After a major disaster, everyone is in a state of shock. The physical and financial risks of operation are increased, and staff and students will be stressed by events in their home lives as well as what is going on at work. One of the first big questions you are likely to face is whether to keep operating, or to go into hiatus until you can come back repaired and ready to operate business as usual.
Our first strategic priority was ensuring the long-term survival of the university. With this in mind, we consulted internationally and the unequivocal advice we received was to stay open. If students drop away and enroll elsewhere, they won’t come back. Staff and programmes will follow, and the work required to rebuild that pipeline will likely kill the organisation.
We re-opened three weeks after the February 22, 2011 earthquake, initially teaching in tents, and we have remained open ever since. Student numbers did drop, but they stayed at a viable level. It was a difficult time with limited resources requiring compromises from students and staff, but it was the right decision for us. We signaled early that replacing and repairing damaged facilities was a top priority and this helped us remain competitive in the short to medium term.
We investing consciously in supporting continued quality of learning during recovery and, for our Engineering students, the campus even became a “living laboratory” offering a unique opportunity to engage with real world professional issues.
This strategy took courage and required us to make major decisions more rapidly than would normally be the case. We were operating in a higher-risk environment than universities are accustomed to, and we needed to acknowledge the risk but back ourselves to succeed. It’s a downward spiral otherwise. Now, with new facilities on campus designed for today’s teaching, research and learning requirements, our position is stable and student numbers continue to grow towards pre-quake levels.