So, what have you learnt in your first year as Secretary General?
Well, I have learnt so many things in this first year that I even have the impression that it has been 10 years or so since I started. But I think that one main lesson of this first year is that the transformational process of building an alliance and new forms of cooperation is only possible because of the people involved. I knew that I was boarding a huge boat, but I probably underestimate the size of this boat.
Today we have probably more than 300 colleagues directly involved in Circle U., which means as many understandings, expectations, ideas, opinions, etc. It is a richness, of course, but it can also bring some risks of disruption or instability.
So, yes I have learned to keep my eyes and ears wide open, to understand the different sensibilities, to foster dialogue and goodwill.
This also requires that we give sense to what we are building altogether, which is much more than another EU-funded project. It’s about transforming our universities, our mindset, our attitudes, our practices for the sake of our communities, our academics, our researchers, our students, our partners.
What has surprised you the most?
When the application was drafted – even if a tremendous job was done and the application was of very high quality – it was impossible to predict the unpredictable. Therefore, we have to accept the fact that we will not necessarily manage to do all that we had foreseen or achieve it in the way we had planned it. Such a situation can be quite challenging and even demotivating for colleagues.
But in the same way, other colleagues will think that we are too hooked to the work programme, the work packages, the task forces, the deliverables, milestones, etc. And that we are not going fast enough or not being creative enough. This situation is due to the dilemma we are in, and that I keep repeating when I present Circle U. The project dynamic and the framework “imposed” by the EU as a funder, oblige us to think and perform in the short term, while we want Circle U. to have sustainable and long-term impact. Of course, those dynamics are not incompatible but they are a challenge in our daily work.
Even if this could sound cliché, I am surprised by the colleagues involved in the alliance, at all levels. Despite the challenges that I mentioned, I feel that there is this enthusiasm, this shared feeling of being part of a momentum for higher education and research in general. Again, building an alliance is a human experience and we need people to actually make it happen.
The enthusiasm, the professionalism, the openness of our colleagues are an opportunity – or even a driving force – for Circle U. We have to maintain it, we have to cherish it and we have to expand it to the whole community in our alliance and universities.
We are in the process of writing a new application. How will it differ from the first?
In my opinion, the main difference is that we will benefit from more room to actually decide on the “destiny” of Circle U. Not only because the EU funding will significantly increase and will be granted for a longer period. But I am convinced that, after the pilot phase, we will know better what we want and what we don’t want to do or to be.
In the pilot phase, there was this implicit pressure to “please” the European Commission and their ideas about the European Universities Alliances. For the next phase, we can take into consideration the lessons learnt, trying not to repeat the “errors” we made.
We have established a real circle of trust and dialogue among our universities. We have started to build a sustainable ecosystem that should allow our universities, our academics, researchers, staff members and students to benefit from opportunities, beyond what the EU-funded project has to offer.
A year ago, you said: "luckily for me, I don’t need much sleep!" How did that work out for you?
Hahaha! As anticipated, the first year has been very intense. And indeed I am lucky enough that I don’t need much sleep, because I have had many studious evenings and nights. I don’t want to complain about it. But I don’t want to normalize such a situation either. The balance between professional and personal life is essential for me, especially as a father of a two-year old kid.
I knew that entering this position will mean a very high workload, especially in the first months as I wanted to understand the full picture, to meet most of the colleagues working for Circle U. and to initiate a continuous dialogue with them. I was also ambitious enough (or stupid) to commit to an operational plan for the Management Board and the General Assembly by the end of October 2021. So, yes this meant working sometimes very late… Of course, the next months, too, will be intense with the writing of the new application. But I am very confident about the process and that we will make it.
You also said that you believed we are all engaged in a long marathon. So, how’s the race going, and do we have any stamina left for a sprint?
Definitely we have the stamina required for both the sprint and the marathon. Lots of activities have been happening since spring this year. So many activities, that sometimes I lose track of them. That’s one part of the sprint.
In parallel, we are running the sprint linked to the next application – for which it’s also very challenging because we have no clear view on the calendar of the European Commission. But this two-track sprint is just a first step in the marathon that we are all engaged in for 2030, 2040 or even 2050? This requires endurance but also being focused to make sure we don’t get overwhelmed by the process. And as a “coach”, I am doing my best to support all colleagues in this race.
It’s a different Europe now than a year ago. War in Ukraine, impact of climate change, shortage of energy. What role do you think universities in general, and Circle U. alliance in particular, should take in this context?
I strongly believe that all those developments are in fact reinforcing the role, the responsibility and the relevance of the university, our nine universities and our alliance. We will not solve all the problems, the challenges, the tragedies that the world is facing today and will face tomorrow. However, I think that we have reached a point where, even for major universities like ours, we have realized that those challenges are so big that there is no way out but to work together.
Our universities have centuries of history, they made breakthrough discoveries that have changed our world. And now we have this unique opportunity to pool our strengths, our resources, our talents, our communities to have an impact – stronger than ever – for society.
When we decided to focus on three themes – climate, democracy and global health – one could have thought that they were quite “consensual”. One year later, when we look at the world and how it has changed, no one could argue that our priorities are not central to our future.
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