Newsletter from the Dean

Dean Johnny Laursen writes about the gradual reopening of Denmark and today’s announcement from the university senior management team: A new plan is now in place for what we can expect at Arts in the near future.

2020.05.14 | Knud Holt Nielsen

Dear staff, Dear students

Following last week’s announcement from the government and co-operating political parties about the gradual reopening of Denmark and today’s announcement from the university senior management team, a new plan is now in place for what we can expect at Arts in the near future. 

When you are asked to work from home and only meet fellow students and colleagues virtually, you can feel a little isolated and get the feeling that everything else has stopped; even though you yourself have lots to do. It has, nevertheless, been extremely busy across the faculty. We have now entered a more stable phase of the shutdown, and I know that many of you have been involved adjusting your research, studies and collaboration activities to fit the new circumstances. I am hugely impressed by and proud of the way you have made so much possible within such a short space of time. But I also understand that, when your home becomes your workplace, when your daily routine is replaced by daily improvisations and solutions, and when you only see your fellow students and colleagues on a flat screen, it can also test your patience.

The uncertainty of shutdown has particularly affected teaching and exams, where so much depends on how long the shutdown will last. As the days passed, we gradually recognised the need to begin the huge task of converting the exams to a virtual medium or another exam form. I would like to thank everyone in the board of studies, the degree programme board, the administration and other departments who has fought with determination and technology within short timeframes to find sustainable solutions.

Last week, universities received permission from government agencies and institutions to resume some of their teaching and exam activities that require physical attendance.  At Arts and Aarhus BSS, a total of 325 students, 153 members of academic staff, and 40 members of technical/administrative staff (divided equally between the two faculties) have been given access to the university. At Arts, we have identified a small number of teaching activities that cannot be conducted online.  A few hours after the announcement on Friday, we decided to give the relevant degree programmes the green light to conclude these teaching activities on campus after 18 May. The staff and students affected by this decision will be given more details as soon as possible.

As mentioned, the government’s decision means that we can open the campus for a limited number of staff and students in connection with, for example, exams. It is no small task to prepare for exams, and we know that, for you students, it is important that you can prepare yourselves in advance for a specific type of exam at a specific time. Many of you know what it’s like to run around with your suitcases – and even try to return to your seat – when DSB announces the wrong carriage numbers. We want to avoid this situation. For this reason, we will reserve the very limited capacity that has now become available to us for a few selected exams. We have prioritised those exams where the individual examiners need to conduct several exams. We have also tried to utilise the capacity so that our examiners can examine online from their offices. It takes careful planning to ensure that we do not exceed the limits that have been set. Over the last week, we have been working flat out to accomplish this. For everyone – examiners, co-examiners, students and administrative staff – this is an exam season with obstacles, and I wish to assure you that we are prioritising stability, safety and predictability. There will soon be a more detailed announcement about this from the vice-dean for education, Niels Lehmann.

Many PhD students have been affected by the recent situation. We have written to all PhD students in the faculty and encouraged them to review the status of their PhD progress with their PhD supervisors. You can then discuss whether you have experienced particular difficulties during the shutdown period and also discuss your plans in relation to field studies and travel restrictions relevant to the rest of your PhD programme. We believe that these questions are best answered concretely in relation to the individual PhD student’s project, PhD programme and particular circumstances. The graduate school, via the schools, has contacted supervisors to get an overview of where the biggest problems might be.

The closure of the libraries has caused difficulties. We have every reason to be happy with the effective collaboration we have had with the Royal Danish Library, who, in close dialogue with the university in general and the book- and material-hungry Arts faculty in particular, has made every effort to meet our requirements. During the shutdown, the Royal Danish Library has made a particular effort to ensure the quick ordering of online material, including books. With support from across AU, not least the university director, who represents us in Universities Denmark’s ongoing contact to the Ministry, it has been possible to put a pdf scheme in place, and I know that the library is working hard so that it can soon lend out physical material (books and journals). That this plays a particular role for Arts, not least for our deadline-focused Master’s and PhD students and our researchers, is clear from the fact that 85% of pdf orders are for Arts.

Where do we go from here? We know that, if all goes well, we can enter the third phase of reopening on 8 June 2020. In this phase, universities can resume the research activities that require researchers to be physically present. Yet a large section of the university will, as things stand, still be in shutdown. However, depending on the development of the infection, it is possible that some public sector workplaces can reopen. This is what we know at the moment. But, through Universities Denmark, AU is in continuous contact with the Ministry, and the situation is continuously developing.  It is my sincere hope that there is more on the way.

We also know that, in a few weeks, we will need to begin preparing for the autumn semester, which, even in the best case, will be affected by a range of precautionary measures such as distance and space requirements. Many of our teaching and research activities involve international collaboration, and, since there are likely to be intermittent travel restrictions in many places until the end of the year, we should not expect the autumn semester to include many non-virtual internationalisation activities. Nonetheless, I hope that, even with these limitations – as set out in the agreement between the government and co-operating political parties – we will gradually regain our everyday working life in the autumn semester. Many of us are looking forward to that.

There are of course many of us who are thinking about what all this means for the future. The union representatives have sent round a questionnaire to all the members of academic staff, and many have responded and reported on their experiences during shutdown and the consequences for their research.  Some have asked what the new situation means for the research review. I have informed the union representatives that, as always, the circumstances of the last few months will be taken into consideration. I will be able to give you more details about this at the local liaison committee meeting, and I will also be very interested to hear more about academic and technical/administrative staff members’ experiences from the shutdown.

Many of you are also thinking about the long-term financial perspective. Since my last newsletter, we have gained a picture of the consequences for 2020. This picture is still very uncertain. But, providing our requirements for active enrolment are met, the faculty’s finances for 2020 are strong enough to withstand the blow that the shutdown will cause. We also believe that, if we are soon allowed to return to fairly normal activity, we can maintain the positive results that we have seen in recent years. In other words, in the faculty management team, we are striving for the greatest possible stability. We cannot predict what will happen in Denmark or the rest of the world. But neither can anybody.

This newsletter has become unusually long, but these are also unusual times. I hope I have been able to shed some light on the near future and to give some hope to those of you who are looking forward to getting back to your work, your studies and your colleagues. I most definitely am, even though, for the first time in years, I have been able to see my Magnolia tree blossom in the garden.

Best regards
Johnny Laursen, Dean

Arts, For teachers at the Faculty of Arts