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    My job in higher ed: Wendy Purcell, Professor at Harvard University

    Wendy Purcell tells us about her role at Harvard, what education means to her and how virtual reality will impact teaching
    Last updated:
    February 15, 2024

    Wendy is Professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and formerly served as President and Vice-Chancellor of Plymouth University. She tells us about her research, what education means to her and the role artificial intelligence and virtual reality can play in learning.

    How did you come to your role at Harvard?

    I initially joined the school to do a short sabbatical. It was originally only going to be six weeks, but now, by the time I'm going to finish, it will have been two years.

    I'm there as a research scholar. It's kind of back to the floor for me: going from being a vice-chancellor of a university back to my academic roots. I’m writing articles, working on books and supporting some programmes which are around sustainability and leadership.

    What is your writing focusing on?

    What I've been writing about for many, many years now is higher education and disruption. What's been happening in the sector and how we might better respond to that. I’m currently writing about how to articulate distinctiveness and how universities can get leadership, governance and management fit for purpose. I’m also looking at how institutions can create environments where creativity is genuinely nurtured.

    I've also been doing a whole series for a group called Looking Round Corners. It’s a programme about globalisation, talent, digitisation and how you can better position universities for all the big challenges they face.

    How has it been transitioning from President and Vice-Chancellor at Plymouth to moving into your new role?

    Being a university president or vice-chancellor is 24/7, 365. I wanted to make sure that, before I went to another institution, I regrouped and reminded myself what I'm about.

    Being back with students has been great. Going back to the floor has shown me how incredibly focused and passionate people are about their teaching, their students, their research and the work that they do. A university's administration can become detached from just how passionate their staff are about their subjects and their domains. I love having very open conversations with people about all sorts of subjects. And it’s very liberating to not be there with a senior management hat on.

    How has it been transitioning between the UK and US education systems?

    It's been an incredibly interesting time to be in the US. I came in September 2016 so I've seen everything from the presidential debates to the election through to the aftermath.

    In Boston, there are 80 or 90 different universities or colleges. They exist literally side-by-side. You have small, religious, private colleges right next door to a huge public university. But they all appear to have a sense of comfort in who they are and clarity about what they're offering. There isn't that squabbling that you get in the UK, where you have to be dismissive of someone else to somehow advance your own position. They all coexist, even side by side or on the same campus.

    What does a typical day look like? Is there such a thing?

    There's no typical day and that’s been fantastic. Things can just happen – you can just meet someone for coffee and things don't have to be planned three weeks in advance. The opportunity to go to more community events has been great.

    I'm writing a book about how we're using old leadership skills for this new world and how we need to update our leadership toolkit in order to develop sustainable organisations. Sometimes when I’m writing I look up and think 'oh my goodness, three or four hours have disappeared'. I’ve really appreciated having more time. My diary – or calendar as I now need to say in the US – has gone from being like a barcode to having much more white space in it, and that’s a healthier way to work.

    What are the main challenges you face in your role and how do you try to overcome them?

    I need to get my papers out and my book finished. Other than those challenges, something I’m always thinking about is how I can best help the sector. I think universities and colleges play a critical role in society. How can we help them get better at responding to a changing world?

    In the US, there's lots of discussion about the skills gap. How can we help universities respond to disruption, be distinctive, be confident and sustainable? Having space to think at a university is such a privilege. We have to be provocative and be the place where things can get said. That role in society is very important.

    It's a hard sector. It's complicated. We're trained to argue for a living. Some people don't like that and want to tell people things instead. But that would drive me up the wall. You need a challenge.

    What are the most rewarding parts?

    My favourite part is when you see that light that goes on in the moment when somebody gets something. That's a great experience.

    I love it when disciplines collide. When I'm sitting there as a scientist with someone from a completely different background and you get these two disciplines colliding. That's happened a lot since I've been at Harvard. There's this incredible mashing of disciplines.

    How do you think technology use in higher education is set to change in the next 10 years?

    Artificial intelligence and virtual reality are already playing a part in HE, albeit in limited roles and mostly in the research space. At the Future Edtech conference in June, there was a talk about training surgeons with VR.

    In areas like the sciences, to be able to spin molecules in 3D is amazing. I think VR will open up learning to a range of students because it makes things so hands-on. It brings to life concepts that some people couldn't otherwise get to grips with. You can create things in the digital world which couldn't exist in the physical world.

    Children, adults, all of us – we're all curious beings. That curiosity is what drives you to learn something. In many places, your curiosity gets stamped on. I think this digital stuff isn't going to replace us all but make things more accessible, more open and drive curiosity.

    What does education mean to you?

    When we spoke about transforming lives, that is heartfelt. That's what education has done for me. I come from an Irish immigrant family. They very much saw education as a currency. It gives you choice. And that's such a privilege.

    Education is about transforming lives and therefore transforming society. It's about an equality of choice. Without education, you don't have choices and you can't participate to your full extent. It's a social justice agenda for me.

    I was walking to Angel tube station recently and someone came up to me and said 'you gave me my first break in senior management'. On another occasion, someone stopped me and said 'you gave a tutorial at the Open University at that made me go off and do X.' It's a great feeling to know you've touched lives in those ways.


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