What Are the Lessons From the Pandemic?

29/09/2021

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RWTH Aachen University hosted the 63th German University Chancellors Annual Conference.

 

The Covid 19 pandemic has profoundly changed university life. Lecture halls stand empty, teaching has switched to online learning, and many employees are working from home. All this required universities to establish and expand decentralized digital infrastructures and processes. In addition, the pandemic has called for a new way of looking at science and science policy.

At the 63rd Annual Chancellors Conference hosted by RWTH, various panel sessions with experts from science, research and politics provided the attendees with insights on how universities are changing society and how universities and science must now demonstrate their adaptability and resourcefulness.

RWTH chancellor Manfred Nettekoven and Dieter Kaufmann, chancellor of Ulm University and spokesperson of the Association of Chancellors of German Universities, welcomed, among other speakers and panelists, the Chairwoman of the German Ethics Council, Professor Alena Buyx; the President of Humboldt University in Berlin, Professor Sabine Kunst; the Head of the Research Department of the German Council of Science and Humanities, Dr. Rainer Lange; the president of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine and director of the Clinic for Surgical Intensive Medicine and Intermediate Care at Uniklinik RWTH Aachen, Gernot Marx; and Dr. Carola Holzner, who is known as “Doc Caro” through various social media channels.

During the two conference days, the participants discussed how universities have managed to cope with the pandemic and examined the challenges it presented to research, teaching and administration. Moreover, they identified many issues to be tackled by universities in the future.

“We as society have learned so much during the pandemic, maybe even more than we wanted to know. The pandemic has shown us in unprecedented ways how science and higher education work. Before the pandemic, the general public did not really understand how the scientific process works. What is right today may be wrong tomorrow. If you don't understand that, you may get the impression that science is not trustworthy,” explained Michael Dreher.

Key themes of the discussions included communication among university members and communication with society. “Our internal communication has improved significantly in the face of adversity. We need to continue with this process and professionalize it,” said Waltraud Kreutz-Gers, chancellor of Mainz University. According to Kreutz-Gers, universities now need to learn the right lessons, not only in the arena of communication, but also when it comes to digital transformation.

A New Mission Statement for Teaching and Research

Malte Persike raised questions such as: “How do we make the most of what we have learnt throughout the pandemic so far? Where does higher education see itself in 2030? What’s our new mission statement for teaching and research? And what does this entail for us, who must take a clear stance on digitalization?” And Rainer Lange added: “How do we master the social aspects of digitalization? How can we develop a new innovation structure based on our crisis management?” In his eyes, a vast bureaucracy is hampering such development processes.

Alena Buyx provided the university chancellors with a clear mandate: “There needs to be considerable pressure from those who have been putting up with this for years. In Germany, we are held in check by a dense thicket of regulations. This is slowly killing us. It's slowing down innovation in Germany. The legal regulations need to be changed.”

According to Dieter Kaufmann and Manfred Nettekoven, the Aachen conference represented a starting point for addressing and developing solutions to the many issues raised by the pandemic.