Fernando León García, president of CETYS University (Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior) with three campuses in Mexico, takes over the three-year presidency of the International Association of University Presidents or IAUP – often described as the global voice of higher education – at its 2021 Triennial Conference, to be held virtually from 29 to 31 July.
The conference theme is “Innovation and Inclusion: Key priorities for higher education in a post-pandemic world”.
In this interview, León García outlines the areas of focus for his presidency for university leaders around the world coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and looking ahead to a post-pandemic world.
UWN: What do you see as the main challenges for university leaders in the next three years as you take on the presidency of IAUP?
León García: Society and higher education tend to go in cycles but there are some recurrent themes. What the pandemic has done is intensified some and provided further challenges on others that we were not acting on.
Focusing on innovation and inclusion, the themes of the conference, the pandemic forces us to review everything we were doing and to try to recover in whatever way we can, but to be careful enough not to go back to everything as it was.
The pandemic has pulled the rug from under us, and it does require us to profoundly reflect on what needs to be improved, what needs to be changed, what needs to be transformed.
First, we need to be more inclusive in whatever we do – everything: students, faculty outreach, with society, partners and partnerships. Second, we need to do things better. And in some cases, differently, which, in a broad sense, is innovation.
The four key words are recovery and transformation, innovation and inclusion. They capture the lion’s share of what we will have to face as institutions in higher education. And, of course, recovery does involve economic recovery, because we have all been impacted.
UWN: IAUP is a global organisation but not all regions or countries are out of the pandemic; some are very much in the throes of it. So how easy is it for university leaders to look ahead at this point?
León García: There’s no single yardstick or measure through which we can gauge progress and lead progress. Just like the pandemic manifested itself throughout the world, first in one place, then another, all of a sudden, so we will see different speeds and stages of recovery and development.
Some are at stage one, the emergency stage. Then there are countries still scrambling around because of lack of vaccination, because of an unclear policy or strategy about how to approach the pandemic and a sense of denial in some countries.
There are others who have managed it to a reasonable degree, not necessarily of control, but at least some kind of orderly way of trying to recover and move forward – that would be the transition stage where most of the world, the developed and developing world, happened to be, but there are many still in the emergency stage.
And then there are some who are already seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And that would be the transformation stage.
Eventually, we will all need to be in the transformational stage.
The recommendation, of course, is: Don’t wait until the environment is better. It’s time to begin to reflect and try to transform, whether you happen to be in the emergency stage or transition.
University leaders should reflect on what things were working fine despite the pandemic, what is because of the pandemic, and which things were we not doing at all. The pandemic is forcing us to say: now it’s on the table, it’s part of the challenge of higher education.
UWN: You’re in Mexico, in the Latin American region. How has the region fared from your perspective?
León García: In Latin America in general, if you look at the number of cases, the number of deaths, the number of vaccinations, it’s a mixture. But overall, we’re behind the curve, catching up.
In most Latin American countries, it has been a centralised approach to what’s needed to be done. There are some that have been more proactive. That has affected the form and speed which, in particular, higher education institutions have been able to pivot, and in some cases recover.
In the United States, the United Kingdom and other developed countries, you have residential education and that portion of what universities offered was not available during the pandemic. The…
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