Het crisisteam in vergadering met linksboven algemeen directeur Leon van der Zande Foto: Maarten Post

Behind the scenes of the UU crisis team


Every morning, the UU crisis team discusses the latest developments, analyses the most pressing questions, and makes decisions on how the UU should manage the crisis. “First it was about health; now, it’s mostly about the consequences of closing the university.”

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Just before 9 am, ping ping ping sounds can be heard popping up for the eleven members of the crisis team. The team site shows their faces, and it’s time to discuss the state of affairs. What kinds of questions were sent in via social media and the special corona email address? What are the developments at other universities? Has the RIVM changed their guidelines recently?

“The crisis team is responsible for the continuity of the university in times of crisis, and for providing information. Every day, we start with an analysis of the state of affairs around us, which is created the evening before. What’s happening around us? Which subjects need action?” says Leon van de Zande, managing director and member of the crisis team. Others who join the meeting are president Anton Pijpers and Dean Henk Kummeling, as well as a number of directors, communication officers, IT staff, and security coordinators.

On this Friday morning, the team discusses – among other things – how the UU should handle the relaxation of the rules for the binding study advice. An agreement was made on Thursday night, between the Ministry of Education and the institutions of higher education. Another topic in the meeting: that IT staff and teachers now belong to the category of vital professions, which means they can get additional support for child support. The UU has independently added the animal caretakers and veterinarians to that list. One task to be taken care of is to ensure they can easily obtain the necessary paperwork.

Clearer decisions
The first week is done. Van de Zande: “You see decisions becoming clearer and clearer. For many people, initially, it wasn’t clear at all that you could only come to work in very exceptional cases. Last Monday, quite a few people just showed up to work anyway. On Tuesday, this number was far smaller already. By now, most buildings have closed. We decided to do this on Tuesday, March 17, for safety’s sake.

Still, the questions keep pouring in to the crisis team communication channels. “The first week, we gave a lot of attention to international students in Utrecht and UU students abroad. The international degree students don’t necessarily have to leave – after all, we’re still providing education. Still, we noticed that many of them were under enormous pressure from their homes and families to return home, especially from the United States.

“As far as we’re concerned, there’s a difference between exchange students and degree students who do their entire study programme here. In both cases, of course, it’s up to the students themselves to decide what they want to do in this situation. We’ve informed and advised them about this the best we could; they could also talk about it with their study advisors. But I can imagine that there’s a lot of pressure on these students to make a decision like this. And the situation with UU students abroad was also tricky. The travel advice changes nearly every day, from code green to code orange or code red. We received a lot of questions from students who wondered what to do. That, too, became clearer with time. Everyone should come back if possible.”

No new events
The team also receives a lot of questions about organising events. “People who for instance have planned an activity in June. Can that take place? To be honest, we’re not sure. Our advice is not to organise any new events for now, and to be prepared for the possibility that scheduled events will have to be cancelled. Wait until things are normalising again.”

With some questions, the response has to be tailor-made. “The PhD ceremonies are scrapped, for example, but there are cases in which someone can miss out on getting a job because they’re not officially PhDs yet. In those cases, we’ll see whether it’s possible to organise an online PhD ceremony.

Emergency team
The crisis teams, in this formation, first came together on Thursday, March 12, immediately after prime minister Rutte’s press conference. Some far-reaching decisions had to be made on the fifth floor. “At first, we were talking about the meetings of more than one hundred people that were no longer allowed to take place. But it quickly became obvious that we’d have to suspend all our education. That immediately begs the question: how are we going to realise this?”

Van de Zande is happy that an emergency team had already been in place for two weeks before the crisis team was formed. “As soon as the coronavirus entered the Netherlands, we established an emergency team that consisted of several experts. We assessed the situation every day – whether there were any corona infections at the UU for instance, we handled communication on the website, and we were looking towards the future as well – what if things were to get worse? So we asked the faculties at an early stage to think about how to move courses online, and the Educate-it team designed a website for teachers. We’d also already asked them for a list of activities that would have to keep going even in case of closure. Think, for instance, of animal care, energy, or security. That helped us to act quickly in closing the buildings.”

Every faculty has its own crisis team, and after the morning meeting, it’s up to Van de Zande to inform them. “It’s important that the central and faculty crisis teams are in line with each other. This year, we established the faculty crisis teams to coexist with the central crisis team; it’s vital to closely coordinate between the two.”

The faculty teams are responsible for the execution of decisions made by the central crisis team, for instance in how to provide education. The faculty teams, then, were the ones who informed all teachers about how they would handle online education. There are centralised facilities for this goal, for instance with Educate-it, so teachers can get concrete assistance in teaching lectures via Microsoft Teams.

At the end of each meeting, the team also checks to see who needs to be informed about what, and whether it requires a general update or a specific mail sent by the faculties.

Binding study advice
The crisis team’s task at the moment lie mostly in the area of answering management questions, and not as much about the disease itself. “In the early days, we were in close contact with the GGD Health services, to see whether there were any UUers among those infected. That wasn’t the case at the time. Now, everyone’s home, and the crisis team is dealing with completely different issues.”

The UU is also dependent on other universities. “We want to work together as much as possible. On Thursday night, for example, we agreed that the binding study advice will be adjusted and the deadline for enrolment will be moved. Leiden and Maastricht have already said that they will have all education online until the summer. We’re awaiting national agreements, but are asking teachers to factor in the possibility of a continuation of online education in block four. It’s a realistic option. We do want to have a clear overview of the possible consequences. What do you do about internships, for example? The rector is discussing this with the vice deans.”

There are also a number of concrete affairs that need to be taken care of. What about the matching days? How can exam committees safeguard the quality of the exams? What’s going to happen with graduation sessions?

Exploding inbox
Many of the questions are sent in via the email address
corona@uu.nl. “In the beginning, the four of us maintained the mailbox, but after Rutte’s press conference, the inbox exploded,” says Clim Gorissen. “We set out a call amongst student assistants, and now there are around 15 of us who answer questions. There’s an elaborate database that contains most answers, which they can use in their responses. That way, everyone who has a question receives a personal response, and the most relevant questions are forwarded to the crisis team to see whether broad communication is necessary.

The team has already received around 1,500 emails, containing varying questions. “After the UU had sent an email to the UU exchange students abroad, advising them to return to the Netherlands, the emails started pouring in. International students also want to know what the situation means for them.” Study associations wonder whether their study trips can still proceed. Many questions deal with the cancellation of events and the corresponding costs, or what to do about graduation ceremonies. At the moment, it’s clear to see that many people want clarity about what to expect from block 4.

Questions aren’t exclusively sent in via email. On Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, students are also asking questions, and UU has staff ready to answer them. Instagram proves to be an especially popular platform for questions. Will the exams be done online as well? As an international student, should I stay or should I go? Can teachers handle another block of digital courses? What about my grant request? Rob Horstman, coordinator of the Instagram pages, remarks: “I feel like our communication is clear. But a letter like last week’s, with an update that says block four might also be done exclusively online, does lead to many new responses because of the uncertainty that message implies.”

Read the most recent news on our our coronablog.

Who are the members of the crisis team?
Managing director Leon van de Zande, board members Anton Pijpers and Henk Kummeling, director of Academic Affairs Esther Stiekema, director of Facilities Eddie Verzendaal, director of Human Resources Aletta Huizenga, head of communication Nicolette Mijsberg, spokesperson Maarten Post, safety and security coordinators Anita Nieuwenhuis and Mark ten Tusscher, information and technology service officer Wouter Wierenga, and health expert Paul Odinot.

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