Tales from the Lockdown #10: a conversation with Daniel Traça, Nova SBE
29 May 2020
In this series of conversations, our guests talk to Senior Consultant Claudia Monteiro about what they're learning during the pandemic and what future they're imagining.
Daniel Traça is Dean at Nova School of Business and Economics (Nova SBE), Portugal
What aren’t we talking enough about during this crisis?
We aren’t talking enough about the disruption in international politics and the impact it might have on higher education. There’s an emerging tension which might challenge the business model for some schools, particularly those who’ve been over reliant on a single market like China. What will happen to relationships between the US and China when the pandemic ends? And what relationship will Europe have with Asia by then? Will the UK be seen as less safe than other European countries due to its handling of the pandemic? We might see some realignment once universities are ready to ‘dance with the virus’ - as they have done in Asia, where life has returned to schools and campuses. I don’t think students will stop going away to study – but political conflict might influence how and where they go to do so.
We’re fortunate at Nova SBE in that we continue to get applications for the September intake. Here in Portugal both the public and the government have done what it takes to contain the spread of this virus and that boosts the confidence people have in our institutions. There’s still a lot of uncertainty but I remain optimistic about the future.
Tell us a tale of one of your local heroes, a person or a group within your university or school community who have pulled out all the stops at this time of crisis.
Our staff have been incredible. Women make a significant percentage of our workforce, and it’s women who tend to take on the lion’s share of childcare and homeschooling. Despite that our female colleagues are putting in the hours and doing what it takes so students continue to be supported throughout this disruption. I really want to thank them.
A word of thanks to our students as well. There’s a debate out there on whether there’s a mismatch between programme fees and this new form of online education. The reality is most schools had to embark on extra expenditure to be able to move quickly to digital formats.
And finally, we have created the Role to Play initiative. This initiative brought everyone together towards a common goal which was to get information to those who most needed it.
Here at Nova SBE all of our communities have stepped forward to do something for each other, and that changes the way one looks at value – when we see others giving, we want to join in with that wave of generosity.
Has your school’s mission been changed in any way with this pandemic?
We define ourselves as a community dedicated to talent and knowledge and our sense of localism has deepened since we moved out here to the municipality of Cascais. We started a few initiatives to support local SMEs and teamed up with Deloitte to facilitate access to those rescue packages the government have put together for businesses. We’ve always had a strong commitment to impact, but there’s an amazing energy of generosity right now: students are currently working on projects with more than 100 SME’s and faculty have been running free webinars for our business community.
The wellbeing and welfare of students is also at the forefront of what we’re focusing on. About half of our postgraduate students are international and were away from their families when this crisis hit. We partnered with NGOs who could offer mental health support and took away financial worries students and their families had regarding fees, putting in place longer term payment plans.
Name one change that you or your organisation has been forced to take that you’d like to carry into the future?
The big question for all of us is how digital will transform learning, and what is this form of blended learning – where digital meets experiential – that we’re currently debating.
There’s a wide spectrum within that range and no one has yet figured out what the winning formula is. Here at Nova SBE we switched from a classroom experience to digital in two to three working days, a remarkable achievement. A lot of us are considering how we open in September in a format that’s partly delivered in the classroom, partly delivered digitally to ensure social distancing. But that can’t happen in a half-hazard way and we’ll need to partner with solutions that can offer that.
Crucially, technology is only half of it. For me a big piece of the jigsaw is culture – how do we begin to replicate the student experience and the culture we have on campus? We’re right on the beach and on the doorstep of one of the most exciting European capital cities, there’s a lifestyle that comes with being here that’s so important to us. And a particular ‘rolling up our sleeves’ mindset that’s very alive in this school – how do we build and foster that sense of culture in an online environment?
The other big one is that it was previously thought that faculty were resistant to online teaching. The pandemic threw that belief into disarray, online teaching is now part of our day-to-day reality.
Can you reflect on one area that you might let go of, going forward?
The obvious one is travel as everyone will be very conscious of money and time spent on flights. We’re going to try to move forward with that.
What partnerships and collaborations really came into play when it came down to it?
We have quite a number of partners who’ve made a world of difference. Cisco and Microsoft partnered with us at the new campus, and it’s thanks to them that we’ve had robust IT systems from the very beginning. Their support was crucial in the move to online teaching and remote working. [The municipality of] Cascais was, once again, a great bridge when it comes to the community engagement we’re experiencing. And I have to say that being part of a main university has been great to share ideas and practice, I can pick up the phone and speak to Deans of other schools who are going through the same.
What have you learnt about yourself?
As a Dean I’ve learnt how important is for me to continue to galvanize everyone towards our mission and vision. Now that I’m not having those little chats in the corridor, I’m realising that our big meetings are as important as the one-to-one casual conversations that used to inform my day on campus.
This crisis has brought on more of who we are into the workplace – the daily clutter of our home life is lurking in. How are you experiencing that?
I’ve noticed everyone feels a little more relaxed, even in the way we're dressing for work. At the beginning of the pandemic people were wearing ties to online meetings and I hardly see those around now. I feel that’s a positive – we're learning more about our colleagues’ family lives and about their kids. I hope that openness is here to stay.
I don’t think that our fundamental human nature is going to be transformed - but if we find ways of learning from this experience and become more human, then this crisis will not be wasted. Let’s be better teachers, better managers and better human beings. And let’s find the time to mourn those who’ve died.
Photo: Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels.
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