Organisational Resilience at the mdw

Organisational resilience is an organisation’s ability to adapt to a changing environment and regain its footing in situations of crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the mdw succeeded in reacting flexibly to this new situation, working with the altered conditions that it faced. Cooperation between all manner of decision-making bodies and groups of people as well as quick reactions to constantly changing conditions were of central importance—for those in positions of leadership as well as others. Rector Ulrike Sych, Senate Chair Johannes Marian, and University Council Chair Stefan Zapotocky spoke with mdw Magazine about the biggest challenges they faced and the most important experiences they had while dealing with this crisis.

The culture of communication at the mdw, which was already good, and the participative work undertaken by the Rectorate together with members of the University community from the very beginning augured well for the efforts to overcome this crisis, says Ulrike Sych. “We were confronted with a huge discrepancy between government decrees and the University’s own autonomy. A lot of very serious decisions needed to be made and followed through with on our own volition and responsibility, a process that witnessed quite a bit of intense exchange between arts university rectors all over Austria. All of the various official bodies at the mdw—including its Student Union (hmdw)—worked together responsibly and consensually. Clarity in conveying the measures that were being instituted was enormously important in every step that was taken. And not to be forgotten are the Works Council members and the WGEO, as well—which is to say that all of us have dealt well with this crisis so far, with combined strength and the fullest of trust”, says Ulrike Sych of the past year and a half.

The abovementioned groups had to quickly coordinate their actions and make decisions while also being faced with very specific respective challenges. Senate chair Johannes Marian, for instance, describes what the Senate was asking itself back when the pandemic began: “For the Senate, the point was to preserve not just its own ability to act but also that of all commissions (such as the studies, appointments, and habilitation commissions) and working groups formed under its auspices. Our internal regulations didn’t provide for virtual meetings or circular resolutions via E-mail. And the Ministry was very quick to either assume central Senate functions itself or transfer them to the Rectorate. But our institution’s internal solidarity was just as quick to become apparent, and at the Rectorate’s initiative, legal solutions were found that rendered the Senate and its commissions once again fully capable of acting. All this happened within just a few days!”

Stefan Zapotocky, who chairs the University Board, likewise emphasises the mdw’s efficiency: “It’s unfortunately the case that the assistance and decisions needed by the arts field had been accorded very low priority by the federal government for quite some time, for which reason there was a need to energetically demand and organise measures that would help improve the acute, existentially threatening situation that students and working artists were in. Our Rectorate, headed by Rector Ulrike Sych, joined forces with governing bodies, all affected internal positions, and our students to do everything that was necessary in order to efficiently adapt the university’s studies-related operations to the developing situation and sustain these operations to the greatest possible extent.

The quick transition from physically present teaching to digital teaching was accorded the highest priority. Ulrike Sych remains enthusiastic about the mutual trust and the exemplary quality of cooperation at the mdw: “We’re extremely fortunate to have had among us outstanding experts on digital learning and working even before the pandemic broke out; it’s thus that we’ve been engaged with the topic of digital learning and teaching for years, and both the AV Center and the ZID have achieved fantastic things in this regard. What’s more, our teachers, researchers, and administrative employees were ready and willing to completely reorient inside of a single week, thereafter teaching and working entirely within the digital realm.”

The ultimate goal, however, was to make possible individual instruction while protecting the health of all members of the University community: “All of the necessary decisions were developed by the Rectorate with specific goals in mind and implemented together with all affected parties in the best possible ways. Together with the positive collaboration that took place between all of us, this huge degree of flexibility in adapting internal processes and employing the most modern technical media were and still are an important foundation for the successful work done so far by our University under what have been extremely limiting conditions,” emphasises Stefan Zapotocky.

Johannes Marian likewise praises the quality of cooperation: “The folks at the Information Technology Department came up with an efficient solution for every difficulty we ran into in connection with the switch to digital meetings and decision-making.” But even so, things did not run entirely free of misgivings: “I can still vividly remember our first virtual emergency Senate meeting, how nervous I was prior to and during the meeting about whether all of the Senate’s members would turn up in Zoom and stay there, whether it would be possible to discuss and vote … and then my relief once everything had run efficiently and according to plan.”

The fact that an organisation ends up changed after all of these experiences is something on which everyone agrees. “Post-COVID is not pre-COVID. Such a huge crisis simply cannot take place without affecting us,” says Ulrike Sych with conviction. “Topics like working from home, digital teaching, and also work processes and workflows in general are going to end up being re-evaluated and discussed anew. And we’re going to need new guidelines in many areas. Like when I think of the topic of meetings, especially inter-departmental meetings: here, we’ll be needing to decide what will take place digitally in the future and what will require physical presence. And in doing so, we’ll also be giving thought to positive past experiences and easier plannability. The new knowledge gleaned from the pandemic will be having an impact on sustainability-related discussions and measures affecting everyday university life as well as both artistic and academic activities. Mobility will likewise look different in the future, including at universities—and it is our worldwide goal to both question and minimise travel in the interest of protecting our climate. This applies not only to academic lectures and conferences, but also to entrance examinations.”

Johannes Marian’s takeaways from the pandemic first and foremost include the certainty “that at our institution, you can trust in everyone’s team spirit in a crisis, that a feeling of solidarity will come to the fore, and that everyone will work to protect every other member of the University community against possible negative consequences.”

And Stefan Zapotocky is likewise looking ahead with optimism: “It’s about soon being able to return to optimum full-scale operations, and it’s especially about serving the needs and cultivating the abilities of our students. We want to maintain and solidify our mdw’s top international ranking!”

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