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„Responding calmly to the unfamiliar circumstances“ – University President Prof. Oliver Günther on crisis management during the corona pandemic

On the corona pandemic – contributions from the University of Potsdam
University President – and current crisis manager – Prof. Oliver Günther, Ph.D. | Photo: Karla Fritze
Photo : Karla Fritze
University President – and current crisis manager – Prof. Oliver Günther, Ph.D.

Germany is experiencing an emergency situation as a result of the corona pandemic. Prof. Günther, you coordinate a crisis management team and have to make decisions of major importance almost every hour. What is of particular importance to you at the moment?

It is important to respond calmly to the unfamiliar circumstances and to reflect on how we can contribute to solving the current problems. As a higher education institution and as one of the largest employers in Brandenburg, we are concerned first and foremost with the health of our employees, our students and their families. But we are also dealing with our core tasks in teaching, research and transfer. In teaching, examinations must be arranged, as long as this is somehow feasible without the risk of infection. In addition, preparations for the summer semester are in full swing – we will use digital media as far as possible to offer a reduced range of courses. And in terms of transfer, we can also provide a little help through our university outpatient clinic with regard to the foreseeable needs of clinics.

How are your experiences with your colleagues? Do agreements and consultations between other universities, the Ministry for Science, Research and Culture and the representatives of the state capital in Potsdam go smoothly?

Yes, thanks to phones and the internet, communication is working very well. Video conferencing also works, although bandwidth sometimes causes problems and the quality of transmission can be poor. All in all, I have to say that our infrastructures are holding up well.  

Did the corona pandemic change your own state of mind? Are you experiencing moments of panic in yourself or is fear coming to the surface?

I'm an optimistic person, so no: no panic moments, no fear either. But sometimes I am overcome by a certain sense of thoughtfulness. My generation – I was born in 1961 in West Germany – grew up comparatively carefree. No wars, no famines, no pandemics ... until now. Now we have to come to terms with quite unusual restrictions to our freedom. Travelling is hardly possible any more. My wife has been stuck in India for weeks because there are no more flights from India to Germany. No meetings with friends, no cinema, no concerts, no theatre, no restaurants ... Of course, this in no way compares to what my parents went through during the world wars. But the carefreeness, the buoyant hedonism, the cheerful serenity, these emotional states have disappeared for the time being.  Even though I am currently making good progress with my piano playing.

What is going particularly well at the University of Potsdam in this crisis mode? Where is there still room for improvement?

There is a great deal of cohesion and extraordinary commitment, so that I am really proud of my university, my colleagues, and our students. Pragmatic solutions are being found. Feuds, which are not unusual, especially in the academic world, are suspended for the time being. I am therefore confident that we will be able to bring the winter semester 2019/20 to an acceptable end, also with regard to the upcoming examinations, and that we will be able to offer a reduced digital course offering in the summer semester. And of course, research will also continue as far as circumstances permit.
There are many experts at UP who can assess the consequences of such an exceptional situation and work on them scientifically in their respective fields. Do you receive input from them, which in turn serves as orientation for you?

Absolutely. Of course, medical experts and health scientists play a very central role here. But the role of the social and economic sciences should not be underestimated either. Many colleagues make public statements as well. That is good for the public's perception of science.

On the other hand, the uncertainty, especially among employees and students, is immense. The expectations placed in the university directorate are enormous: You are expected to make the right announcements straight away and provide an immediate answer to every question. How do you deal with the pressure?

By not letting myself be put under pressure. It's not about always being the first to impose any closures or restrictions. It's also not about reacting within minutes to every e-mail, every text message, every Facebook comment. Instead, it's about assessing possible measures on a scientific basis: What's the use? What does it cost? What are the adverse side effects? These challenges are being faced around the world, and we can see that our political and business leaders are able to cope with these new challenges to varying degrees. And communication is also important, of course. It is important to find the right balance in this regard. To tweet every five minutes seems just as misguided to me as disappearing in the hope that others will make a decision for you.

In crisis situations, it is essential to have a close management circle with trusted people you can rely on. This strengthens identification and cohesion in the long run. What do you (and the directorate as a whole) learn from this pandemic? What do you take away from it for the future?

As you say: You need colleagues you can rely on. That's why the selection of personnel, especially management personnel, is so important. Not everyone is equally good at everything. And anyone who has ended up a few floors too high according to the Peter Principle will feel the effects now. Unfortunately this does not only affect him or her, but also the respective organizational unit. I've already invested a lot in personnel selection in the past, but I'd like to improve this a bit more in the future.

During the corona pandemic, scientists explain what they know on a daily basis and in a very understandable way. They also point out what is not yet clear. Do you see the current development as an opportunity for science to improve its position for society? Or are uncertainties and time pressure more likely to be considered a setback that shows science its limits so that it can grow?

This is a difficult but important question. The corona crisis reveals the two sides of science. On the one hand, we can tackle the problem more aggressively than any society before us; from a historical point of view, no generation has been better equipped to defend against the virus than ours, regardless of national characteristics and despite global mobility, which is also historically unique. On the other hand, it is also clear that science does not have a solution to every problem in store. As a reminder: There is still no vaccination against HIV! I am a natural scientist – computer scientist and part-time mathematician and economist, to be precise – so I am biased, of course. Science has been instrumental in ensuring that we can live as comfortably as we do. Unfortunately, we scientists cannot immediately solve all the problems with which nature and society confront us. Nevertheless, we are mastering these tasks better than ever before.

In particular, education and higher education, but also healthcare, are federally organized in this country. As a result, decisions of the current scope take longer and have to be coordinated among the federal states. Do you consider our system an impediment that ultimately produces a set of regulations that resemble a "patchwork rug" or do you consider it an upstream corrective that allows us to question major decisions?

Federalism can sometimes be a nuisance; I know that from my own professional experience. On the other hand, we have known since Bruno Frey and his major contributions to happiness research that local governance – and that’s what federalism is – also makes people happy. And that should be the real guiding criterion. The French are not entirely happy with their country’s centralism. In this respect, it is always a matter of finding the right compromise. In school education, however, I do indeed see a need for discussion about more centralization.

Populists and right-wing extremist groups no longer seem to be on the agenda these days. Polls show that support for the AfD party is declining. They are not involved in finding solutions in the current situation, nor are they considered competent. Is the corona pandemic strengthening our democracy?

We do not know that yet. Of course, I am pleased that unsympathetic gasbags like the US President are now being unmasked for good. But others see it differently – approval of the Trump government is currently on the rise. In this respect I am only cautiously optimistic. And I am happy about every progress in behavioral science and behavioral economics. Science rocks!

Overview page of all contributions from the University of Potsdam on the corona pandemic