Chancellor Digal's remarks at the UPLB CEM Alumni Day, 2021

Written by Rene Estremera. Posted in Forums

Remarks of University of the Philippines (UP) Mindanao Chancellor Larry N. Digal at the College of Economics and Management (CEM) Discussion Forum: Leadership in the New Normal, held on July 29, 2021, at the CEM Alumni Day, UP Los Baños

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 Good morning to Chancy Cora [UP Baguio Chancellor Corazon L. Abansi], Chancy Dong [UPLB Chancellor Jose V. Camacho Jr.], Dean Agham [CEM Dean Cuevas], and to my friends and colleagues at the College of Economics and Management (CEM) and to all those who are viewing or listening to this discussion forum. 

I’m pleased to be part of the founding anniversary celebration of CEM to share my views on leadership in the new normal and how CEM helped me in shaping my leadership skills and career. My views on leadership in the new normal are based on my own experience as a leader, particularly as a chancellor of UP Mindanao. Unlike Chancy Cora and Chancy Dong, I became chancellor before COVID hit us. My term started last March 1, 2019, so I was only operating for a year under a normal situation and the second year onwards under the new normal or COVID situation. And the second part of the sharing here is how the challenges, including opportunities, changed for UP Mindanao under this new normal and adjustments we made, as well as the insights I learned as a leader during this very difficult time for the university, and actually for all of us. 

Before COVID, UP  Mindanao launched an ambitious attempt to grow the university. Maybe you do not know that UP Mindanao is the smallest among the eight UP constituent universities (CU), particularly in terms of the number of manpower, teaching and non-teaching staff, the number of students, and budget. Another reason why the growth is slow, and part of it, is its age. We are relatively young compared to other UP CUs. Yes, we have a lot of opportunities to address the wicked problems here in Mindanao, particularly poverty and conflict. We have done a lot to address these given our limited resources since our birth 26 years ago, but we need more resources to do more. So we launched an ambitious expansion program under my term. This meant revising our vision, our mission, our goals, and mapping new strategies and priorities. We were very particular about the process in doing these, engaging both internal and external stakeholders, including experts, to comment on our plans. We even presented our expansion program in the Regional Alumni Institute assembly to mobilize support from the alumni and pioneers of UP Mindanao. We followed that up with a roadshow. Together with the prominent alumni and UP System officials, we presented our programs to secretaries of DBM, NEDA, and other government agencies. This was in November 2019, a few months before COVID struck. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way we work, or all organizations worked, since last year. And most of the changes will persist and some of these will possibly be permanent. These changes that we all experience are essentially in three areas. One, we have new ways of communicating, from face to face and, like this, digital. We also have new ways of working from fixed to flexible and from office to anywhere. Even attitudes towards work have changed, shifting from tried and tested, to agile and resilient. Based on my experience as chancellor, I have to navigate our campus to enable it to cope with the challenges of the pandemic. Being flexible is a must. I also had to be very sensitive and compassionate, considering the various circumstances of our university constituents, especially that we launched a very aggressive expansion program before the pandemic. But this time I had to step back, understand, and feel the situation. You can sense a lot of fear and there are a lot of uncertainties. So my immediate priority was safety for everyone without compromising our basic operation. Following up the status of our aggressive plans before the pandemic and expecting people to still implement those were definitely out. The situation has abruptly changed. We need to adjust and adapt. We now live in a new, normal, more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and ambiguous world, what we called before the pandemic as the VUCA world. But with COVID, it has heightened the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the VUCA world. So, leaders have to adapt to this new situation, to be flexible and willing to change strategies and plans. And that’s what we did. 

While leaders need to take charge, they also need to be transparent, calm, decisive, confident, and mindful. And that’s what I tried. As we begin to adapt to the new normal, we in UP Mindanao have learned to take baby steps. Of course, with the full support from the UP System, our alumni, and other partners, to create goals that are readily attainable, collaborate with each other, and develop plans that address our institutional priorities one at a time. Our immediate concern then was safety for everyone But, after establishing the systems to ensure safety without compromising our basic operations, and after helping our stranded students on the campus to go home to their respective provinces or homes, we shifted our focus on planning and preparing for the remote online learning setup. 

Eventually, we have planned for the long haul by reviewing and adjusting our university strategic plan in consideration of the pandemic. To my surprise, most people did not want to change or scale down abruptly our aggressive plans. when the UP System asked us to review our budget, to return some money to DBM, our deans and unit heads wanted to hold back to their budgets. The message I got from this was “We are still here, willing to do the work, and we are not defeated.” That gave me a lot of encouragement because I wasn’t sure about the mental, physical, and emotional state of the people and their motivation levels. I realized that it helps when you invest in engaging everyone to plan and set the future direction of the university. 

So, we reconfigured the plans, which essentially retained the four elements of growth, participation, innovation, and inclusivity to maximize our impact. But we had to repackage and reprogram our priorities before the pandemic to respond to the new challenges and opportunities in the new normal. I said opportunities because, in reality, the situation is not entirely negative or hopeless, or desperate. We also knew that we need to build on our strengths to contribute to the fight against this pandemic. So, matching our strength with the opportunities under the new normal means that we have to repackage our plan. 

So, we came up with four major initiatives. These initiatives cluster our plans before the pandemic in the academic, research, and engagements, for a number of reasons. Aside from using our strengths to respond to opportunities, we did this because we have limited resources and manpower and we need to cluster our programs to foster teamwork and achieve a certain level of critical mass. We also see this as a strategic move in mobilizing funds and external support. 

