What’s next? University Chancellor Karsten Gerlof about the current corona phase and slow steps towards normalization

On the corona pandemic – contributions from the University of Potsdam
The Chancellor of the University of Potsdam, Karsten Gerlof. | Photo: Karla Fritze
Photo : Karla Fritze
The Chancellor of the University of Potsdam, Karsten Gerlof.
Germany is still in an exceptional state due to the corona pandemic. Now, people are slowly starting to discuss a normalization of the situation. The University of Potsdam (UP) is also preparing the first steps towards regular operations. The Chancellor of the university, Karsten Gerlof, talks about good planning, necessary caution and teaching for the future.

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

There is certainly still room for improvement in some of the new processes that we have established as a result of the pandemic, but that is quite normal in my opinion. As things stand at the moment, we will be under emergency on-site operations until the beginning of May, and we have gotten used to this situation, which we have never experienced before, surprisingly well. This is due to the dedication of many university members: The teaching staff have used the time to convert many of their courses into digital formats, the researchers have taken care of the safe operation of their laboratories under these circumstances at a very early stage, and a great many employees are keeping the university running from their home offices with a lot of commitment.

When you think of the coming weeks, what worries you most as Chancellor? And why?

We have to very carefully plan and, step by step, implement the withdrawal from emergency on-site operations. We must not, with the ambition to catch up on something, stumble into an operating mode in which we have no control over the health protection of students and employees. Luckily we have a very good department of occupational safety at the UP, which is already in talks with those in charge of teaching and the faculties. The management of the administrative and service departments is also making plans for their staff and processes in such a way that risks are minimized.

There are many experts at the UP who can assess the consequences of such an exceptional situation and work on them in their respective academic fields. Does this environment offer you support and orientation?

Yes, I find it very helpful, for example, that we have medical experts from the university on the crisis management team, and that other scientists from the UP are working on the psychological, economic or social consequences of the coronavirus. In general, this is a time when it becomes clear how important science is in preparing and assessing decisions in such a pandemic situation.

How does the cooperation within and outside the university work during this time?

The Executive Board, the senate, the staff and student representatives – everyone is treating this as an exceptional situation and concentrating on the important issues. I also want to underline the positive communication with our deans: When we started the emergency on-site operations four weeks ago, we e-mailed back and forth over the weekend about all important aspects and we found solutions for everything very quickly. We also have telephone conferences almost every day with the Ministry of Science, Research and Culture, which deals very well with the acute concerns of the universities, right up to the management level.

Do you think that agreements and deliberations might even yield better results because there is not enough time for lengthy discussions?

Yes, but this should not be permanent, because the discussions are important, after all. At first glance, the video conferences that are so common at the moment certainly seem to be faster and more efficient, but I suspect that creativity is being lost a bit in the process. Everyone only talks when they are called upon, it is very difficult to brainstorm and the conversations on the sidelines are missing. I believe we will continue to make greater use of video conferencing in the future, when meetings would be too complicated. But they can never fully replace personal conversations.

How do you yourself deal with the pressure of expectation to provide correct answers and decisions immediately?

I try not to rush into things and to discuss important decisions with someone in advance if possible. In these discussions, new aspects usually come to light.

What lessons do you draw from this crisis? What will the UP be doing differently in the future?

I would like to compare this to the health system, where everyone is currently happy that the dictates of competition have not led to an excessive reduction in capacity. The “essential infrastructures” are also becoming visible at the university: We would have suffered shipwreck if the computer center ZIM had not been set up as efficiently as it is today, and we have also been able to eliminate bottlenecks in other infrastructure areas of the university in recent years, where a single person had sometimes been in charge of a certain task. If the pandemic had hit us in our years of severe underfunding ten or 15 years ago, we would have been in a much worse position.

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