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Professor Will Harvey

Professor Will Harvey

Written by Rebecca Broad

Photos supplied by Will Harvey

It’s a quarter to ten, on a drizzly Wednesday morning as my bus arrives on the University of Exeter’s Streatham campus. I disembark amongst yawning students, wind my way to the Business School, and traverse a quiet staircase to a bright office where I am to meet Professor Will Harvey.

So far, so Groundhog Day.  Exactly one year ago, in this very corridor, I presented some coursework to Professor Harvey and a panel.

But today’s meeting isn’t about deadlines or grades.  I’m here to discuss Will’s appointment as the new Chair of the Board of Trustees to Libraries Unlimited, the charity that runs Devon Libraries and Torbay Libraries.  

So, how is he hoping to start out in this new role?

“I’m keen to understand first, and then to disseminate that understanding more widely to the chief executive, to the board, with a view to discussing, ‘well, what does that mean for this organisation over the coming year, over the coming 5 years, 10 years?’

“It’s both exciting and daunting… you’ve got this organisation which has come out of being part of local government, to being a mutual, which is a very different type of organisation structure.”

Anyone who isn’t aware of the charity’s journey to realising a social enterprise structure should put down this magazine now and go and read more about this remarkable community-owned organisation, established in April 2016.  

Professor Will Harvey

Will notes the importance of his relationships with a range of stakeholders, from employees and volunteers, to the media and local councils.

“I feel really passionately about it. I think education in all guises – whether it’s in schools, universities, through libraries or other types of groups and organisations – is one of the, if not the most, important aspects of society.

“I suppose my biggest challenge is understanding how can this organisation both survive and thrive into the future.  And those are not taken for granted. Some people might say, ‘well that’s dramatic’”.

I tentatively suggest that one of the reasons organisations fail is due to their refusal to face their own transience.

“Exactly!  My view is that it is almost impossible for an organisation to be static, and to survive. I think the biggest challenge is recognising both that organisations need to be nimble and change, but also to recognise that [change] is a very, very difficult process… going through change is not something that people find easy, whether that’s people within the organisation or people that are using the organisation for its services.”

Professor Harvey is not only now a Chair of Trustees, but also Associate Dean of Research of the University’s Business School.  His work sees him teach, conduct research, travel for and consult on a range of business topics from leadership to change management.  Add to that a young family, and it’s not unreasonable to wonder how one human can do all of this.

“It’s very, very difficult, I think, to balance a successful career, a good family life, connection with your friends, giving time for yourself, and also eating well and exercise.  All of those things I try hard to do. The reality is, I find, the day is short in terms of achieving everything I’d like to do.”

A struggle many of us identify with, I’m sure.  Just how does he schedule his day, to make the most of it?

“So, for example this morning, my alarm clock went off at 5am, and I left home just before 6.  I’m in the office by quarter to seven, and I try and work hard for a couple of hours on key tasks when the building is quite quiet.”

He laughs, and we wryly acknowledge just how much a day in academia can flex and vary.

“I also try very hard – and I will do this today – to leave the office at 4pm, so that I’m back at 5 o’clock, so that I can support my wife with dinner, playing with the kids, bathtime, reading time and bedtime.”

We discuss this constant striving for balance (his approach is “strongly underpinned by the huge support that my wife provides…we have to work as a team”)  before I ask for his views on Devon.

“I think one of the things we’re really lucky about in this county is that combination of both having that connection to the local and the environment and nature, and also having a population who are still quite outwardly looking and not overly parochial… willing to connect with and learn from other parts of the country and other parts of the world.”

It’s easy to understand why this international view is important to Professor Harvey.  His academic experience has encompassed Durham, Cambridge, Harvard, British Columbia and Oxford, and his visiting positions have included institutions in India, Germany and Norway.  Will joined Exeter 5 years ago, from the University of Sydney’s Business School.

“Do I think we could be more diverse, more heterogenous?  Sure. But, you know, just because we don’t have a demographic population that is highly heterogenous doesn’t mean that cognitively that population is not engaged in thinking diversely.  I think sometimes those two things – demographic and cognitive diversity – get somewhat conflated.”

A viewpoint I’d never considered, and one I will be sure to employ in challenging dismay at Exeter’s lack of diversity.

We get onto the subject of diet; something that students and academics stereotypically struggle with, but a facet of life which is integral to wellbeing.  Will’s knowledge principally comes from his wife. Ruth is a Registered Dietician who has worked in hospitals across the world, and founded Pod & Pea Nutrition.  Professor Harvey points out that diet, like many other areas in this age of information saturation, encompasses plenty of misinformation – with interesting psychosocial effects.

“When it’s topics that have a strong impact on someone’s identity, then people choose to accept information that suits them.  Because we all eat. If I say to you, well, you shouldn’t eat this… that actually challenges you.

“Equally, that’s also true of – coming back to the Libraries discussion – ‘this is what a library will look like in five to ten years’ time’: that is also an identity conflict, because it challenges how people use it, or how people relate to their own experiences.”

I’m suddenly reminded that Will’s ability to connect issues, while simultaneously empathising with the people behind them, is why I found him to be such an inspiring lecturer.

“Anything which challenges someone’s identity is not going to be a straightforward process.  That’s, I suppose, a lesson – whether it’s eating, whether it’s one’s perception about Brexit, or whether it’s something like using a library.  There’s actually a strand that goes through all three of those disparate events.”

With that, I leave Professor Harvey to continue weaving the strands of his day together.

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