These initiatives are the Mindanao Health initiative which has three components: the Davao City public hospital. The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for this has been signed by the mayor [Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio] recently and, hopefully, it will be approved by the Board of Regents (BOR). They actually approved this in principle before, but they have to approve it at the BOR meeting tomorrow or maybe in the next month. The second component of this is the Mindanao Research and Innovation Center for One Health. Because we have the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) Mindanao and we also have a NICER (Niche Center in the Regions) a niche program on infectious disease modeling. The PGC Mindanao is an accredited testing center for African Swine Fever. And the third component is the proposed College of Medicine. Because a medical program is actually part of our charter, our Republic Act 7889. For your information, UP Mindanao is the only UP constituent university that has its own charter, Republic Act 7889. 

The second major initiative is the Mindanao Sports Development Initiative. Because this has a very strong support from the UP System, to establish a College of Human Kinetics, we are actually banking on the 20-hectare Davao City-UP Sports Complex on our campus. 

The third major initiative is the Mindanao Innovation Initiative, and the academic program here is to establish the College of Engineering starting on a Masters in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering because we have a strong faculty in data analytics and artificial intelligence. And the major infrastructure here is the Knowledge Innovation and Science and Technology (KIST) Park focusing on our strength areas. This has been approved by the UP System in principle, based on our five areas of expertise and, we’re currently doing looking for funding for the feasibility study. 

The final initiative, the fourth one, is the Mindanao Biocultural Diversity Initiative, which includes the planned Botanical Garden and the Arts and Culture Hub. There’s a proposal to establish a Culture and Arts Center Mindanao by the Department of Tourism, so we bundled this with our Botanical Garden and our biocultural diversity program. Basically, expanding our existing academic programs. 

So, I learned a lot from managing an organization under the New Normal, particularly in implementing these major initiatives. Most of the lessons I learned are consistent with the recent publication of Cornell University’s “Leadership lessons from 2020: Navigating the new normal” where leaders and managers, according to this publication, should focus on, One, enabling versus controlling, so that we ignite human potential and organizational impact. Second, recognize the value of people who are conscientious and who connect across silos as well as those who are resilient and adaptable. In relation to these, leaders have to influence, motivate, engage and collaborate with various teams and team members. As leaders, we can influence by creating a positive influence that fosters acceptance and, in turn, positive actions. The goal should be to inspire others through one’s actions. The third is to develop clear policies to help employees transition to a post-pandemic world, including guidelines about working remotely and on-site. And fourth, communicate clearly, constantly, and concisely with your geographically dispersed teams. As the world aligns itself with the new normal, leaders likewise need to change and to help their organizations innovate, stay relevant and create value for their stakeholders. This can be done by maximizing the use of technology, including adapting to changing behavior of various stakeholders. And finding employees’ purpose and sustainability. It also involves pushing employees hard to achieve the goals they set, but, at the same time, giving them all the support they need when things get difficult. Last, but not least, is a need for leaders to be personally resilient. Effective leadership in the current crisis requires prioritizing our mental well-being alongside that of our employees. Organizations need us to make critical decisions. But the ability can deteriorate as crisis continues and I experienced that, personally. We need to recognize that we, including our colleagues and employees, all have physical and emotional limits. Hence, we should demonstrate the importance of rest, and empower young leaders in organizations to decide as well. 

So how did CEM help me in shaping my leadership skills and my career? I should say CEM has contributed in a big way in my career and in shaping my leadership skills because it was with CEM that I began building the foundation of my career as an agricultural and applied economist and in shaping some of my skills as a leader. I would say my professors in CEM helped me imagine at a young age a career as an academic and as an agricultural economist, and that’s the reason why I proceeded to take up agri-economics from my masters to Ph.D. That’s the reason why I’m one of them here in UP enjoying the life of an academic: teaching, doing research, learning, sharing, and applying what you’ve learned to make a difference in the lives of the people we work with, and that includes students. I should also mention that I received a lot of motivation and support from my adviser Doctor Generoso Octavio to pursue graduate studies and from the late Doctor Leodegario Ilag, who told me that I should go to Purdue University where he got his PhD in agricultural economics. CEM has not only opened my imagination for a possible career in the academe, but it has also honed my skills in problem-solving, in sharpening my thinking skills as an applied economist, who are exposed to various ways or models, and how to structure the factors that cause problems: micro-map factors, internal, external factors affecting firm, or any units of analysis; and find ways to solve these problems. That helped a lot, not only in my career as an academic and in leadership or managerial roles in the private and government sectors before I joined in the academe. I should say my involvement in student organizations I joined in CEM and in UPLB also helped my role as a leader, which were actually quite mixed. I was part of the UP Alliance of Economics and Management Students, Red Cross Youth of UPLB, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Teatro Omalohokan. 

And I think the metaphor of leadership in the new normal is leadership by head, by heart, and by hand. The head to envision the future and focus on the big rocks or organizational goals. The heart to inspire our people, and the hands to execute and enable agility. I certainly had a head start in CEM and in UPLB to be a good steward of what God has blessed me with: that is to use my head, heart, and hands to carry out the roles and the responsibilities and that includes leadership roles in the best way I can, especially now in this very challenging time under the new normal. 

Thank you for this opportunity to be with you as a panelist during this forum. I look forward to having a lively discussion with everyone. Maayong buntag sa tanan! Good morning!

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