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It is the first Friday in April and I admit to be slightly stunned; part of my brain is still working through my March to do list. Of course our lives have been turned up-side down by the rapid, almost uncontrollable spread of a virus which few of us knew anything about three months ago. I am aware of missing all the usual social dynamics of life from a handshake and a hug, a chat over a coffee with friends, to Chinese takeaways, a visit the cinema and even the Sydney trains. I am held captive by daily bulletins and at the same time know that I am resistant to consuming yet more news, more so when I am the topic of interest!

Through the VC portal, I am the fortunate recipient of many messages from our staff, students and those from further afield who have written letters or sent positive reaffirming messages about their connectivity with UNE and their appreciation for all that we do. They are incredibly uplifting, positive and generous. We are all separated in some way from family and friends, near and far; the digital connections are great but do not ease the pain of supporting loved ones who are in isolation, ill or have fallen victim to the aggressive challenge of COVID-19. There are simply not enough emojis…

South Coast Headland by George Hirst
I have spent another week ‘isolated’ in my Armidale office at Booloominbah connecting to the world through Zoom. The adjusted headphones worked; sadly it is now other parts of my anatomy that are objecting to the impost of videoconferencing.

A daily check in with SET colleagues and the Special Incident Group COVID-19 means I have first-hand insight into the complex processes now supporting UNE operations. Our Sydney and Tamworth campuses are closed and the Armidale campus is very quiet, with only a few key workers attending in person on any one day to maintain the functions and facilities that keep our teaching and research moving forward.  Those of us still on campus wave at each other as we pass by at a safe distance en route to grab a coffee. I was quite rightly chided for hovering too long in the café whilst grabbing lunch. Only 290 students remain in the Colleges; they are pulling their weight and maintaining a safe distance working culture.

In common with many staff, I am now looking forward to the upcoming break and have planned a few days leave.

Whilst it may feel like the only topic of conversation is about some rogue apocalyptic virus, I can affirm that it is not so. Other matters on the VC’s desk this week included a great number of contracts for services to ensure that research, teaching and related services continue. These ranged from the renewal of our support licence for the Learning Management System to agreements about research with key partners.  I also signed off on the purchase of laptops, medical equipment and a contract for further work on the expansion plans for our Tamworth campus, as well as signing off on the 2019 Financial Accounts – not a trivial matter.

The Poppet Head by Joesph Goodhart
Conversations about the work to be done around designing our next generation digital support platform and broader ideas around a Digital+ strand within the emerging UNE 2021+ agenda were very much to the forefront of several engagements. These dialogues underpin the work being done to coordinate the UNE strategic conversation for our next planning cycle; gathering ideas and ensuring we maintain an open innovation model of working  is a priority for me.  As ever the wider budget discussions insert themselves into the layers of my daily life; the investment needed to sustain both our physical and digital estate is not trivial and the development of a strategic design perspective is now critical.  I am very keen to develop capabilities and facilities that will better distinguish UNE and drive innovation across the New England region – here I am imagining a centre of excellence approach to learning based simulation models, for example, might UNE be the leading centre for digital and online STEM education in Australia?

Another bright light in the week was a conversation about our emerging student enterprise agenda. With NSW Government funding (300K) released for work in Moree and plans for further development in Armidale and Tamworth, this is an exciting new development which fosters the deep elements of ‘Town with Gown’. I also enjoyed the lift of energy of these conversations which are breathing oxygen into our ‘learning region” concept. The gathering force of our ‘Creative New England’ thinking is another part of this. My regular chat with UNE Indigenous Engagement Committee highlighted, yet again, the significance of our work supporting Indigenous youth in our communities where normal social activities are suspended – Oorala deserves a shout out here.

In the middle of all these activities, it has been both a delight and a challenge to work with the Faculty of Medicine and Health together with our local health care partners on taking forward the development of a pilot flight deck for our Virtual Hospital Network. UNE’s ability to offer support care for the community and relieve the burden on the local hospital as required, is a significant step forward in enabling new and better levels of health care for both the New England and wider regional need.

Monogenea: Parasite Obsession by Professor Klaus Rohde
In the middle of all of this, my family and I (including the new cat) moved to a rental house in town in preparation for the extended works on Trevenna. I worked out one night this week, whilst doing the essential falling asleep thinking, I have now moved more than 40 times in my adult life (at the count of 42 as I fell asleep). We can now pack and unpack in record time! My immediate worry now is around finishing the harvesting of vegetables and rhubarb from my wilderness garden at the cottage. So my plans for the weekend include a bit of gardening, finish the unpacking and a micro-binge on the new series of Ozark and my new jigsaw! Because I worry about quasi-addictive behaviours I am going to deny myself Zoom for 48 hours and stick to Microsoft Teams…  Last thoughts for the week:

  • Pay attention to cybersecurity advisories – the hackers are crawling out from under every bush and stone
  • Look after you and yours
  • Listen to this …. just wonderful!

Professor Brigid Heywood

Vice-Chancellor & CEO