When a crisis impacts the THUAS community, who works to assess and resolve such a crisis? Who communicates with the school board, with the faculty, with local officials, or with the students whose lives on (or off) campus have been so severely disrupted by such a crisis?
We spoke with Bas Schrijver, press officer at The Hague University and communications advisor for THUAS Executive Board, about the challenges brought by COVID-19 during this last year, and how the university’s inner workings helped develop a quick and effective response.
“This specific crisis,” Bas said, “it's one that's very invasive [and] long-lasting. There hasn't been a crisis that lasted this long and has had effects on every single part of our primary and secondary processes in a very long time. Not in my twelve years at THUAS, that’s for sure.”
In times of crisis, the Crisis Management Team (CMT) activates and leads any crisis-related processes, according to Bas. This team, composed of board members and directors, strategize the university’s crisis response. Below them is the Operational Crisis Team (OCT), composed of the integral safety officer, the safety & ER advisor, the team leader International Office and CSA, and Bas as press officer/communications advisor. Depending on the nature of a crisis, other members can be added on a temporary basis.
The addition of the team leader I.O. to the OCT is relatively new. “Due to the international nature of THUAS,” Bas explained, “we have found that whenever we have any crisis, there's always some kind of international aspect to it. Even a small fire in a single part of our building here in The Hague may have some unforeseen impact on our international student population.”
Another challenge is timing. Particularly for the management team, that challenge is deciding when to act in light of all fluctuating factors. “The crisis team is authorized to make decisions that would normally take weeks via the regular decision-making process… if something happens we need to decide and act now.”
That “now” mentality influenced the decisions made during the initial weeks of COVID-19. Bas recalled the urgent drive he experienced when the virus first arrived, and the possibility of school closures and online classes first started to become real. “Working 85 hours a week, having complete and utter focus… there are no other things that are nagging for your attention. This [was] something that we need to fix right now and do it really well, for our students and our staff.”
“This is going to sound really weird, but I miss those days. Everything was black and white. It’s either right, or it’s wrong. It’s either something that’s hard and that we can overcome or fix, or it’s something that's hard that we just have to deal with. Together you set a course and you go.”
After May, Bad started noticing more “gray areas” which made it more difficult to manage the crisis, such as when THUAS had to create the rule that people work from home as much as possible. “That is one of the least SMART rules you can enforce on an institution, because what is ‘as much as possible’? It was the only viable wording though, in those specific circumstances.”
This ambiguity, Bas added, led to some resistance from people regarding which rules to follow. This, as well as the “physical need” for people to be close to one another were factors taken into consideration when trying to influence public behavior. The taskforce that was brought to life to handle all ‘social distancing’ implications for THUAS worked out plans and ways to instruct lecturers on how to best communicate about these issues with students.
The last months have also brought some experience and perspective to the handling of COVID-19. “It's not technically a crisis anymore,” Bas explained. “Funny enough, ‘crisis’ is new. Though the situation is far from resolved, we don't really have to find our way anymore… Until the next press conference that announces a complete lockdown, then there’s a new crisis. But even in that scenario, we have now anticipated it, so there are plans and actions ready to go.”
Nevertheless, Bas is happy that the CMT and OCT will continue to always prepare for new challenges. “When those uncertainties and gray areas come about, it makes it so much harder. I’ve learned from my experience in crisis situations—and this one specifically—you act on what is in front of you today, not on what might be tomorrow.”
By Bas Schrijver Corporate Communications Advisor at THUAS