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Ms. Catherine Arnold OBE

Interviewed by Christopher Schaefer

When did it become clear to you that the coronavirus was going to be serious for us?


It was clear from February that this was an issue that collegiate Cambridge needed to take seriously. We were, however, operating within a context and framework set by the UK government. We will be discussing what could or should have been done and when for years to come.



How would you describe your responsibilities during the pandemic?


I saw my role as leading the College – all parts of it – through the crisis. As a former diplomat I’ve had to work on and through a range 0f different crises, from kidnappings to rocket attacks to political crises such as Crimea in 2014.


There are some aspects of any crisis that are the same and demand the same type of response, so I was lucky to have had this experience and be able to bring it to St Edmund’s. This included a change in the style of leadership, the need to break down any silos between departments in the College, clear prioritisation, regular meetings so everyone knows their assignments, reassigning roles and responsibilities, and ensuring some of the basic crisis planning tools such as daily situation reports were in place.


Every crisis is also unique. Possibly the hardest thing about the last year has been that nobody has remained unaffected, but our individual reactions, our needs and desires, have often been highly divergent. How can I, as a leader, help nearly 1,000 people buy into a common framework of how we will get through this together as a college – a place where we learn, research, work, live? It’s a big question.



Who were you working with most closely during that first lockdown?


I spent the greatest amount of time with my fellow College Officers and the staff on site, often until late into the night and at weekends. We were having to deliver extraordinary changes to how the College ran. There were dozens of major decisions to be taken at speed and then implemented in a context that was rapidly evolving – globally, nationally and within collegiate-Cambridge – and in which many core staff could no longer come into work.


As a leader in a crisis it is important to be visible and accessible. I aimed to be as visible as possible to as many parts of the St Edmund’s community as possible, students, fellows, senior members, staff, alumni, to make sure that people knew what we were doing and why – but that wasn’t always easy, both because of the workload and the practicalities of “cutting through” when so many people couldn’t come into College anymore.


I was also very involved in the University’s crisis response, both in regular meetings with other Heads of House and as their representative on the University’s COVID Recovery Taskforce. It was very important that colleges and the University stayed as joined-up as possible in our response. The camaraderie of those facing similar challenges is so important in an extended crisis.



How many hours a week were you working in the early weeks of the pandemic?


Certainly for the first few months I don’t really recall thinking about much other than the College when awake, although I did take up running daily to force myself out of College. I listened to all of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 objects, which was a wonderful counterpoint.



How did you feel in late March? What motivated you to keep going?


Late March for me was still only the beginning. Service is a deep part of the ethos of being a member of a college, so you know that when you join. 


Senior and junior members will give back huge amounts of their time for no reward other than the enhancement of the college to which they belong. Clearly a crisis is different. In many ways life narrows and focusses. But within that scope the volume of work expands dramatically.


At the time, I don’t recall anyone in the College thinking about anything other than doing what needed to be done. It made me extraordinarily proud to see and to be a member of a community like this.


I’ve made several good friendships through the crisis that I hope will endure. I’ve missed seeing friends in London and my monthly visits to my mother. But that is part of the reality of this year for everyone. I’m lucky that years as a diplomat have made me used to spending significant periods of time in new places without friends or external activities. Out came my books, recorder and iPlayer.



What do you remember most about the first few weeks of COVID-19?


How people came together, the tremendous spirit of mutual support and concern and the willingness of people to help and go well beyond what was expected of them—a special shout-out to the CR Executive and their supporters. Wow.


What are you most proud of during this past year?


The people of St Edmund’s. Students, staff, fellows, senior members, alumni, donors. It’s hard to know how to say thank you to all the people who have played a part, but I hope that knowing that the College you’re part of has ridden through this storm and come out stronger is itself a reward and that you will treasure your part in that as you deserve to.



What was the biggest shock during this past year?


That the weather in England can be sunny almost non-stop for months and precisely when we most needed it to play nicely with us.



Do you have a favourite memory from this past year from your work dealing with the pandemic?


One of my favourite poems is the “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed. a British war poet. It perfectly captures that juxtaposition between the mundane realities of war or other crises and the sublime that is all around us. I spent a lot of time listening to and watching the birds and creatures in St Edmund’s grounds, and the garden as each leaf and flower burst out – all completely oblivious to what was going on for humans. It provides important perspective.



What stands out to you most about 2020?


It’s a year in which the normal three dimensionality of life has become flattened. It’s like looking back on a 2D drawing of life, faintly shaded in watercolours, rather than a bold 3D relief.



As you were trying to plan in a rapidly changing situation, what did you get right? What did you get wrong?


Ah, that’s always the million-dollar question. Having worked through a range of crises, I have learned that the important thing is to focus on what will make the next crisis or the new post-crisis reality better.


Hindsight is invaluable, but it can be very dangerous if mishandled: each of us can only take decisions within a lived context. So the question must be what would I have done differently within that context, could we have reflected more on something, was there more we could have known at that time that would have altered our risk assessment or decision making? Was there a different way I could have behaved that would have created a different environment?


The thing I got right was to change the College staff structures to align behind clear cross-college COVID and crisis objectives, but that’s standard crisis leadership and management. I probably wish I’d done that sooner, but given the ambiguous external environment it might not have changed any of the subsequent decisions.



Are there any procedures or methods or habits that we have adopted in the past year that will be transferable into post-COVID times?


Oh so many. I’m determined to continue to cut through any remaining silos. Flexible working and studying needs to remain in some form. Being able to host dinners via Zoom with people from Shanghai to San Francisco is an incredible benefit to a college as international as ours.


Most of all though, I think everyone longs to be able to come together again.

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