We have now been living nearly a full year with COVID-19 and measures to tackle the pandemic. It has had an impact on all of us and on all aspects of our lives. The UG has also been working with demanding restrictions during this time. How have those restrictions affected the Board of the University of Groningen? How do they see the past year and, particularly, what perspective can they offer us for the future?
Jouke de Vries (President of the University Board): “I’m proud that we rapidly changed to working as an online university. It took an enormous amount of effort from teachers, and also students, but I’m very proud of what they managed to do and I hope that the lessons we can draw from this experience can be transformed into policy for the future of the UG.
There are two other points that I’m proud of and the first is that, despite the corona crisis, we have been able to draw up a new strategic plan for the next five years (2021-2026). I hope it offers a good perspective for the future. I’m also proud of the fact that we have a pilot rapid test centre in Groningen to explore whether it can offer possibilities for university activities.”
Hans Biemans (Financial director): “I was very pleased that our ICT department was up to the task of putting so many courses on online. They quickly produced a guide for teachers. The logistics were also taken care of: the library stayed open offering 450 desks for students in need. And the University office proved to be decisive and worked together well. A prolonged crisis is very different to running a large organization under normal circumstances.”
When these Board members started working together, they arranged to have their offices all on the same floor so they could chat easily and once they were working only online, they kept up their frequent exchanges of information. The deans also keep the Board well informed about what is happening in the faculties.
The Board also noted how well the whole university worked together and cooperated between various sectors and divisions. Perhaps, previously, people thought that just wasn’t possible. But everyone made a real effort and they were all equally important to achieving the changes needed.
When you look back on a crisis there are always things you would have liked to do differently. That’s true for everyone, including the Board.
Jouke de Vries: “At the start it was difficult to predict what was coming at us and to tune in with other organizations in Groningen – like the Hanze University of Applied Sciences. Now it seems totally logical that we should also coordinate with public transport companies. And you have to listen really carefully to each other to create tight lines of communication and grass roots support.”
Cisca Wijmenga: “I’d been rector for just six months when the crisis erupted. I was still getting to know the university when I had to start working online. It’s then of course more difficult to stay in touch. How do you get a feeling for what’s going on? I was very aware of thinking about that. I’d already started on a tour of all the faculties, but I didn’t manage to visit the Arts faculty because the crisis erupted. Normally I would have many informal contact opportunities, for example, before an inaugural speech, but all that disappeared.”
Hans Biemans: “Working or learning at home for so long changes people, it affects their autonomy and independence. We’re considering how best to adapt to this, for example, perhaps a different style of leadership will be required. Many people like some aspects of working at home – being able to read without interruptions and having quiet time for research. If, in the future, we can adopt a blended form of working or learning (online and on site), we could look at other aspects, like the costs of running university buildings (such as offices, lecture theatres, etc.), which are currently about €70 million per year. Blended working and learning would offer the opportunity to make more efficient use of our buildings, which would release more funds for our primary processes of research and education. But these are complex issues because people identify with their place of work or learning. If we could offer them something in exchange, it would help facilitate the step towards shared work space. These are topics that we’re discussing, using knowledge and recent experience from the whole organization.”
The Board are pleased, with the support of many colleagues, to have been able to compile a Strategic Plan for the next five years despite the problems caused by the pandemic and they have incorporated a yearly review to adjust the goals to changing circumstances.
Is there a (post-COVID-19) point on the horizon? The Board of course hopes so, just as we all do. But they agree moving forward is certainly a challenge. Changes are occurring rapidly, just as you’ve adapted to the new reality, things change again. For example, the students really like the space provided for student societies in Oude Boteringestraat 18, but in lockdown socializing has been further restricted. Everything is a balance between safety and the social aspects of having the connections we need. We need spaces to meet others – but how should they be set up and how can we make them safe?
“I think we will have to develop various scenarios,” said Jouke de Vries. “These are major issues. What will this crisis mean for the University? What will the economic consequences be?”
Cisca Wijmenga: “And we must also look at how we can improve online teaching in a pedagogical and didactic sense. What can the Board do to support that the online efforts?”
The crisis has accelerated a number of developments, according to the Board, like the rapid advance of online activities and the streaming of lectures or ceremonies. We don’t always want to work online, but we do need to make full use of the advantages of digital services, for example, having easier contact with researchers the world over. In the future we won’t be travelling large distances for face-to-face meetings of only an hour, that we can do online. And it’ll be easier to ask a professor from abroad to take part in a PhD defence ceremony, or for seminars and ceremonies to be streamed to a far wider audience. Cisca Wijmenga: “The recent award of an honorary doctorate to Feike Sijbesma was watched online by far more people than would normally have been able to attend the ceremony in the Martini church”.
The Board are trying their best to stay in touch with the academic community, although they admit some points will inevitably be missed since they’re dealing with 6,000 staff and 35,000 students. It’s a complex organization, pandemic or not!
Jouke de Vries: “Contact between teachers and students is extremely important, certainly for the first-year students. That’s really difficult now, so we must think up a new programme for them, with special attention for their mental and physical well-being. The UG does have a lot of support staff who can help here. We can and certainly will work on this. There will be an end to this corona episode and we can prepare for new ways to cover some activities.”
Cisca Wijmenga: “I recently heard a talk with a psychologist who worked with the organization Doctors without Borders; he had worked in war zones and explained what you can do to help people, by making them more resilient and urging them to look at the possibilities, consider the positive aspects.”
Asked about their personal experiences over the past year, the Board members all admitted to finding some aspects of life more boring or more difficult, but no one had more free time. On the contrary, all the online meetings in an effort to stay in contact with different groups were taking up a lot of their days.
As closing comments, Cisca Wijmenga expressed the hope that the national vaccination programme would bring some relief to the restrictions. Hans Biemans said it was important to think about what lessons from this past year we could take forward into the future.
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