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Coronavirus

Will the university ever be the same again, rector? »No«

Interview — Rector of the University of Copenhagen Henrik C. Wegener misses the feeling of being surrounded by the university. A university which he believes has been changed for good by the coronavirus shutdown.

The rector is stuck at home. I am also stuck at home. When he calls me up one morning in May, it is how life has been for both of us as well as many other Danes for the last two months. I have asked Henrik C. Wegener, rector of the University of Copenhagen, to call me (or rather I have asked his head of communications to have him call me), because of something the prime minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, said: »Very little will be the way it was,« she said. I want to ask Wegener whether or not he believes the university will ever be the way it was again. Hence the phone call. And no, he says, it will not be the way it was.

Between the government advising against public gatherings of more than a thousand people and shutting down the entire country, less than a week had passed.

»We were in the process of deciding whether or not to cancel major lectures at the university. We were discussing whether or not the Spring Festival should proceed as planned,« says Henrik C. Wegener.

»But then everything started to happen so fast. On March 11, we were informed that we had to shut down the university within 24 hours, give or take. At the most, we had 48 hours. That was on a Wednesday, so we had to have everything wrapped up by Friday.«

The University of Copenhagen launched its emergency plan which has been designed for this very purpose. At least once a year, the administration practices handling a crisis, and in March they were finally put to the test.

»We had practiced active shooter scenarios and poison gas leaks, but the plan was also applicable to this type of crisis where our main task is to disperse employees and students as quickly as possible and get them to safety,« says Wegener.

Do you remember how you felt that day?

»Yes, I do. Of course, there was an element of thinking, ’how are we going to pull this off?’ I clearly recall a kind of adrenaline kick coursing through me. I have been in charge of managing outbreaks before, so I also felt adequately prepared to take on the challenge.«

In the past, the rector of the University of Copenhagen has worked as a researcher in foodborne diseases and diseases transmitted from animals to humans. He has also served as an adviser to the World Health Organization, WHO.

We receive the same information as everyone else does, and we very rarely receive information in advance. We also have to keep up with the press meetings and try to decipher what the prime minister’s intentions are.
Henrik C. Wegener, Rector of the University of Copenhagen

However, this crisis was something else, he says.

Others were in charge of tracking infections. His task was to shut down the university’s buildings and helping international students find a way home, identifying key personnel who had to stay at work, and finally make sure that everyone else stayed at home.

And did you then go home yourself?

»Yes, I did. Friday, March 13, I was home. We had shut everything down and held our first crisis meeting online. We have been meeting online ever since.«

Making quick decisions

Henrik C. Wegener is looking out over his backyard were the family dog is playing. She is happier than ever, he says. His wife works at Statens Serum Institut, so she is at work during normal business hours, but he has to share his internet connection with his two grown up sons who are living at home at the moment. They attend college in the United States and in Munich, but have come home as a result of the pandemic and are now taking online classes.

»It was a bit of a miracle,« says Wegener in reference to the speedy establishment of online classes at the University of Copenhagen. Classes were already up and running a week after the shutdown was announced. A decision was made to use the platform Zoom even though the university has licenses and security measures in place for the Teams and Skype platforms.

»It is hard enough to be a teacher at the moment without the administration forcing the staff to use a different platform than the one most of them are already familiar with,« Wegener says of the decision.

But that does not exactly sound like UCPH reasoning to me. We are always told that the University of Copenhagen is like a big tanker, and that it takes time to make important decisions, because it is like turning around a massive ship. In this case, you were forced to make quick decisions. What has that experience been like?

Laughter at the other end of the line.

»We make many quick decisions in the administration on a daily basis, so it is not a unique situation in that sense. But making quick decisions, the right decisions, and then people have to conform to them – that was nice for a change. One could get used to that.«

He laughs again before continuing in a much more serious tone:

»But it is not like we have not included others in the decision making – we have just had to speed up that part of the process as well. Let us say we wanted to turn the University of Copenhagen into an online university and close down our campuses across town. In that scenario, we would not have finished the process for at least a hundred years, and the decision probably had not even been made. We make a virtue of necessity. It is clear to everyone that we have to make this work. It is not a question of whether or not we want to do it, but doing it because we have an obligation to society.«

The great equation

When a person becomes rector of the University of Copenhagen, they receive a gown and the chain of office, but the position does not come with a direct phoneline to the prime minister.

»We receive the same information as everyone else does, and we very rarely receive information in advance,« says Henrik C. Wegener. »We also have to keep up with the press meetings and try to decipher what the prime minister’s intentions are. Then, after a while, the minister of education will send us a missive, which is typically slightly less cryptic than the broad announcements. Then more time passes before the university board of director’s head is summoned to a meeting with our board. This is where the very broad outline is narrowed down to concrete actions.«

The university receives a handful of guidelines: physical occupancy capacity, distance, and the number of individuals allowed on campus at the same time. At the time of writing, between 15 and 20 percent of employees are working on campus, and they are required to keep a distance of no less than one meter between each other at all times.

