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Central Crisis Team: ‘It sometimes comes down to the last second’

It’s the middle of the academic year, but most of the University buildings are closed – something that hasn’t happened since the Second World War. Fortunately, after a week of intensive preparations, the teaching has moved online. How is the Central Crisis Team steering the University through the corona crisis? An online double interview with Vice-Chairman of the Executive Board Martijn Ridderbos and Chief Security Officer Leo Harskamp.

Closing the University, students stranded abroad and worries about the spread of coronavirus... The University has held many crisis exercises, but no one could have predicted this one, say the two members of the Central Crisis Team (CCT). ‘These are frightening times for all of us,’ says Martijn Ridderbos from his home office in Bilthoven. From his attic room in Harderwijk, Chief Security Officer Leo Harskamp agrees. Since Friday 13 March, they too have mainly been working from home. The CCT (see below) is steering the University through the corona crisis.

Martijn Ridderbos, chair of the Central Crisis Team.

Complex decisions

The team has been holding crisis meetings for weeks already and every day has to make several, generally complex decisions, which spark many reactions. Harskamp and the new ‘corona helpline’ are receiving a constant stream of phone calls and emails from worried students, parents and staff. Students have the most questions. The international students in particular want to know why the Netherlands hasn’t opted for a total lockdown and why students and staff aren’t wearing masks as a preventive measure. Harskamp: ‘I explain that we are following the guidelines from the government and the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and translating them to the University situation.’

Leo Harskamp, Chief Security Officer.

Repatriating stranded students and staff

With more and more countries closing their borders, this is an alarming situation for international students and staff who are still here in the Netherlands, says Ridderbos. ‘Often, they are really worried about their loved ones abroad, where the measures are sometimes even tighter.’ And, vice versa, most of the students and staff from Leiden who were abroad are now back in the Netherlands, often with the help of the University. Around 160 students are still in Asia, Africa, the United States and elsewhere in Europe. The Netherlands, like any other country, is in bilateral negotiations to repatriate people. The Dutch universities are acting in unison through the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) and are in close consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Every day, Leiden students and staff are returning home, says Harskamp.

Last flight

The negotiations about repatriation continue day and night, says Harskamp. ‘My colleague Jaap van Zaanen worked through the night the other week because we had to act fast.’ Take the Leiden student who was stranded in Chile. ‘The ticket could only be arranged just before the last flight was about to leave. Our student was already standing in the queue at the airport, but didn’t know whether he’d actually be able to board the flight. Luckily, he did. It sometimes comes down to the last second.’

‘We want to say a huge thankyou to everyone for this mega transformation’

Momentous decision

The CCT took a momentous decision last week: until the end of this academic year, the University will offer all of its teaching and assessment online. Why did it make this decision? Ridderbos: ‘We don’t know when this situation will end. It’s very likely that we’ll still have to socially distance for weeks after 6 April too. Our lecturers had a couple of days to prepare the entire curriculum for remote teaching. Fantastic that we’ve been able to make such great strides in this. It’ll take lecturers and students some time to get used to and we don’t want to have to repeat the whole procedure in reverse. That would be too stressful for everyone. Our main aim is to ensure clarity for this academic year.’

Almost everyone is working from home. Ton Liefaard, Vice-Dean of Leiden Law School, is also doing his crisis management and research from home.

Proud

Since Monday 23 March the lecturers on the degree programmes have been offering remote teaching and assessment. They are using various online tools to set up their virtual classrooms. And thanks to applications such as MS Teams via Office 365, thousands of teleworkers are now holding online meetings. There are hundreds of digital teams already, says Ridderbos, and new ones are popping up every day. ‘We want to say a huge thankyou to everyone for this mega transformation. It won’t all work 100%, but we’re doing our very best. It really is incredible to see what has been achieved in such a short space of time, how hard the staff are working and how the students are adjusting to the new circumstances. It makes me really proud, also on behalf of the Executive Board.’

‘We sometimes have to decide on things that people haven’t yet seen coming’

Study trips cancelled

The CCT has had to make some hard decisions in the past few weeks, such as cancelling study trips abroad – which are essential for students who are studying a language – when the seriousness of the corona crisis hadn’t yet hit home everywhere. Ridderbos: ‘I fully understand the enormous disappointment of the Japanese Studies students, for example, and can imagine that students may see this differently from how we do in the CCT, but we can’t allow ourselves to give everyone this space. Because if we don’t follow one line, we lose clarity and no one knows where they are. We are responsible for the safety of around 30,000 students and 6,000 staff members.’ Harskamp adds: ‘As a crisis team we sometimes have to decide on something that will very probably happen in a few weeks, but that many people haven’t yet seen coming.’

Remote research

Which topics will be on the agenda in the next few weeks? Ridderbos: ‘Remote research, for example. How can that continue wherever possible? That’s what we need to work out. Researchers are encountering delays and only have funding up to a certain point in time. And we want to look further into the future. What will we come up against in a few months’ time? How will we manage new student enrolments? What will we do if the corona crisis is still ongoing at the start of the next academic year?’

Take good care of one another

What would they like to say to the students and staff? Harskamp: ‘The most important thing is: take good care of one another.’ Ridderbos: ‘I agree. And also: try to help one another. At the same time, this situation also provides opportunities to develop new working patterns that will be of use in the future as we give further shape to the topic of digital and flexible working. We will also benefit from these huge steps that we are all taking now, at a time in the future when we hopefully are no longer battling this terrible virus.’

‘One thing matters more than anything else: everyone’s health’

Marathon

And how are the members of the crisis team coping with this endless marathon? Leo laughs: ‘It’s very serious of course, but we’re also making jokes.’ Ridderbos: ‘Yes, we make sure that we can relax too. Humour helps but so does keeping an eye on one another. And we have arranged for backup because this is so intensive. We all have an enormous drive to give the best possible shape to remote work, teaching and research. These are difficult times, but it does bring you together too: it makes huge demands of everyone’s creativity and loyalty. We help each other out. That’s the main thing we should all be doing. One thing matters before anything else: everyone’s health.’

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How does the Central Crisis Team at Leiden University work?

The Central Crisis Team (CCT) currently comprises the following members: Martijn Ridderbos (chair, mandate from and contact with Executive Board members Carel Stolker and Hester Bijl and contact person for VSNU), Leo Harskamp (member and contact person for the executive directors and directors of the expertise centres), Renée Merkx (member, ‘working from home’ project and communication), Michel Leenders (member and ‘remote teaching’ project), Karin Horsman (member and ‘remote research’ project).
Minke Holleman is responsible for communicating the decisions that have been made and Laura Zondervan is responsible for consultation with the Decentral Crisis Teams and preparing and recording the decisions made in the CCT. Alongside monitoring safety, the CCT has three large projects to ensure that the core tasks of the University continue: remote teaching, remote research and working from home. Each project has its own project organisation that prepares scenarios and decisions and ensures that decisions are accepted in the organisation. As Chief Security Officer, Harskamp is also on the International Incident Team for students and staff abroad and if necessary, their repatriation. There are Decentral Crisis Teams per location, discipline, such as for the faculties and expertise centres.

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