The Mirror University I – The Cadence of Crisis

This is the first of a series of blogs that reflect on the educational and organisational challenges facing universities as they navigate intersecting existential, epistemic crossroads. I have called the series ‘The Mirror University’ for several reasons. The Mirror Universe is an alternate reality from the cultural phenomena that is Star Trek, in which people who exist in the prime universe have ‘evil’ alternates in the mirror universe. These alternates maintain the structures, relationships, roles and even identities of the ‘prime’ characters but exhibit traits, morals and behaviours that are the anthesis of the higher moral ground taken by our heroes. The mirror university maintains the structures, organisation, practices, and mythologies of what we understand to be a higher education institution but behaves in ways that are the antithesis of the ways of being they aspire to.

The mirror university is a construct.
It doesn’t represent any single institution.
It is not an allegory for the overarching influence of ‘management’.

The aspirational contradictions create a sense of emotional and idealistic liminality for those whose personal, intellectual, or professional identity is deeply rooted in the altruistic conceptions of university as a site of transformational social good for the community, our students, and the academy itself.

The nature of crisis in higher education

According to the German historian Reinhart Kosellack (1986) the word ‘crisis’ as it was defined by the Ancient Greeks describes the consequences and moral challenges that arise  from making a choice between stark alternatives, such as right or wrong, life or death, salvation or damnation. He argues that over time, the meaning of the word has been inflated, diluted, and misrepresented enabling ‘the concept of crisis, which once had the power to pose unavoidable, harsh and non-negotiable alternatives, [being] transformed to fit the uncertainties of whatever might be favoured at a given moment’ (Kosellack, 1986). Crisis has morphed from being a point of uncertainty that required a decision to alleviate or mitigate the impacts, to a climate of uncertainty that drives outcomes, behaviours, and productivity. As Winston Churchill never said, ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’.

A.R Keppel (1942) proselyted about the crisis facing universities, describing, in no uncertain terms, the challenges of leading the academy in a time of global crisis. He argued that there were seven existential crises that undermined the very fabric of what it meant to be a (Christian)university in 1942:

For today in this chaotic world delirium in which we find ourselves, the educational institutions of our land…face responsibilities which are nothing short of baffling, most overwhelming, and seemingly paradoxical in their demands.

    • The task of interpreting truth in a time when ingenious, vicious, poisonous propagandas – the world over pose in garments of truth.
    • The task of teaching life when the prevalent world philosophy is seemingly a philosophy of death.
    • The task of building a cooperative commonwealth of nations, when, as in no other time, the world’s peoples are torn asunder by suspicions and hatreds and atrocities. (Keppel 1942, p.80-81)

Crisis is not a new state for higher education. But in the face of modernity, where the role of a university has been continually challenged in political, economic, technological and social storms of change, the dichotomous distinctions of 1942 whilst not unfamiliar are more deeply entwined with global complexity and organisational ‘delirium’. In this context, higher education institutions could be argued to exist in borderland spaces where ‘place, people, knowledge, cultures, values, beliefs, and identities are constructed and cancelled, generating complementary and contradictory spaces inside and outside’ (Upadhyay, 2023). They go onto argue that in education borderlands ‘…marginalization and oppression create histories of injustices within and outside the classroom spaces.’ This inequity manifests itself in organisational practices and tropes such as resource allocation, workload, wellbeing, the deployment of influence and agency and precarity of employment.

When in crisis (or experiencing crisis outside its direct control) these higher education borderland spaces become deeply contested through the enabling of complex, sometimes emotionally charged sociocultural behaviours by those in or creating the crisis. This contestation is not experienced or enacted equitably and is experienced differently depending on employment context (academic versus professional, senior versus junior, teaching versus research, casual versus tenured, for example).  Borderlands challenge the traditional power hierarchies by moving ‘beyond binary borders to a named third space of ambiguity and even contradiction’ (Licona, 2005). In these borderlands the effectiveness (morality, productivity, coherency, et al) of an organisational culture is tested by pressures placed on it by the crisis. Borderland spaces represent the intersections between emotional and physical states of wellbeing, safety, creativity and worth (or value) fragmenting (and potentially transforming) the inculcation of identity. In short, crisis creates a fertile and febrile petri dish for institutional and personal change.

Crisis has become the norm state in higher education. We trigger our reactions to the next crisis before the immediate impacts of the last crisis has subsided and before staff and students have had time to recover and reflect on what they have collectively experienced. The cascading waves of crisis leave lasting scars on the people and the structures which weaken institutions for the next crisis. More importantly the idea of rolling crises diminishes the institutions capacity to be proactive change agents, enacted through driving the significant, existential understanding and skills uplift that is necessary to respond to the challenges that are facing us square in the face (sustainability, responsibility, equity, inclusivity, inequality etc).

