5 questions for Dr. Graham Harrison, Managing Director of EUniWell

08/02/2022 | by Eva Laurie | European Universities Staff

Graham Harrison has been the Managing Director of EUniWell since February 2022. In order to take up this position, the British-born executive made the long move across the Atlantic from Washington DC to Cologne. It seems a natural conclusion then, that the European University for Well-Being to Harrison is not just an opportunity to help shape a European flagship project, but also a venture that is close to his heart. In this second instalment of our “5 Questions for...”, we therefore endeavoured to learn where this drive comes from, what drew him to the project, and what particular opportunities he sees in European University Alliances.

A portrait photo of Dr. Graham Harrison, Managing Director of EUniWell.
Dr. Graham Harrison.

1. In February 2022, you took up the position as Managing Director of EUniWell – why do you think well-being should be a central factor in the academic context?

At their heart, universities are about advancing knowledge and our understanding of the world. As the European Strategy for Universities notes, ‘Universities have a unique position at the crossroads of education, research, innovation, serving society and economy’. They teach and train the next generation. They conduct research that pushes scientific frontiers. They have a responsibility to contribute to building a better society, and to do that must reach beyond the campus into local communities and broader society. Universities must both define new areas of academic inquiry, and respond to complex societal challenges that require new ways of thinking and collaboration to effectively address.

For me, well-being is not solely an academic interest or pursuit, but rather a broad topic that should permeate the academic environment. Research is of course essential: driven by academics, but informed by stakeholders including private companies and public bodies. Well-being should also be a focus for the people of a university. This focus should include students, but also academic and non-academic staff. And when we consider these aspects, universities can become a model - driven by research and evidence - of how a better understanding, and incorporation, of well-being can serve society.

2. How did you personally become interested in the topic of well-being, what does it mean to you?

I’m still learning about the breadth of Well-Being! I see the work of the four EUniWell Arenas - focused on Well-Being & Health, Individual & Social Well-Being, Environment, Urbanity & Well-Being, and Teacher Education. I see the new directions that come from bottom-up projects supported by the EUniWell Seed Funding Calls.

As a young faculty member - teaching undergraduates and supervising PhD students - I recognized that the relationships with students were important. It wasn’t just about teaching content, but supporting and mentoring students in a broader context. Including well-being. And I saw first hand the need for a focus on staff well-being in a university context.

More recently, I’m interested in how we can consider well-being as part of societal, or national, development. Progress shouldn’t be measured solely in technological innovation, or increased GDP. I look to the Council of the European Union Statement of the Economy of Well-Being, which ‘aims to put people and their wellbeing at the centre of policy and decision-making’. This goal will require strong research underpinnings coupled with effective communication and dissemination. The ongoing work of the OECD Better Life Initiative is another extensive example of how well-being is being studied and measured.

3. Your own academic background in chemical engineering might appear to some quite far removed from the advancement of well-being and an integrated European Education Area that you are now committed to. Where do you see the common thread that has led you to your current position?

As a discipline, Chemical Engineering is typically thought of as a long way from Well-Being. But a EUniWell Seed Funding Project entitled ‘MaterialWell - Materials Science for Wellness’ does demonstrate how disciplines that we may think are disconnected to well-being can play an important role in our work.

When I was an undergraduate student, my university prioritized a broad, liberal education that focused on cultivating curiosity, how to think critically, how to learn, how to adapt to a changing environment, and how to communicate. My curriculum acknowledged that many (most?) people don’t spend 40 years working in careers related to their undergraduate field of study. And while a PhD focuses on an academic, thematic question, the skills I learned to earn that degree went far beyond chemical engineering. So while my path may not be linear, there are some connections from my background as a chemical engineer to the Managing Director of EUniWell.

My chemical engineering academic career - with a postdoc in Australia, a teaching assignment in Thailand, and research sabbaticals in the UK and Portugal - was inherently international. I learned that the perspectives, experience and knowledge I gained through international collaboration made me a better chemical engineer, teacher and researcher. And I think that is true in all academic disciplines, and also the vast majority of all careers.

4. Perhaps there are even particular advantages that your previous roles bring to your work as Managing Director of EUniWell?

The Managing Director of a European University Alliance requires many characteristics. I believe that my academic background as a faculty member does help me understand the many demands on the academic staff who are so critical to EUniWell’s success. At the US National Science Foundation, I focused on facilitating international research collaboration, in particular between US and European researchers. I learned the importance of personal relationships, the value of long-term networking, and the need to build trust between different organisations and systems. Much of my work was with the European Commission and public funding agencies in European countries. I have long admired how Europeans collaborate across borders, and now my work with the EUniWell Partners gives me a different perspective on that European multinational cooperation. For the last five years, I worked at the World Bank on projects supporting higher education and research funding. The focus was on building the foundations for a stronger sector - at the regional, national and university levels. Institutional transformation - including strategy, management, and digital education - was a priority, and I believe that goal for transformation is also true at EUniWell and at all the European Alliances.

5. What do you believe are the biggest opportunities for European University Alliances and EUnIWell in particular, and how do you want to contribute to their success?

I believe that the European University Alliances provide a real opportunity to strengthen higher education in Europe. Higher education should always be open to evolving and adapting. The Alliances provide an opportunity to learn from our Partners, to learn with our Partners. Alliances can pilot new initiatives, and quickly share results. Alliances can leverage resources and expertise, build a critical mass, and build activities jointly that exceed the individual capacities of the Partners. At EUniWell, we see that collaboration for example in our Research Arenas which leverage strengths across the Partners, and also in the development of Masters programmes that benefit from the faculty expertise across eight different universities.

It is clear that the multinational consortia that form Alliances must leverage and build upon the digital transformation in higher education. The pandemic may have given us a crash course in how to transition to online teaching and learning, but now as campuses re-open it is critical to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, and where we can improve going forward. We must invest in digital education - the backbone and the content - to create a truly European University.

I think EUniWell is uniquely positioned as a European University Alliance. With our focus on well-being, we have identified a theme that resonates with our member universities and our Associated Partners. Just as importantly, well-being is increasingly acknowledged as a core value for Europe and for thriving societies. EUniWell must continue to develop as an Alliance, and actively contribute to well-being as an academic endeavour. EUniWell must also disseminate its work, contribute to the policy dialogue, and become a resource in Europe and beyond on well-being topics. I’m excited to be part of this initiative!


5 Questions for…

In our series “5 Questions for...” we regularly introduce you to the minds behind EUniWell. Experienced leaders, skilled professionals and young talents will answer questions about their work and visions as they relate to well-being. We give EUniWell a face and a voice.


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