Finding Certainty in Uncertain Times

The first two and a half months of 2020 have been unsettling. New uncertainties seem to arrive on a daily basis.  Smoke from nearby bush fires, a freak hailstorm and increased fire danger made life in Canberra unusual and dangerous.

This month has seen a realization of the seriousness of COVID-19, which has now been declared a Global Pandemic by the WHO.  This virus has led to cancelled flights, quarantines, banned travel, and the suspensions of large gatherings.  In recent days, a large number of universities and colleges in the USA have suspended face to face classes for the rest of the term.  At the Australian National University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS) we have been offering online options for 94% of our courses since the beginning of the term.

The disruption in higher education has been going on for several years. Outdated economic models, declining enrolments, a shift in student preference from smaller to larger institutions, have all led some to predict the demise of half of the higher education institutions in the USA over the next few years. Will the shift to online coursework quicken this demise?  Will it change the value proposition of the campus experience? While the campus educational experience is important and provides valuable experiences, especially outside the classroom, one needs to ask, at what cost?

Innovation continues in the face of adversity

Yet, many things have not changed. At CECS, the Mission and Vision to reimagine engineering education – to keep humanity in technology while creating the new world of technology – has not changed. The need for a savvy, educated workforce that resembles the people and society they serve, skilled in addressing society’s needs through solving technological problems that ensure the solutions include humanity, is more important than ever. AI, Cyber security, alternative energy, advanced materials, computer systems that enable education and communications of ideas in new ways, climate change, treatments for disease and enabling technologies for those who need them, are all a part of what we do.

“Fear is the non-acceptance of Uncertainty. If we accept that uncertainty, it becomes adventure.”  –Rumi

In a time of social distancing that includes domestic and international travel bans and bans on gatherings of over 25 people, advancement professionals are forced to ask, “How do we build community and relationships in this strange new world?”

Seven Certainties

I suggest the following “Certainties” remain with advancement despite the extreme disruptions.  Choosing to reflect on the certain, rather than the constantly changing, can help to find the ways to answer the above question. 

  1. Community and Relationship: Humans are created for relationships and community. We need them to thrive. If we cannot meet in person to create and build them, we must find other ways. We have new tools available, but the underlying need has not changed.
  2. Belonging to something greater than ourselves: We find fulfilment as a part of something greater than ourselves. We want to join together to enable a larger impact than any of us can do on our own. We need to join together to address intractable challenges. 
  3. Joy of Giving: Giving of ourselves, our financial means, our time and talents and our connections produces joy. We give to express our love for others, to express our values, to right wrongs, to address problems and to make our communities better places to live and work and play.
  4. The Power of Synergy: When we join with others of like mind, our joint efforts are synergistic. This coming together is the best way to have impact, fulfilment and joy.
  5. Advancement & Non-profit work: As advancement and non-profit professionals, our work is even more important in these times of upheaval, suffering and uncertainty. We can facilitate the creation and growth of communities of interest. We can bring people and organizations together for greater impact. Our work in building community and relationships leads to joy and satisfaction for all who seek to join us. Our combined efforts can address the pressing issues in front of us.
  6. Heartache and Joy Intermingled: During our partnership, we will struggle, meet with success, experience setbacks, and heartaches. All these experiences will be intertwined with joy.
  7. Evolving Tools: The tools we use to bring people together and to build these communities will continue to evolve. At one point, the hand written letter was the technological standard of the world. (It is still the gold standard.) The letter has been eclipsed by the phone and by email that in turn are being supplanted by social media, video calls, text, etc. We must become masters of these new and evolving means and use them in service of our work – connecting people and organizations and making them equal partners in our work together.

A focus on these certainties can help us navigate the rapid changes and shifting landscapes in which we find ourselves.

Eric Billman

1 comment

  1. What a beautiful and thoughtful piece, Eric. Practical and necessary at a crucial moment for us all.
    Thank you.


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