprehensive, interdisciplinary, evidence-based solutions. That in turn needs universities to collaborate as a group of highly-networked institutions to leverage our influence on a global scale.

At the University of Leeds, we are superbly placed to do this, to do good, and to do well, but we need to be highly strategic in the choices we make. Four immediate areas we should focus on are:

  • Being a highly values-based community – our soon-to-be refreshed values should genuinely shape our decisions and behaviours and should be the foundation of our strategy. 
  • Changing the definition of ‘success’ in research and teaching – in the former we need to be increasingly focussed, and ensure what we are doing has maximum impact, and that our research excellence is financially sustainable; in the latter we need to invest in modern, evidence-based, active and digitally enabled learning, to equip our students to become highly employable graduates who give back to the world.
  • Increasing our focus on driving down inequalities and on societal impact – helping create a fairer future, truly for all.
  • Maximising the impact of our work regionally, nationally, and locally.

All of this is embedded in our new strategy. To explain it to the outside world to help us find partners, collaborators and funders, we have created some new videos showcasing some of the excellent work you do

Of course, we can’t deliver any of this without a connected, motivated, and fulfilled group of people pulling together towards shared goals. Alongside ‘impact’, the other two central themes of our strategy are ‘community’ and ‘culture’.

I fully understand that is has been a particularly challenging 18 months for us as a community and as individuals, and that it has taken a deep personal toll on many of us. The reserves of resilience, ingenuity, and determination we have had to draw upon to continue to support our students and produce our research has been immense and is a tribute to our community. But it has also been draining.

Our new strategy will hopefully provide much needed clarity and focus. It will help address some of the pressures we have been facing as a community because – done right – it will stop us driving ourselves too hard by seeking to do too much. 

If we’re to create a fairer future for our world, we need to think about how we build a fairer future for our hardworking staff and students.

In the coming weeks I will be saying more about some areas I want to focus on, including around fair employment practices; reducing the number of short-term contracts; enhancing diversity and inclusivity; and promoting health and wellbeing. This will be an essential foundation for delivering so much of what we aspire to.

In my first message to you all, when I took up the post just over a year ago, I wrote: I know from the conversations I have already had that this is a remarkable, driven, talented community. 

At that time, I was going on what I had been told. Now I am going on what I have seen. And I now know this perception was spot on. 

Yes, there are challenges we face. No, everything isn’t perfect. But if we keep returning to that question of ‘what are we here for?’, and pull together as one community, I am convinced we can achieve great things in the year ahead, and the decades to come.

Simone Buitendijk 

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