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"I hope that we will emerge stronger from this crisis"

The corona pandemic currently has Germany, indeed the world, firmly in its grip. The University of Erfurt is not immune to this - and it‘s facing completely new challenges. A conversation with Dr. Jörg Brauns, head of administration of the University of Erfurt and head of the crisis managment team...

Dr. Jörg Brauns
Dr. Jörg Brauns

Dr. Brauns, the postponement of the start of lectures, the cancellation of all events, the discontinuation of attendance at the University of Erfurt - would you have thought something like this was possible at the turn of the year when the first corona reports came in from China?
Of course not. And I'm sure I'm in good company with that. We are currently in a situation that has never been seen before, with which no university in Germany has ever been able to gain experience and for which no one was really prepared. A situation in which what is still valid in the morning may already be outdated by the evening. A situation in which many are afraid. Fear for their health, their family, their financial security, their (professional) future. Fears for their existence. This is a huge challenge, we have to face it now if we want to make it work. And all together, because everyone can make a contribution.

In March it became apparent that under the given circumstances, the start of lectures for the summer semester after Easter is not realistic. The Thuringian Conference of State Presidents, together with the Ministry of Science, decided on March 13 to postpone the start of lectures until at least May 4. That was step one. But when schools and daycare centers, museums and recreational facilities closed and the number of infected people continued to rise in Germany too, the Presidential Board decided on March 18 to suspend campus operations from on March 20. It was thus one of the first universities in Thuringia to take such a consistent step. Not an easy decision, was it?
No, indeed not. But the operation could no longer be maintained. Because we have a responsibility here - for students and employees alike. On the one hand, there is the health of the university staff. In addition, many people had problems with childcare and were facing a real dilemma. Moreover, there were more and more returnees from crisis regions or colleagues with flu symptoms who had to remain in quarantine as a precaution - fortunately, no one has been infected so far. And on the other hand, our responsibility for teaching and research at the university has always been and still is. We had to weigh up the pros and cons here. But in the end, it was clear that we always had to decide on the health of the university staff. We took two days to "shut down" the campus in an orderly fashion so as not to create chaos. That turned out to be very clever in the end. And of course we were lucky that the teaching activities were largely suspended anyway.

As head of the crisis management team, you have been pulling all the strings since the beginning of March. What exactly is the task of this team - in the end, it is still the Presidium that decides...
That is true, but such decisions must be well prepared so that they bear fruit in the end. And that is exactly what we do in the crisis team. We evaluate the current information, discuss possible consequences and make recommendations on fundamental issues to the Presidium, which must then take the final decision. We network the people responsible and answer specific questions that are now being directed to the university. Whether in personnel or student matters, questions about IT or other organisational matters. That is why colleagues from different departments and areas are represented in the crisis committee, and the student services organisation („Studierendenwerk“) is always involved.

Which questions need to be answered, which problems need to be solved?
There are countless, where do I best start? In the beginning, of course, there was the question of how to keep the risk of infection on campus as low as possible and whether our hygiene measures are sufficient. In the meantime we have clarified this, now there are more questions like:

  • Which decisions at state or municipal level have an impact on university operations?
  • What internal and international agreements are there on the organization of the next semester and the school internships?
  • How can we and the student services organisation avoid acute social hardship and support students who might be affected by it?
  • How can we appoint new professors if the appointment commissions cannot meet due to the ban on contact - always in view of the fact that other universities are not able to offer the same services where they are located?
  • How can we expand the digital teaching offer within a few weeks?
  • How can we bring home employees who are stuck abroad?
  • How do we manage to maintain the current building measures?
  • And most importantly: how do we manage to inform all members and relatives of the university sufficiently?

And what is the difficulty in all this?
We only drive on sight and it is thick fog. We do not know what the next days, weeks, months will bring. What measures are still being taken nationwide, nationally but also locally to contain the pandemic? How can and must we then react in our area of responsibility? We can only communicate what we know ourselves. Some people think that is not enough. There is also criticism that we are not fast enough, not flexible or not transparent. But that is part of it, and we have to bear it now.

You just said that a situation like this did not exist at the University of Erfurt before - nobody could practice it. So how can we still do the right thing in the current situation?
Through cooperation and trust. Through people who identify themselves with the University of Erfurt and who have a stronger view of the big picture than their individual interests. Through people who now act pragmatically. We try to keep the important processes running, to use new technical possibilities and to make them available to others. No one is looking at the "end of work" clock. And this even though people have their private worries and hardships in connection with Corona. One can only pay respect to many colleagues for this. They do it really well. And that also gives me courage for the future. And in addition, there is the confidence in the efficiency of our health system and our state.

What will remain once the crisis is over?
For one thing, I hope that we will emerge stronger from this crisis because together we have managed to overcome this situation. Perhaps, on the other hand, there will also be an opportunity to set new priorities. Many parts of society will reorient themselves after the crisis. As a university in the humanities and social sciences, we should actively accompany these processes.