Rector Johannes Wessels on dealing with the corona pandemic at Münster University

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Rector Johannes Wessels alone in the Schloss. Because of the corona crisis, the

Rector Johannes Wessels alone in the Schloss. Because of the corona crisis, the start of the summer semester was postponed. © WWU - Peter Leßmann

The corona pandemic has turned everyday life and work on its head. In this interview with Norbert Robers, Rector Prof. Johannes Wessels explains what the crisis means for the University of Münster, and how the University is dealing with the consequences.

At the beginning, the coronavirus was far away - in China. When did you first have the feeling that it could also become a serious matter for us and for the University?

I remember it well: it was on February 26, when the first infections were confirmed in North Rhine-Westphalia. The next day, we set up a crisis team so that we could get a general overview of the situation - which would then enable us to make statements and give out information. Of course, we didn’t yet know what was heading towards us - but we wanted to specify who should do what and who should speak to whom in a crisis.

What were the most important measures at the beginning of the crisis?

Above all, we had to define the channels and means of communication. Who can be tested when and where? Who needs to be notified of what? The Public Health Office or other institutions’ In which cases do supervisors have to be involved? How can "first contacts" be informed? At the same time we had medical specialists at our side to advise us, for example the head of our in-house medical service. We were also in direct contact with Münster University Hospital right from the beginning.

And in this initial stage, did each university decide and act by itself? Or was there coordination among the rectors or university heads?

Initially, each university stood alone because it wasn’t clear at first who should communicate with whom about what. To begin with, that was something that every university had to define for itself. After every university had clarified the matter and set up their crisis teams, the ministry made the decision to postpone the start of the semester. That was something that affected us all, and for this reason, and from this moment onwards, there was a lot of consultation and agreement within the North Rhine-Westphalian Rectors’ Conference, for example on arrangements regarding the closure of libraries or access to laboratories.

Or was it rather that universities were tied to instructions from public authorities instead of being able to take decisions independently?

Naturally, we had to abide by any decrees issued by ministries or by the municipal authorities - for example, that people were not allowed to congregate in groups of a certain size. On the other hand, the question of how to follow instructions regarding social distancing and, at the same time, keep the University running, was something that we had to - and were allowed to - organise ourselves. This included things like continuing research work, paying our bills, recruiting staff and securing our energy supply. On these issues we definitely had some leeway.

You and the crisis team had to regulate a lot of things very quickly. Were there any particularly difficult decisions you had to make?

I would say it was not so much that the decisions were difficult - it was more that they had consequences. This was true of all the rules with which we exerted enormous influence on the normal academic life of 45,000 students, or on the everyday working lives of more than 7,000 members of staff. We carefully weighed up alternatives and were very aware of what our decisions would entail.

Was there any resentment, or even protest?

No - in fact, rather the opposite. A great number of students and staff immediately began thinking about how they could get involved in public life in a constructive way.

There wasn’t just one crisis team, but several. Why was that?

Since the outbreak of the crisis there has been one crisis team small enough to be able to act. The planning groups cover various fields of action, for example issues relating to studying and teaching, to staff, to IT matters and to aspects regarding infrastructure such as technical facilities or laboratories. The system has proved its worth. In individual areas we need to consult with a large number of experts because it would be too much for the crisis team to handle by itself.

How have you been able to make sure that as many people at the University as possible have been informed about everything as quickly as possible?

Firstly, we sent an email as quickly as possible to all students and staff - over 60,000 people in all. Secondly, we created a corona section on the University’s homepage, where we have posted all relevant information since then. This includes for example FAQs, which we update on an almost daily basis. We’ve set up something similar for internal communication purposes in the MyWWU portal, where we focus on special aspects of relevance to our staff, and where we posted a video very early on in which the Kanzler and I explained the situation and the way we’re proceeding.

And from today’s point of view, a little while later, would you say it’s worked well?

To answer this question, it’s worth taking a look at the reactions in our email in-boxes which we created especially for the purpose - functional addresses such as corona.personal or corona.it. Every time after we’ve established new rules, a relatively small number of questions arrived in these in-boxes which showed us in particular where some things needed to be stated more precisely. This was certainly useful, because soon afterwards the numbers of such mails decreased sharply. Looking back, I would say that we reacted fast and prudently, and that - thanks to suggestions made by the faculties and others - we were quickly able to formulate our stipulations more precisely. Taking stock for the first time, I think we can be satisfied.

Currently, no one can know how the pandemic will develop and what influence it will have on public life. Would you nevertheless risk a forecast of how the coming summer semester will turn out?

I don’t have a crystal ball, naturally. But I can assure everyone of one thing: everything we do is guided by the maxim of getting the summer semester to be as beneficial and as effective as possible. And that, incidentally, is the attitude of all the universities in North Rhine-Westphalia.

This interview was first published in the University newspaper wissen

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