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The COVID-19 restrictions have been tightened once again. To many staff members and students, this feels like a step backwards. We chatted with members of the Board of the University Jouke de Vries, Cisca Wijmenga and Hans Biemans about managerial struggles, the path to a new university and the impact of the coronavirus on their private lives.
Text: Riepko Buikema, UG Communication, photographs: Reyer Boxem
So, there he was in mid-March. The University had been closed for all in-person contact and the Board was in crisis mode. Sitting at his kitchen table, Biemans was witness to the consequences of his managerial decisions every single day. His wife lectures at the UG. ‘I watched from close quarters as she pioneered the setting up of a teaching programme in just a few days, with the help of the Department of Educational Support and Innovation. She is highly adaptable, like many of her colleagues, but adaptability eventually wears thin. The solutions are far from simple. Teaching online is very demanding and is taking its toll on the mental resilience of our teaching staff. Lecturers set the bar very high, and students see this too, but everyone is struggling with the same feeling: it’s not what we’d expected. As a manager, it is good for me to see and experience these emotions.’
The thing that Rector Magnificus Cisca Wijmenga misses the most at the moment is feedback on the day-to-day goings on at the University, most of which she used to glean from informal chats with colleagues and students. ‘During my introduction round of the faculties and service units, I met a wonderfully diverse community of people. I loved the passion that they showed for their work. I’m not under the illusion that I have much influence on their happiness at work, but these conversations were a good way of hearing how we, as management staff, can remove any barriers. I found it invigorating. The chats in the corridors before or after the weekly inaugural speeches that I used to chair have dried up completely. It’s much more difficult to get a picture of what’s going on. I do still get feedback from regular meetings with the Deans or the Young Academy, for example, but I miss the spontaneous encounters terribly.’
The recent tightening up of the COVID-19 restrictions feels like a step backwards, says President of the Board of the University Jouke de Vries. ‘I’ve noticed that many people are finding it particularly hard to make these changes again. Closing the University once is one thing; doing it twice is much more difficult. The sheer uncertainty of the situation can be very disheartening. These are difficult times, which demand resilience from staff and students alike. The Board is doing its best to provide some kind of perspective. We want to make maximum use of the leeway that is available to keep the University open. I am not gloomy by nature, but we are definitely struggling with this.’
Wijmenga: ‘Research and teaching must go ahead wherever possible. At the same time, everyone should be working from home unless this simply isn’t possible. So, when is it necessary to come to the UG? This is a very complicated question. We are adamant that staff and students should not feel disassociated from the University. There must be room for some personal contact, even if this is just spending one day a week working with a few close colleagues or with small groups of students. For example, we are trying to find extra places where students can meet up safely. We want to be proactive in encouraging interaction because we are fully aware of just how important the social aspect is.’
One of the ways that the UG is doing this is by investing in the former Open Universiteit building, says Biemans. ‘We are creating room for study associations to organize activities on the ground floor. And extra workstations for students on the first floor, which will be available after the autumn break.’
All of these efforts are based on the knowledge that we have today, Wijmenga is keen to stress. The recent rise in the number of infections and the tightening up of the COVID-19 restrictions have taught us just how quickly intended policies can become outdated. ‘This makes the situation very confusing for everyone. For students, teaching staff, researchers, administrative and support staff and managers. We are all consumed by the issues of the day. I am acting as project leader for the new Strategic Plan 2021-2026 on behalf of the Board. This is additional to the regular tasks for many of my colleagues. I don't really feel comfortable asking people to take on additional work in the current situation. On the other hand, I know that some colleagues find a project like this invigorating. It's a tricky balancing act.’
Biemans, who has worked for the UG for 20 years, points to a drawing of the 1906 fire in the Academy Building on the wall of his office. ‘That’s a good metaphor. We had to act swiftly, just like the fire-fighters and bystanders in the picture. It was completely different from the way that a university usually operates, with well-prepared, much-discussed policy proposals. Here in Groningen, we favour a decentralized approach, with faculties operating as autonomous units. The question now is whether it’s possible to involve the community sufficiently in decision-making during a crisis like this? It feels as if we are using up our credit. That’s a bit scary. We may well make decisions that turn out not to be suitable in hindsight. I hope that staff and students understand the dilemmas that we are facing.’
Wijmenga, who suffers from asthma and is therefore deemed vulnerable, has seen Groningen transform from a relatively safe haven into an acute coronavirus hotspot. ‘The city has always been my safe place. Disease, testing and quarantine were things that went on in faraway countries. I can really understand how difficult the COVID-19 restrictions must be for students. But we have no choice. We are in danger of creating a new social divide, whereby the elderly are too scared to leave the house.’
The virus is testing the solidarity between generations – at least that's how Biemans sees it from his kitchen table. ‘My daughter is studying at the Faculty of Medicine. It suddenly closed its doors, with no warning, which had quite an impact on students. As a manager, it's easy for me to think: come on youngsters, put your best foot forward and stick to the rules. But when my daughter tells me about her student accommodation, about the enormous social networks that they have, and the huge overlap between the groups, I can see just how difficult it is for them. At the same time, students can definitely be stricter about the basic rules. They don’t really need to sit on each other’s laps. I can be very strict in this respect.’
The virus has, of course, also affected their private lives too. Biemans’ mother has dementia and lives in a care home that has been closed to visitors three times now. Wijmenga didn’t see her mother for three months. ‘She is dreading the winter. It’s so sad.’ De Vries became a grandfather for the first time last March, but the coronavirus pandemic put an end to the trip he had planned to Los Angeles to see and hold his grandson Weston. ‘Becoming a grandpa is a wonderful thing. I know that a lot of people are contending with much worse things as a result of this virus. But if you ask me how I’m doing; there’s an unused blue highchair in our garage. My wife and I don’t talk about it, but that doesn’t mean that we miss seeing them any less.’
De Vries, who presented plans for a new strategy, interdisciplinary cooperation in schools and the University of the North concept when he was appointed two years ago, is aware that the current crisis mode is threatening many of his long-term ambitions. ‘And yet we have to keep thinking about the university of the future, even in these uncertain times. I don’t believe that things will get back to how they were. The virus will die out and the situation will normalize, but studying, working and travelling will inevitably change. This will get us thinking. I have every faith in the creativity of staff and students. It might sound a bit old-fashioned, but I believe in our people and our students. We have the resilience to get through this.’
The coronavirus pandemic may have wreaked havoc in a record time, says Biemans, but we don’t have to start again from scratch. ‘We can build our new university on the foundations of the old one. Before the summer, for example, we decided to invest an extra €5 million in support for our lecturers. This money is intended to provide additional IT facilities and extra staff to help with the switch to online teaching. It’s up to us to provide good facilities and find the right mindset.’
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