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Learning from post-disaster projects for post-pandemic universities

The higher education sector was significantly hit by the pandemic. International borders closed down and international student enrolment dropped. Universities’ revenues fell short of budgets and they went into contraction. COVID restrictions and lockdowns also meant that business as usual was no longer possible. Campuses shut down, courses went online and international collaborations and conferences were halted or disrupted.

Whilst the word ‘unprecedented’ has become an acceptable justification of the chaos and crisis, what about the next time the pandemic hits or another unprecedented event disrupts universities’ operations? Can we return to the mantra of ‘it was unprecedented’ and therefore chaos is expected?

Although 'disaster' sounds like an exaggeration in thinking about the COVID pandemic, there are lessons in post-disaster recovery and preparedness that are useful in creating resilient and sustainable universities that are prepared for the next disaster.

The post-disaster lifecycle adopts three phases. First is the response phase that occurs in the immediate aftermath of an event, the purpose of which is to reduce the impact of the event. Next is the recovery phase, which serves the purpose of regeneration of life or 'build back better'. Achieving normality is often regarded as the aim of this phase but care should be taken not to assume what survivors regard as normal. Finally, the preparedness phase is intended to encourage behaviour that reduces the impact of the event if or when it happens in the future.

These components of the lifecycle – response, recovery and preparedness –represent low hanging fruit which may assist universities in increasing their resilience and sustainability. We use examples of response, recovery and preparedness efforts after natural disasters to provide lessons for universities in preparing for the next ‘unprecedented’ event.  

Time and space for grief

All post-disaster projects are mindful that the progression of grief is personal; whilst it is a distraction and may reduce productivity, grieving is an essential process. Academics are grieving right now for the tertiary communities, roles, and tasks that they had pre-COVID. Individuals are the facilitators of their own grief processes and these can’t be hurried along, but there are ways to support people through trauma, such as the provision of psychological first aid (PFA), a tool implemented by most emergency response organisations. Through the connection of people with survivors, offering human contact, PFA promotes recovery and may speed up the grieving process.

Community Recovery Committee

Community engagement is the key in effective recovery processes. This engagement through new designated community groups is more efficient for two reasons: i) engagement with the whole community and every single person in the community is impossible, and ii) existing organisational and hierarchical communication channels are not designed for the purpose of recovery and therefore are not adequate.

After the devastating bushfires of 2009, Community Recovery Committees (CRCs) were established in affected townships as a way of the community having a voice regarding recovery projects. CRCs included community group representatives who were able to receive and document proposals for community-led recovery projects and to distribute government funding when it became available. CRCs were involved in other recovery roles too, such as representing residents at a local government level.

In the university context, gathering a CRC including representatives from teaching, research and support disciplines would give the core of the university community a voice and allow a broader range of recovery projects to be presented, considered and supported.

Pillowcase project

In the preparedness phase, projects tend to focus on education of the population so that in the event of an emergency, people implement their plans for safety and resilience. Preparedness projects can take advantage of the long-term time frame, can be creative in how behavioural change is deployed and can influence multiple generations at once.

The Pillowcase Project is one example of creative foundations of a preparedness project. Following Hurricane Katrina in the USA, university students were observed filling pillowcases with possessions before evacuating. Subsequently, a global ‘pillowcase project’ was developed to trigger conversations between children and their parents to encourage the parents or guardians to develop an emergency plan.

Similarly, in the university context, preparedness cannot remain within the realm of organisational policies and risk management committees. It needs to be discussed and internalised within the staff and the student community to create long-term behavioural change and build resilience for the next unforeseen event.

The Pillowcase Project shows that universities can be creative in finding appropriate triggers for conversations and behavioural change. After all, what matters most is the preparedness not the trigger.

Guinevere Gilbert is a senior lecturer in project management at RMIT University, Melbourne. 

Ehsan Gharaie is an associate professor of project management and a member of the Academic Board at RMIT University.

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