My batteries depend on social interaction with others to recharge, I need to laugh at the subtle jokes cracked at tedious meetings at the office.
Henrik C. Wegener, Rector of the University of Copenhagen

But all that will change in the coming months, and according to Wegener the administration is working on devising a number of scenarios for the fall semester by plotting numbers into an equation.

That must be a massive equation…?

»Yes, it is a wonderfully complex type of math that my researcher’s brain loves to do. It is all about optimization, which is fun, but also a massive undertaking. The trick is to devise a great equation that we can simply feed parameters, depending on the information we receive, and press calculate.«

When the numbers have been calculated, a complicated practical solution has to be found. Who will be allowed back at work?

»Trangfølge (an old Danish word for accomplishing a sequence of events that are impossible to accomplish at the same time) is a word we use a lot at the moment,« says Wegener. Who are the most invaluable individuals on campus? It is a puzzle that the faculties and departments must solve, because when the large equation has been calculated, it is up to them to decide which students or staffers should be prioritized—who gets to return to the lab and finish up their thesis?«

It seems that Henrik C. Wegener believes that his job is preferable to the one the individual department heads are tasked with.

»In some ways, it is easy to perform the big calculations and decide on quotas on that scale. It is, however, not an easy job out in the faculties when a choice has to be made between Tom, Dick, and Harry,« he says.

Does not like the feeling of isolation

For the past two months, the University of Copenhagen has felt scattered to the four winds, inside its buildings a pervasive atmosphere of loneliness has taken hold, and there is cause for concern for the wellbeing of the office cactus you left on your desk before the shutdown.

»I experience a strange sort of weariness,« says Wegener about being isolated from his colleagues.

»I think, my batteries depend on social interaction with others to recharge, I need to laugh at the subtle jokes cracked at tedious meetings at the office. It is very hard to cultivate an atmosphere like that online.«

I ask him about the most difficult parts of his new work life post-shutdown, and he answers that only seeing people online has been very hard. »I am very social and have an extrovert nature.«

Meetings are too efficient, he says. He is on the one hand glad to see efficiency in dealing with university matters, but on the other hand that efficiency can also seem frightening.

»There is absolutely no small talk, it is straight to the point. You lose part of your connection with others when for instance you cannot sense if a colleague is going through a tough time.«

Therefore, he encourages department heads at the university to use a good old phone now and then, because »in a strange way it is almost the most intimate way of communicating we have at our disposal at the moment. As opposed to a video conference, a phone call is much better suited to talking about the difficult things in life,« he says.

He misses his colleagues, and he misses »feeling the university around him,« he says.

»I know that we are making decisions about the University of Copenhagen, and we are discussing things that are about the University of Copenhagen, but what is the University of Copenhagen? Can the university be equated to its physical location? What is it? We are considering all these university related issues in a purely virtual university, and that has been a strange experience for me.«

With that we arrive at the question posed in the beginning: When the storm has settled, what kind of university can we expect to return to?

At a press meeting, Mette Frederiksen said that very little will be the way it was. Will the university return to the way it was?

»No.«

Have some things changed for good?

»I believe so. I think these changes were inevitable, but the process has been sped up.«

He refers to the university’s virtual component–the digitally based lectures which were already a priority before the shutdown. We are going to see a lot more of it, he says. He also mentions the university’s climate agenda. Many researchers have realized that meetings and conferences can be conducted online which in turn will help reduce the university’s carbon footprint.

Do you think we have lost an important part of the university? Will the events we are living through right now have a negative effect on the university in the future?

»We will see a negative effect in a purely financial sense in the short term. This crisis has had a major impact on the world economy and on the Danish economy, and as the university is part of the public sector, the economic reality will also hit us. Society will have to adjust to a reduced economy, and that will probably also be reflected at the university.«

One thing will change for good, though. According to Wegener, the University of Copenhagen no longer has any plans of transitioning into an online university. »Perhaps a sort of hybrid university and not just exclusively a physical university,« but not an online university.

»But there may be other universities who in the wake of this crisis decide to pursue online solutions more aggressively, and there may also be students out there who will see this as a viable alternative to the University of Copenhagen. But I do not hope that politicians will become too fixated on this idea,« he says.

You sure spend a lot of time sitting on your butt

My 30 minutes with Henrik C. Wegener are already up, and I am sure that I am delaying someone’s Zoom appointment with the rector by holding him up, but he stays on the line. He looks out of his window, and I look out of mine. The weather is grey and dreary for a change.

»It must be some type of compensation from the powers that be. We get coronavirus to deal with, but at least the weather has been nice so far,« says Wegener.

All the time, the rector normally spends on commuting to work, he has been spending outdoors. »You sure spend a lot of time sitting down on your butt, when you have to work from home,« he says. He regularly goes running and likes to fish as well.

»Standing by the water trying to get sea trout to bite… Being outdoors has helped me stay healthy and of sound mind.«

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