Interview with President Henrik Enderlein: Our response to the coronavirus

Student needs, online teaching, admissions – Enderlein details university-wide measures and looks ahead.

Henrik Enderlein in conversation with Hertie School Communications on the school’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.


The coronavirus outbreak is a major challenge for universities worldwide. What does it mean for the Hertie School? And when did you realise you had to move to online teaching? 

First of all, this pandemic is an unprecedented challenge on a global scale. The thoughts of the entire Hertie School community are with those who are afraid, with those who suffer, with those who may even lose loved ones. This pandemic has far-reaching social and societal consequences. Just think of our students, researchers, and staff. Some of them live alone in very small flats. Many feel isolated right now. There is increased uncertainty, stress, and sometimes fear. There are mental health challenges. We try to respond by being present and by building a virtual community. But the situation is difficult. Even the best virtual community will never replace the warmth of direct human interaction. 

To your second question: We started to work on contingency plans in February. At that point in time, we still hoped these plans wouldn’t have to be activated. But we wanted to be prepared. We brought in an online teaching add-on for our Moodle platform in early March. We surveyed all departments about their off-site working needs, invested in equipment and created video tutorials for setting up and using a host of online tools for staff and faculty. We ordered several dozen laptops and mobile phones to ensure that every member of staff would have the ability to work remotely. So when the Berlin authorities recommended that we should move to online instruction on 12 March, we were ready, and we implemented that recommendation immediately.

Does online teaching work? How are Hertie School students responding? 

Moving online comes with challenges for every student and instructor. But so far, our initial impression is positive. We managed to move all midterm exams online with less than a week’s notice, and without any significant technical disruptions. We moved to online teaching the last week of March, taking more than 100 master’s program classes and also several executive seminars online. At the Hertie School, 80% of classes have fewer than 25 participants. This is a size where real interaction is possible even in a virtual classroom. But even larger formats such as lectures can work. We can pre-record the lecture and focus the class session on Q&A, clarifications and discussions. One initiative has worked particularly well:  we decided to place a “course assistant” in every class. This is someone who reads the questions from students in the chatroom and helps the instructor make sure everyone is heard. Such things are easily overlooked. Lecturing while reading questions on a screen is often not feasible. Several of these course assistants are students who had lost their part-time jobs due to the crisis.

We don’t know how long this crisis will last. Will you go on with the semester? Will the graduation ceremony take place in early June? 

We don’t expect to change our academic calendar. Our first-year students will complete their courses by mid-May. And our objective for students in their final year is that they can graduate before the summer.  We decided to cancel our graduation ceremony, which was initially planned for 8 June. We also extended the deadline for submitting the master’s thesis by one month. It is much harder for students to work from home, without access to physical libraries, with less peer support, and within an overall highly challenging environment. The additional month takes these circumstances into account while still allowing students to earn their graduation certificates by the end of June. We hope to be able to hold a formal graduation ceremony later this year. Generally, we try to be as flexible as possible to accommodate the specific needs of every individual student – for example, by giving every student the opportunity to interrupt their studies at no additional cost, or with respect to the internship requirements.

What about the fall term? What is your signal to students who currently want to apply?

We trust that the main challenges related to the coronavirus will be resolved by the summer and that presence-based instruction will be possible in September. And we are eagerly looking forward to welcoming our next class of students for the Academic Year 2020/21. But here, again, we need to be prepared: we are ready for either a presence-based or an online-based start. And we stand ready to give students all the flexibility and support needed to join us, physically or virtually. We are making conditional offers to students who are unable to take English proficiency tests because some formats like TOEFL or IELTS are currently not offered in some countries. We are also further increasing our already extensive support to help prospective students with the visa process, financial aid, and relocation to Berlin.

When you became President of the Hertie School in September 2018, you put into place an ambitious growth plan. Will you continue?

Absolutely. We are in the very privileged position to have the incredibly supportive Hertie Foundation behind us. Their endowment is very large. They remain fully committed to supporting our growth plan. Since the lockdown started, I took part in online interviews for new professors to add to our growing international faculty. By 2021, we will have 40 professors – this is twice as many as in 2014. Our Centre for Sustainability is set to open in early 2021. We are expanding our work in the areas of data science and digital governance. Our Centre for Fundamental Rights formally opened a few weeks ago. And we also have the most impressive student body I can think of. They are diverse. They are smart. And they all share our core value to actively contribute to the common good. My prediction: our graduates will be needed more than ever as countries recover from this crisis. 

The motto of the Hertie School is “Understand today. Shape tomorrow”. Which lessons will we draw from this global health crisis?

The most important matter right now is to save every human life possible, and to address the immediate social and economic challenges at the same time. At the Hertie School, we are observing best practices, we are making proposals, we are drawing lessons – and we naturally also think about the longer-term implications.

For what it’s worth, I think a lot about the future of the nation-state these days. Many predict that increased nationalism will be a consequence of this crisis. I rather predict the opposite. This crisis reminds us that humankind is vulnerable and that this vulnerability is global. People all over the globe will soon understand that nationalist responses to the crisis don’t work. Some people speak about a “foreign virus”. This is a dangerous oxymoron. Humankind is defined by unity. There are no borders between human beings. Health is global. Climate change is global. If we already start to draw such lessons today, then we will be better prepared to shape tomorrow.


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