« We have to deal with the uncertainty »

Marc de Perrot, Secretary General, is leading the project dedicated to institutional continuity within the « Coronacell », the unit created by the Rectorate to coordinate the management of the epidemic and anticipate a September academic re-start marked by strong uncertainties. Interview.

Like almost the entire university community, you work from home. How do you cope with the situation?

I am fortunate to have access to everything I need to be operational. But like everyone else, my daily life has changed. For example, I have three to five hours of videoconferences a day, in addition to telephone sessions with two or three participants. I realize that this way of working requires ten times more attention than face-to-face meetings, and that it’s quite exhausting! Not to mention the fact that when you like people, you prefer to meet them in a face-to-face mode that facilitates all the little extras that make up the quality of a relationship, even a professional one.

What is your role in this crisis?

That of a general secretary: to put oil in the wheels. In this case, it’s the management of a new system that first had to be put in place and then consolidated. I am working to facilitate interaction between UNIL’s units so that they can carry out their tasks in a coordinated manner, in particular through well-functioning organizational arrangements and lines of communication. Since January, we have set up a group of people to monitor the situation closely. At the beginning of March, we held a meeting with the heads of services to ask them to draw up their crisis and continuity plans. Then our group was set up as a steering committee, which we called « Coronacell ». It brings together Vice-Rectors Zanetti and Frund, as well as the heads of UNISEP, the IT Centre, the Teaching Support Centre, SRH (human resources), and Unicom, with the support of a few deputies, and reports directly to the Rectorate for coordinating the management of the pandemic at UNIL. This arrangement is the activation of the crisis management plan developed and continuously updated by UNISEP to ensure that UNIL is ready to respond at all times to exceptional situations. This facilitated the closure of the campus ordered by the Canton on March 13, and above all the ability of UNIL to operate very quickly under these extraordinary conditions.

How has “Coronacell” been operating since March 13?

The cell meets every day (remotely, of course) to ensure the functioning of the University. It also works to anticipate as much as possible the evolution of a volatile situation. Its action must of course be part of more global decisions taken by others. By our political authorities as far as health measures are concerned, but also, if we think of research, by funding agencies in Switzerland and Europe. Moreover, even in times of crisis and independently of the “Coronacell”, the Rectorate continues to meet, to make decisions and to work towards achieving its strategic goals. Therefore, I also continue in my usual role of supporting the work of the UNIL Rectorate.

How have you managed this transition?

In the immediate term, in mid-March, two objectives were set by the Rectorate: to preserve the teaching and validation of the semester of studies, and to ensure the functioning of UNIL … starting with the payment of salaries at the end of the month! These activities depend on many transversal services, such as the IT Centre, the Financial Service and the Human Resources Service, or the Teaching Support Centre. It was therefore necessary to get organized in order to maintain these essential services as well as contact with the community. A simple example, which seems obvious but requires organization: making sure that there is someone to answer UNIL’s main telephone numbers … and who has sufficient information to direct callers! Another need that was quickly felt is to simplify and strengthen the allocation of practical aid, especially financial aid, to students.

Marc de Perrot is the Secretary General of the University of Lausanne.
(Félix Imhof © UNIL)

And what measures have been taken to ensure this reorganization?

We asked the faculties and departments to fill out a template for their « business continuity plan »: to determine what activities must be maintained in each department and, in the event of a pandemic, to ensure that there would always be someone to take over, if a significant proportion of staff were to be affected by the virus. In addition, a major communication effort has been made to ensure that each of the 20’000 members of the UNIL community receives, in a timely manner and according to his or her status at UNIL, all the information he or she needs to face the situation with full knowledge of the facts. The Coronacell is leading the following five projects: Teaching, Information Technology, Campus Management, Communication, Business Continuity and Human Resources.

Today, what are the jobs that keep you busy?

Since mid-March, we have been working on a second situation: after absorbing the shock of the switchover to remote mode and noting that confinement has made it possible to avoid an explosion of absenteeism due to contamination, UNIL’s units are returning to an operation that is closer to their usual functioning, although in non-standard conditions: we have therefore asked the units to think, on the basis of a new framework, about their « long continuity » plan, i.e. how their missions can be carried out remotely in order to fulfil – as far as possible in the present and future circumstances – the 2020 objectives.

How do you see the way forward?

Last Thursday, the Federal Council announced a gradual easing of protective measures in three cautious steps. This will enable UNIL to organise a gradual and cautious resumption of research activities that had to be frozen because they required the use of on-campus facilities. However, the uncertainty is still there. Indeed, the transition from one stage to the next will only take place if there is no significant increase in cases of COVID-19 and the different stages will be sufficiently spaced out to observe the effects of the relaxation measures. At UNIL, we must do everything we can, to achieve our objectives, being aware that we will not be able to do everything anyway. We will have to plan our work over the long term, being aware that there is no guarantee that we will be able to achieve it fully. This will require responsiveness and flexibility, perhaps sometimes the ability to take a step backwards.

At UNIL, would a return to normal in September be possible, if sanitary conditions allow?

A 100 percent return to normal will probably not be achievable for a long time. COVID-19 may still have a few surprises in store for us. And even assuming that everything was back to normal by September, we probably couldn’t « catch up » in the last few months of the year everything that the confinement would have prevented us from achieving as planned in the first half of the year. For example, we will most certainly have to abandon certain events or projects currently postponed, or organize them differently. We have now gained experience in operating at a distance, for teaching and academic and management activities. Certainly not the universal panacea, but these methods can be used to reinvent more hybrid ways of doing things, which take account of the announced uncertainty. Our job is to anticipate as well as possible the constraints we might be subject to, the extent of which could still vary quite a bit and in a somewhat random way, and to ensure the best possible responsiveness in due course. UNIL has shown a great capacity to adapt since 13 March. We must continue to work in this perspective!