Interview with vice-chancellor: Reduced travel can be effect of pandemic

LiU’s vice-chancellor Jan-Ingvar Jönsson sees many effects of the corona crisis. A reduction in travel might be a permanent one.

Vice Chancellor, Jan-Ingvar Jönsson Thor Balkhed

“For staff and students, it has been a huge adjustment. It’s probably worst for the students, who might have come here because Linköping is a campus university – even if I think that Kalas, the big event for new students, exceeded expectations in its digital form”, says Jan-Ingvar Jönsson.
When asked about this huge adjustment, the vice-chancellor takes a deep breath, before answering quickly, not forgetting anyone.

“I’m sure it’s been difficult for all the 4000 members of our staff, and for our students. I want to thank everyone for their contributions, whether large or small. Many people have helped out, so that it has worked, in spite of everything.”
Didacticum, which is LiU’s station for staff training in e.g. digital tools, along with the IT Department, was recognised with the university’s internal award, ‘Team of the Year’.
“It normally goes to smaller teams but this year the jury felt that they had made such a contribution to the development of the entire university that they were an easy choice. Our assessment was that they have managed this superbly. The Exam Office received special mention. Another group that we want to honour are the cleaning staff, who are on site every day.”

How has the transition to distance mode gone?
“The crisis blindsided us. But maybe not as much as we initially thought. We’ve had a good dialogue with the student unions. They have better insight into the students’ well-being. The Crisis Management Group has been essential. But I also think that we have been able to manage everyday, practical matters, such as how many people are allowed in the lab.”

How do you think people are affected by the situation?
“Distance mode might not be optimal for one’s development as a member of staff, even if it’s possible to make good use of the time at home. But there is a lot of focus on the operations, on the big picture, on being dutiful and responsible. These are all very important. But developing as a person, learning from others, I don’t think these things are as easy on Zoom. People miss being together, chatting in the coffee room.”
LiU is in direct contact with senior epidemiologists in the region, on the county board and in the municipalities. The rapid developments have affected everyone.
“Emotionally it’s very difficult to make all these moves and ensure that everything works well. The heads of department and heads of division have done a good job.”

What is it like to close a university?
“Close isn’t the right word. But most operations are carried out remotely, only what is absolutely necessary is done on site. So obviously it’s very disappointing.”

What is the greatest challenge?
“It develops so unpredictably. I know that many students and teachers want to see a long-term plan. But we’ve decided to draw the line at the end of June. After that we can hopefully open things up a little more for the autumn term.”

Is it possible to say that LiU has a fifth campus, a digital campus?
“We’ve already been tasked with pivoting towards a digital campus. If we are to manage lifelong learning and be an open university, we need to find new forms. Maybe it is OK to talk about a fifth campus. In a way I like the concept. But on the other hand I believe more in hybrid programmes, where you attend campus for certain components.”
The entire higher education sector has been hit hard by the pandemic. LiU is firmly positioned as a campus university, where student life is based on the students being on campus.
“If you know that all or most teaching is done remotely, our campus profile might not be such a strong argument. Here, a fifth, digital campus is an important complement.”
The crisis may also have had benefits. Jan-Ingvar Jönsson says that many teachers have probably had to review their lectures, to evaluate if they work in distance mode, and to possibly adjust the content.
“I’ve been a teacher myself for many years, as term coordinator for the medical programme in Linköping and as director of studies in Lund. I think my lectures have been appreciated. But when you’ve held a lecture for ten years and think it works, perhaps you don’t update it. Which is too bad because all teaching needs to be developed.”

Can you give some examples?
“In a way you can get closer to the students. Having a dialogue with the students is rewarding. Not just taking your notes and leaving straight after the lecture. As a teacher, finishing by saying ‘Now I’ll be available in the chat room for two hours’, for instance.”
One thing of concern to Jan-Ingvar Jönsson is that the number of disciplinary matters has increased – especially exam-related cheating.
“It’s both unfortunate and serious. The teachers are very worried about examinations. It will probably lead to a situation where some exams have camera surveillance.”
He emphasises that cheaters are taking a huge risk.
“I understand that it’s stressful. But I don’t understand why people take the risk. You should feel proud about your education, and not carry on with things like that. It’s not fair to your fellow students.”

Any difficult decisions during the pandemic?
“I can think of three. In the autumn when we had to revise the decision to let the first-year students study on campus. Another was when we introduced the pandemic levels and realised we had to go up one step, to distance mode for the first half of the spring term, and now for the rest of it. For me as vice-chancellor it’s also unfortunate to have to cancel the Academic Ceremony. It’s a lovely event for professors and new doctors.”
During the first year of the pandemic, a lot revolved around teaching and the students. Now the focus has to shift more towards research:
“We need to monitor how the pandemic is affecting research and the researchers. Are there projects that aren’t making any progress? How are our young researchers, doctoral students and postdocs affected? What should we do with temporary positions where the clock is ticking but the projects aren’t advancing?”

Are funding bodies understanding, with regards to the corona crisis?
“The external ones, such as the Swedish Research Council and private foundations, are cooperating. They have said that they can extend the funding period by one year. And I think they are generous if you apply for an extension of the project, if you have good reasons. Our principal, that is, the Swedish state, has not been as cooperative. For instance with funding that has been paid out in a way that it can only be used during one year.”

He concludes that the challenge isn’t with the funding bodies.
“No, the challenge is with us locally. We have to discuss how to solve this. If the doctoral students don’t finish in time, we need to investigate other solutions. Maybe allow extensions. Of course, there will be individual assessments and questions about funding, which must be considered by the supervisors, the departments and the faculties.”
Jan-Ingvar Jönsson’s assessment is that it is still difficult to see all the effects of the pandemic. But some things are clear, for instance that people are interacting more digitally, both for local meetings and for meetings across long distances.
“Now it might be the time for an explicit policy that we should travel less, instead of a recommendation. Very much can be done digitally instead. Conferences are good for building networks, but if you already have networks do you really need to go there? Maybe you should instead have more ‘intermediate meetings’ in a digital form.”

Yes, isn’t that necessary?
“It’s costly and is bad for the environment. In previous roles I have travelled a lot to London, Brussels, Paris and Berlin. I think there are meetings that can be conducted remotely.”
For Jan-Ingvar Jönsson, 2020 was the year when he took on the position of vice-chancellor at Linköping University.
“Obviously, starting the job during a pandemic was unfortunate. I envisaged being available and visible. I expected to be able to visit the various operations, to experience the interesting research, and to meet students and the student unions. But I still think I have become a familiar face, and that my introduction has gone well.”



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