All universities try to plan for extreme events. So many things can go wrong in what are often very large operations that to not have such plans would be foolish.
This kind of business continuity planning is now often very sophisticated. Like all university leaders, I carry a card which provides me with all of the vital numbers I would need in an emergency and in my top draw is a copy of the university crisis and disaster plan which sets out a wide range of scenarios and responses. I hope I never have to use either but better to be safe than sorry: quite a few British universities have suffered severe fires just over the last ten years, for example.
However, these kinds of events are thankfully comparatively rare, the result of alert security and the barrage of health and safety regulation. In other parts of the world, Universities face a multitude of extra physical threats. Perhaps the most obvious of late is earthquakes, as Californian colleagues will often tell you. But there are many others: I was struck on a recent visit to the ACE Annual Conference by an exhibit of a campus security alert system which was undoubtedly prompted by well-founded concerns over rogue campus gunmen.
But there are some wider lessons to be drawn. I know that I often complain that universities around the world don’t cooperate enough. But earthquakes show that in difficult times universities can and do come together. The Haiti earthquake is a particular example. I attended a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative last year and it was clear from that meeting how many U.S. and Canadian universities were involved in reconstructing the Haitian higher education system – and many other aspects of Haiti’s physical and social infrastructure as well.
Again, the more recent New Zealand earthquake has been a model of inter-university co-operation. So far as the earthquake in New Zealand is concerned, the response by universities around the world to the University of Canterbury’s travails has been extensive. For example, first semester exchanges have been arranged just so far at Auckland University of Technology, Massey University, Otago University, the University of Auckland, the University of Adelaide, Waikato University and the Victoria University of Wellington. At this stage, approximately 550-600 students will be undertaking these exchanges with other exchanges pending with Oxford – the city of Christchurch was named after an Oxford college – and other universities around the world too.
Now there is the catastrophe in Japan. I have been trying to find out more about the situation there and how my own university can help. Warwick has strong ties with Waseda and the message from the President there is that the disruption has been difficult but manageable. But so far as universities in northern Japan are concerned I have been able to find very little news.
What I can say about all these disasters is that the reaction of our students has been pivotal. In the case of each of them, students have raised money and other forms of aid through all kinds of events in ways which have not just been pragmatic but also moving. As universities internationalize, so events like these have both immediate and secondary effects on more and more students on campus. The world really is coming to us.