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AU’s rector on stages 2 and 3 of the reopening: Thanks a lot! More of the same, please. Preferably now!

Phase 2 of the gradual reopening of the country begins on Monday. A reopening that will basically bypass the university – which the rector hadn’t counted on. So now he expects that research activities will be allowed to resume in full force in phase 3, which is set to begin on Monday June 8th.

[Translate to English:] Rektor Brian Bech Nielsen mener, at der er basis for større aktivitet på Aarhus Universitet, eftersom risikoen for smittespredning vurderes til at være lav på universiteterne. Foto: Lars Kruse, AU Foto

Facts: The reopening of AU: Phase 2

On Monday May 18th, almost 2,000 staff and students from AUs five faculties and the administration will be returning to campus.

  •  Arts and Aarhus BSS: 325 students, 153 academic staff and 40 technical/administrative staff
  • Health, Faculty of Natural Sciences and Faculty of Technical Sciences: 747 students, 490 academic staff and 120 technical/administrative staff
  • Central administration: 14 technical/administrative staff

Students who are allowed to come to campus from May 18th will be directly informed. Employees will be informed by their department/school head or administrative manager.

Danish society is being reopened in a controlled, phased way. And the various sectors of Danish society are jockeying to get to the front of the line. Rector Brian Bech Nielsen isn’t normally the ‘me first’ type. But these aren’t normal times:

“What I want to say to our politicians is: ‘Just let us open. Period!’”

He added:

“Of course, the universities are included in the assessment of the total risk of infection for the population in our society. But the risk of infection is not high at the university, and as a sector, our contribution to the spread of infection has also been assessed as low,” the rector pointed out.

On the one hand and on the other hand... 

Here Bech Nielsen was referring to the report the government commissioned from three economics professors in connection with the political negotiations about the controlled reopening. 

On the one hand, the report concludes that the risk of spreading infection posed by activities at the universities is low compared with activities in other sectors of society. On the other hand, the report also concludes that keeping the universities closed has relatively few negative socioeconomic consequences because the sector is able to continue operating more or less normally despite the shutdown.  

The rector is well aware of these calculations:

“I’m completely on board with the need for us to bear our share of the burden, and that we have to live up to our social responsibility. And we’ve most certainly done so. Of course, there are lots (of sectors, ed.) that have good arguments for why politicians should prioritise them in particular. But as I said, we’re at the bottom of the scale with regard to the potential for spreading infection. And we’ve already demonstrated that we’re good at following the authorities’ instructions for reducing infection.”

As you say, a lot of sectors have good arguments for why they in particular should be at the front of the line for reopening. And isn’t it implicit in the concept ‘controlled reopening’ that not everyone can open at the same time?

“You’re absolutely right. But for example, I’ve noted that politicians have chosen to prioritise 6th through 10th grade.  And of course, that’s good news for this important sector. We have equally good grounds to expect a similar reopening. But the government has decided not to prioritise a more general reopening of our research activities in phase 2,” the rector said.

Baffled about political priorities

He continued:

“I respect politicians’ duty to make hard choices, and I’d like to express my appreciation for the teaching and exam activities that phase 2 of the reopening will make be possible here at AU, because it means a lot for the affected students and staff. But I have to admit that I’m baffled that we’re not allowed to open up more of our research activities, because the risk of infection is apparently low.”

When asked to to summarize his reaction to the Danish politicians’ decisions in connection with phases 2 and 3 of the reopening, Bech Nielsen said laughingly:

“Thanks a lot! More of the same, please. Preferably now!”

“...public research activities that require physical attendance...”

When he said ‘preferably now’, the rector was primarily thinking of the possibility of reopening all research activities in phase 3, which begins on June 8th. So he laughed again when I ask him how he interprets the government’s statement that phase 3 will involve “full opening of public research activities that require physical attendance”.

“Yes, what that means is a good question. I believe that our politicians should authorise all research activities in phase 3.”

Give us back real university life

And in connection with phase 4, which is set to begin in early August, the rector looks forward to the university getting back to business as usual.  

“Of course, it’s a little like playing whist with a blind partner when we talk about the situation in August, because the situation with the spread of infection can change over the coming months. But as a population, we have so far been good at complying with the government’s instructions.”

“So I also hope that we’ll be able to get much of our real university life back at that time, and that we’ll be allowed to resume on-campus activities across the entire university in August. We’ll probably need to be careful, for example by social distancing, but we can handle that, and we miss the life in our buildings and on our campuses.”

Facts: The reopening of Aarhus University – phase by phase

March 13th: Shutdown: AU shuts down its campuses as a consequence of the government’s decision to shut down much of the country to limit the spread of the coronavirus. All AU staff and students are sent home. Only staff who perform essential functions have access to AU’s buildings. These include animal technicians, employees who work with special kinds of research infrastructure and caregivers who patrol after AU’s grounds and buildings.

PHASE 1: 23 April: Limited reopening for 400 researchers

Including postdocs and PhD students from Health, Nat and Tech, and to a lesser extent Aarhus BSS, as well as lab technicians and other technical support staff. Also a few Master’s thesis students with lab work. The reopening also applied to few technical staff from Estates Facilities and elsewhere who dealt with preparations and cleaning in connection with the reopening. 

PHASE 2: 18 May: About 2,000 staff and students can return to campus

1,071 students, 643 academic staff and 174 technical and administrative staff at Aarhus University can resume their studies and work. These staff and students are from all five faculties and the administration. 

ON May 18th, the country’s libraries will open for loans and returns, including the Royal Danish Library.

PHASE 3: 8 June: Full opening of public research activities that require physical attendance

If the rates of infection continue the downward trend, public sector research activities that require physical attendance will resume from 8 June.

The ban on large groups will be relaxed to permit gatherings/events with 30-50 people, up from a maximum of ten.

PHASE 4: Early August: All degree programmes can reopen

All other degree programmes can reopen, with restrictions and guidelines on social distancing and hygiene.

Translation: Lenore Messick