Just over a week ago we reported nasty and abhorrent racist abuse of a young woman on NUI Galway’s campus to the Gardai.
For me, and our university community, the verbal attack was a timely reminder that we are a part of and not apart from society. It highlighted the need to constantly promote and emphasise our core values of respect and openness, and for our university to impress upon all of us that our behaviour and actions should be for the collective good. Society visits us and we, in turn, shape our society.
Covid-19 also illustrates that we are not immune to the outside world - we are part of it.
Respect, that greatest of these our values, combined with a sense of possibility and responsibility, will be central features of the return to academic life. Universities as civic institutions have a duty to lead by instilling these beliefs in our community.
#InThisTogether became a powerful message in the early stages of our country’s efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19. Now we need to rekindle the kindness that marked our collectively closed Spring. Amid all the clamour and confusion, the clarity of kindness is a lodestar that can guide our way.
NUI Galway is capturing that sentiment for the coming academic year. We are asking every member of our university community to make a commitment to our community - Cúram dá Chéile, our community promise, to live by these principles.
Some argue, with good reason, that university campuses should not re-open for students. However, our students tell us that such an experience - moderated in the context of Covid-19 - is valuable to them and their learning. Therefore we must try, limiting in-person teaching with health and safety as our priority, conscious that this generation is also part of society … and if they are not here, where else will they be and what else will they do?
In consideration of this privileged opportunity, we and our students are making a pact with society: that we - and they - will consider and prioritise the health and safety of those around us. We are asking each student to sign up to be part of our university community, to behave appropriately, to consider others, to follow our advice and public health guidelines, to act responsibly and to respect everyone in the college and the wider community.
This commitment asks students to respond in an open, positive, and respectful way if their actions are challenged and to avoid scenarios and environments that run counter to these principles.
Students are adults: free agents with rights that cannot be curtailed. With rights come responsibilities. We expect our adults - our students - to take responsibility and act responsibly. Many stories of students doing good, helping others, don’t make headlines. We are asking students now not to be the minority which lets us down. None of us want to see last weekend’s reckless scenes in a Dublin restaurant or on US campuses played out elsewhere.
However, we can’t simply tell them what not to do. Behaviour is key to containing the spread of the virus. Our university is setting up an expert group to work with students and support real behaviour change.
Cúram dá Chéile sets a challenge. It is not about being in the bar: it sets a high bar. It may not work - but we must try as the basis for a collective good. It has the power to be a guiding light - for our university, as a civic institution, to show solidarity with the wider community and reduce the spread of Covid-19.
We cannot replicate life pre-Covid. At times it feels like we are wrestling to get back to how life used to be. But we also accept change and are living within boundaries it dictates. This in itself is a learning experience for us and for our students.
Asking for a community commitment to the right thing can and could be replicated. We invite other sectors of society and the economy to see if it can be adopted or adapted as we rise to live through the new reality, in solidarity to staying safe and saving lives.
The commitment transcends our preparations for the new college year. We want to ease worries of students, parents and our community by prioritising safety, health and wellbeing.
Isolation spaces are being created on campus and in university accommodation for students and staff who feel symptomatic. One-way systems and social distancing will be the norm. In-person teaching will be guided by public heath advice on social distancing, face coverings and maximum indoor capacities.
This is a step on a journey for us all, where we need to keep talking with rather than at each other. We also need to be ready for a collective change in direction together for the collective good, needing what Marilynne Robinson calls “agile souls”.
The late Nobel laureate John Hume once said: “Politics is not only about principles but about the ability to put principles into practice. The second is as important as the first.”
Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh is the president of NUI Galway