23 June 2020, by Newsroom
Summer Semester 2020 will take place digitally, and preparations for Winter Semester 2020/21 are underway. Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Dieter Lenzen, president of Universität Hamburg, reports on the status of the discussions in a new video message.
Combined with a heartfelt thank you to all University staff for what has been achieved so far, Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Dieter Lenzen looks back on the period since February, the challenges overcome, and the digital summer semester. Above all, however, he focuses on the considerations concerning the forthcoming winter semester. View the video (lower video resolution on Lecture2Go) or read the transcript (below) to find out what the foreseeable social distancing rules would mean for study activities.
Transcript of the video message:
Dear Members and Staff of Universität Hamburg,
I speak to you today—at the midway point of the summer semester, as it were—during one of the biggest crises to face the University, the City of Hamburg, and our country. On 23 February of this year, patient zero arrived in Hamburg—a pediatrician from our clinic, of all people—and, as a result, the virus was in the city and also at the University.
Since then, for more than 4 months now, not one of us has experienced a hint of normality. At the same time, we have learned that we can adapt to many things, and we managed to save the summer semester—which seemed so uncertain at first. There were many who called for the semester to be canceled completely. The consequences of doing that would have been considerable for you, our students, but also for the teaching staff who were ready to teach the semester. We have tried to seriously consider the needs and concerns of everyone involved—all staff as well as those indirectly affected by the situation—and to come up with solutions as far as we possibly could. After a few initial difficulties, we developed a presentable digital solution despite the fact that the university environment is clearly at its best as a physical world.
That is why the opening of our universities in Germany is currently under discussion. However, the German U15—the largest research universities in Germany—have ruled out a full return to physical attendance during the semester, but for a completely different reason: as long as the social distancing rule applies, which effectively has the force of law, individuals will be required to maintain a distance of at least 1.5 meters while attending lectures. In our case, even if we were to use the Audimax, which has over 1,500 seats, only 160 people would be able to attend a lecture at any one time. That makes it clear that it is not possible for everyone to attend lectures in person. And that immediately raises the following questions: Who is allowed to attend in person? What courses can be done in person? Who makes that decision? Why? Based on what criteria? That cannot be. Regardless of that discussion, the city government’s decisions continue to apply, also to us.
Therefore, we have to start thinking about how we are going to proceed with the winter semester. If social distancing rules are maintained, or if increased knowledge about aerosols and their role in spreading infection results in increased restrictions, the situation may in fact become more difficult. One thing we do know is that if social distancing continues to apply, the winter semester will also have to be conducted predominantly in digital form. We have calculated that we would only be able to conduct 25% of the over 5,000 courses that usually take place in the University’s rooms. Therefore, we have begun talks within the U15 as well as within the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), which represents all German higher education institutions. Although we do not yet know which way these talks will lead, we must make a decision on the winter semester very soon.
Of course, we are in constant communication with the relevant authorities, who are also issuing regulations, and we place a great deal of importance on preserving the imperative of academic freedom in all our considerations. This is a principle at the constitutional level, as is the preservation of life and limb. This means that health comes first. That is why we are also happy that we have not had a single fatality among the staff and students at the University. This is most certainly the result of our strict observance of safety measures, for which I—in the name of the Executive University Board—would like to thank you all. Our number of infections peaked at nine, a comparatively small number.
This was not the case everywhere: mass outbreaks like those seen in Göttingen recently and other areas show us how quickly infection rates can spiral with large indoor gatherings. We have decided to carefully assess the results of the digital teaching at the the end of the semester in order to evaluate what was successful and what needs to be rethought, as this format is in no way viable for the long term. The key idea here is “blended learning,” a mix of digital and in-person teaching, as far as that is possible. The most important thing is that we keep to the rules for the sake of the health and future of all of us. Once again, I thank you all for persevering. The semester will be over in a few weeks, and then we will see how things develop.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all well. Stay healthy, and—if I may say so—hang in there. I will do my best to keep you up to date. We post regular updates on our FAQ page and in our situation reports so that you can see the newest developments, including with regard to the official instructions we are obliged to issue. I thank you and, for today, say goodbye.