As higher education institutions design and deploy approaches to navigating these sequences of crises, there are two models of strategic change management that are frequently used by institutional influencers. The first is the call/response model (also known at the mobilisation approach) where the recognition of a crisis (the call) brings the institution together in its time of need (the response). It is often accompanied by organisational behaviours such as compromise, sacrifice, agility, and multi-skilling. One such call to arms of the call/response approach is the mantra ‘don’t let perfect be the enemy of good’, encouraging staff to make do, to accept good rather than the best and shrug and say, ‘that’ll do’. The other is the promised land model (also known as a post-crisis state), where institutions aspire to be able to lead themselves and their community through crisis and into an ambitious time where the crisis has ended. This state is accompanied by behaviours such as vision, ambition, inspiration, and leadership, but can be equally described as naïve, pollyannish, or idealistic.

It is my opinion that believing that a state of crisis will end is not naïve thinking. The notion of the world and/or institutions being in permacrisis (see Turnbull, 2022) or ‘the dizzying sense of lurching from one unprecedented event to another, as we wonder bleakly what new horrors might be around the corner’ (Shariatmadari, 2022) leads citizens and communities to live their lives within a never abating confluence of multiple ‘unprecedented’ crises that never seem to end. Creating a strategic and operational vision for an education and research institution that is ambitious or optimistic for a future where we are post-crisis aligns with the true transformative mission of a university (and not just the word salad of marketing and branding). There is a sense of collective human satisfaction that comes from striving for something better and believing that leadership, strategic thinking, inspiration, aspiration and connections can navigate us through the fear, stress, doom scrolling and opportunism (economic or political) that crises engender and into a state of living in a better society, a safer place, a creative space and a world no longer beset by existential, inequitable and emotionally painful crisis.

Universities in crisis

In the main, universities don’t create crises (although this is not exclusively the case, they can be the architects of their own demise). Whether it be the pandemic, funding, legislative or financial, crises envelop a university and change how it operates, its reputation or even threaten its identify and existence. In these times of crisis, I have seen universities, and their communities step up in amazing ways. We reengineer our practices (time, productivity, intellectual outputs, relationship) to enable the impossible.

In the literature on crisis leadership, there is a concept called the threat/opportunity paradox (see Nathan, 2000). The argument goes that crisis represents threat. It makes people feel precarious, uncertain, at-risk, or fearful. Being in a crisis locates people in the unknown, but not the unconsidered, especially as our brains often turn to spiralling imagination as we dream/nightmare what might happen if/when a crisis hits. Crisis also represents opportunity, the capability to engage in regrowth, rejuvenation, and reimagining ways of being and doing. You cannot have the opportunity without the threat. Hence the paradox. Opportunity and threat are not experienced equally. The capabilities to engineer or leverage the conditions for opportunity are related to certainty, safety, and agency. The impacts of the threat of a crisis are magnified through precarity, lack of agency and challenges to ethics, morals, and identity.

The threat/opportunity response can support superhuman efforts to escape from a dangerous situation. And what is at the end of the dangerous situation? A place of safety. A place where the crisis has ended. A state of post-crisis. But what if the crisis never ends? Concurrent and consecutive waves of existential threat or opportunity for growth and reimagining crash into beleaguered staff still bruised from the last call to arms. Upended by the effects of the global pandemic, in 2022 higher education institutions lurched into the opportunism and hype drama of generative AI. Before we had even had the time to critically debate the zealotry, we were cascading into the culture wars by the right over international students, with crises over rankings, student success, flexibility, and integrity bubbling along and occasionally breaking the surface with urgent intent.

The cadence of crisis

The call of a crisis and the leadership/followship response creates its own social, organisational, and structural momentum. This rhythm of action and behaviour is how institutions pivot themselves towards a crisis orientation and how they make the strategic change necessary to navigate the impact. I call this the cadence of crisis. It is the patterns that form when an institution and its component DNA (its people, its ethics and beliefs, its structures, and practices) react and respond to crisis. A crisis cadence is not consequenceless, nor does it sustain itself simply by being in crisis. A crisis cadence can be propagated and prolonged because the end of a crisis may never come or is perhaps defined by those who catalyse the cadence of crisis in the first place.

The pandemic moved so fast that institutions mobilised online learning and working practices in days. Students rewired their expectations and habits. As each wave hit, and each external reaction created its own cadence of crisis, our reaction times sped up. We just got on with it. This cadence of crisis became normalised. Even as the crisis subsided and we were snapping back to the ways we did education in 2019 (see Bryant, 2021 and 2022), the scars were still there in our staff and students and the damage both hidden and visible to our structures but so was the cadence of crisis in our work. Then came the generative AI and assessment crisis, the international student crisis, the funding crisis, the policy crisis, the staffing crisis, the cost-of-living crisis ad infinitum. Being in and reacting to crisis (and the cadence that follows) becomes normalised. But so does our visceral emotional and physical response, which then can become expected not valued. The call and response became the day to day until the next crisis escalates it again, with the same urgent threat and the same opportunity paradox, an opportunity that only existed with the benefits, however unintended, of the cadence of crisis. And each time the promise of post-crisis seems further away and the acceptance of the permacrisis becomes a sad reality. I would like to be clear though. I am not arguing that universities deliberately create crises (pause). I am arguing that the cadence of crisis has become accepted and arguably expected in our institutional ways of working and being. Being in crisis shapes the professional identity of many staff and students, as well as creating frames of justification and rationalisation of action.

