Interview with Hans Biemans
‘We're proud everyone's put their back into it’
On Friday, the UG board of directors announced that physical classes were cancelled until the end of the academic year. It was the third time in a week the university decided on such a severe measure in an effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
‘This is the clarity we can offer right now’, says Hans Biemans, the man on the board in charge of finances. As we’re entering the last few weeks of block 3, there is no certainty about what the national corona measures will look like after April 6. ‘Therefore, we felt that extending the online classes into block 4 was the best way to take away people’s uncertainty and put them at ease.’
The uni’s actions
It’s the kind of step some people in the academic community say the university should have taken a week ago. They felt the UG was being too passive in the face of this global crisis. ‘There was so much happening behind the scenes, though’, Biemans explains.
In January, the board consulted the existing emergency strategies. Their first task was to create a central crisis team. Jouke de Vries is leading this team, which consists of, among others, crisis coordinator Koen Verelst, general director Stephan van Galen, CIT director Ronald Stolk, and head lawyer Aart Korten.
‘We consulted with the faculties and services to make an overview of our critical, most essential processes’, says Biemans. ‘We also catalogued who the key figures are within these processes, so who we could afford to lose and who we couldn’t.’
We’re making one hundred percent of the decisions with only fifty percent of the information
They were trying to answer these questions at a time when the exact impact of the coronavirus on the Netherlands and the university was still uncertain. ‘Like Rutte said: we’re making one hundred percent of the decisions with only fifty percent of the information.’
The crisis team decided to stick to the RIVM and GGD guidelines. ‘That’s the line we and other Dutch universities decided to follow. It’s the line we’ve always followed.’
Until Mark Rutte’s press conference on March 12, where the prime minister banned gatherings of more than one hundred people. ‘That was an unworkable situation for us, so we decided to halt all physical education. It later turned out that other universities felt the same way.’
The switch to digital
Students and staff had only three days to switch to working online. The process has had its ups and downs, ranging from crappy internet connections to the first triumphant tweets about an online class of eighty students. Looking back, Biemans is happy with the way the Groningen academic community has handled the necessary adjustment.
‘Everyone’s put their back into it’, he says. ‘The CIT tells me that one hundred to a hundred and fifty lecturers attend the webinars about online teaching every day. We don’t know for sure yet, but we think that in the short term, we’ll be able to serve at least half our student population this way.’
In the short term, we should be able to serve at least half our student population
Right now, it looks like this will be in two weeks, when block 4 is starting. ‘We have to make sure the number of students we’re teaching keeps increasing.’
Everyone on staff, from the researchers to the administrators, is also adjusting to the new digital situation. ‘CIT says there are no technical issues now that everyone is logging in from their homes’, says Biemans. ‘Unfortunately, working from home means missing some facilities that are at people’s disposal at work. But the service is here and it’s working.’
So the first steps to make the switch have been taken. But Biemans knows this is just the beginning. ‘We didn’t know what the virus and its consequences would mean for us. Now, after a week, we’ve realised that it’s all happening incredibly fast.’
Questions and uncertainties are coming at them just as fast as the virus is. What will they do about practical lab education? What about exams that can’t be administered online? What if students suffer delays because of the measures taken?
‘Right now, it’s important to think about how to get back to our existing processes within this new reality’, says Biemans.
The faculties’ own crisis teams are working hard as well
In other words, they need to find a new ‘normal’. Concretely, this means the crisis team now ‘gets together’ twice a week rather than every day. As the board takes over leadership, the crisis management will start to focus on the faculties and study programmes.
‘The crisis team has laid out the framework for this exceptional situation’, says Biemans. ‘Now we’re entering the execution phase. Earlier, we asked the faculties to set up their own crisis teams, and those are working hard as well.’
It’s up to the faculties to concretely flesh out the general frameworks. They have to prioritise and tackle the questions about study progress or delays and how people can continue their work and research.
‘These questions need to be answered on a faculty or programme level’, says Biemans. ‘We do realise that it’s impossible to find solutions for everyone in the short term. We need to tailor our solutions.’
In the meantime, they also have to follow the law and other regulations. ‘The education ministry has answered the first few questions people had, for example about the binding study advice for first-year students. That gives our faculties the necessary guidelines to get to work.’
But there are other guidelines to come, which means that programmes and faculties have no choice but to inform their students and staff as these are rolled out.
Use our heads
The future of academic Groningen is shrouded in mystery. ‘I realise that the university has been around for a long time. There’s something about the institute’s dynamics that makes it innovative’, says Biemans.
‘That means that change is eternal, and that puts me at ease right now. We’re also looking at something that I think is a new stage in the development of higher education, of the university, and maybe even society.’
Biemans knows the board can’t bring about that development by itself. ‘I have great faith in the strength of our employees. We’re asking a lot of them, since they’re the ones who determine how we’re to proceed as a university. As managers, we signal where we’re going and we’re creating the framework possible within the law, but it’s our people doing the actual work.’
This will be a new stage in the development of the university
He also knows that everyone will be encountering a lot of new problems and that no one knows how long this situation will last. ‘We need to use our heads and evaluate the problems we run into one by one.’
All solutions have been created using the knowledge the university now has of the coronavirus, as well as the national measures that are currently in place, he emphasises.
‘We know the situation can change from one day to the next, and we all have to take that into account. It takes a lot of patience and flexibility from all our students and staff and we’re proud to see that they’re all putting their backs into it. We may not know what the future holds, but we’ll face it together.’