The cadence of crisis is not without consequence

Crisis creates intended and unintended consequences. Snyder, 1962 (cited in Hermann, 1963) argues that crisis responses can pull organisations in polar-opposite directions, noting that ‘the crisis may be associated with the closer integration of the organisation, the appropriate innovations for meeting the crisis, and the clarification of relevant values, or at the other extreme, it can lead to behaviour which is destructive to the organisation and seriously limits its viability’. Shaw & Blazek (2023) have exposed their own deeply felt and traumatic consequences of being higher educators experiencing the cadence of constant crisis. They argue that the notion of emergency response to a constant crisis pivots governance towards enabling and rewarding crisis diverting capacities and away from capabilities critical to the success of the institution outside the crisis. They argue that this immersion in the cadence of constant crisis results in ‘a slow draining of energy, akin to what Berlant (2007) have labelled a ‘slow death’. As Berlant explains, ‘slow death prospers not in traumatic events…but in temporal environments whose qualities and whose contours in time and space are often identified with the presentness of ordinariness itself’ (Berlant, 2007, p. 759).

Some of the consequences of the cadence of crisis in higher education include the marginalisation of creativity in decision making and problem solving (replaced by the pragmatism of coping and surviving) and the fractioning of the time available to BAU as the crisis response consumes and envelops all the time, health, and energy of people. It is in that maelstrom of human coping and being that the greatest consequences of the reliance on or leaning into the cadence of constant crisis are appearing. Neser et al. (2023) have published the results of an extensive survey of the psychosocial wellbeing of the university sector workforce in Australia. Their findings (which span the pandemic period) should be of deep concern to anyone who manages staff or works with colleagues in a university. They are no doubt repeated in institutions around the world. It paints a picture of serious wellbeing and safety issues in universities as they gear up for the next wave of crises, having never recovered from the impacts of the last one.

  • 67% of Australian university employees report poor psychosocial safety and are working in conditions of high to very high-risk for mental distress. In 2020, the figure was 61.8%, increasing to 72.9% in 2023. This risk is double that of the national average.
  • 43% reported extreme tiredness, anxiety, or depression.
  • 66% reported suffering burnout.
  • Women and academic staff reported the highest levels of work pressures.
  • Around three in five respondents reported conflicts between work and home/family life.

The strategic choices facing universities

As I stated earlier, crisis is not always created by an institution or even the sector. There always be a crisis coming, a crisis happening or a crisis about to pass. Higher education institutions need to end their dependency on the cadence of crisis for productivity increases and short-term strategic gains. However inadvertently, in some ways we have become addicted to the benefits created by shifting people and institutional structures towards a constant crisis cadence. Aside from the clear wellbeing issues it is creating and inculcating into our ways of working, the rhythms of crisis and our emotional and intellectual response seeps into our engagement with students, with industry and into our role as a transformative force of social good. Making a strategic choice to end this dependency doesn’t mean the crisis goes away, or that we will never experience another crisis. Our strategic choice should be to put our money where our mouth is and live up to what we profess to be; imaginative, innovative, responsible problem solvers. We must stop the immediacy of the ‘end of everything’ narrative and create the ‘beginning of something better’ story. We know this won’t be easy within the structures, traditions, and mythologies of our slow-moving behemoths. It will involve creating space for solutions to existential crises that will require the rewiring and reimagining of our ways of doing. It will help prepare us for the next crisis, to be more resilient when a crisis slams into us, and it will help protect our staff and students from the clear and present wellbeing and safety impacts of being in constant crisis.

The Mirror University – Can be shaped by or leverages the cadence of crisis to enable the immediacy of a crisis response, to navigate the short-term effects whilst parking the long-term impacts within the framing of being able to return to the ways we once were (the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow). Places strategic importance and resources on crisis response as the crisis unfolds, moving onto to the next crisis response before they create opportunities to reflect and reimagine ways of doing based on what the last crisis taught the institution.

The Prime University – Disrupts the cadence of constant crisis by repositioning the institution as crisis prepared, not crisis prone. Makes strategic choices to live by what we stand for in terms of transformative, innovative thinking. Builds cultures and practices that are supportive of the psychosocial health of staff and students by recognising the impacts of crisis and affording time to reflect and heal. Shifts the stance of the institution from reactive and precarious to proactive and transformative.



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