One year after the elections. The social mission of the University of Gdańsk

The Rector of the University of Gdańsk, prof. dr. hab. Piotr Stepnowski is interviewed by dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz

A year ago, on November 23, 2020, elections for the rector of the University of Gdańsk were held. You won by a decisive number of votes, receiving a large credit of trust. Such an election is also a huge commitment to the academic community. Has it been a difficult year?

Very difficult. Even with my knowledge of university management at the time, resulting mainly from my position as Vice-Rector for Science, I did not expect such an enormity and at the same time such a range of the Rector's duties, not only in terms of managing the current affairs of the University but also in planning the implementation of a modern vision of the University's development, which goes far beyond these current affairs. I have set myself the goal of adapting the functioning of our University to the contemporary reality, but also to the challenges facing higher education and science - we still have a lot to do to improve the efficiency of our operations, implement modern solutions, and open up further to the social environment. I consider the support I received during the election as a credit of trust granted by the entire academic community of our university and, at the same time, an openness to changes. What we've managed to do so far has involved a lot of effort, but it was and still is worth it - the University is changing right before our eyes.


Rektor prof. Piotr Stepnowski

Could you name three activities, in what you consider to be the most important areas, which have been achieved this year?

Quite recently, the Vice-Rectors and I summarised our activities to date. It turned out that despite the pandemic, an exceptionally difficult time for all of us in which we had to manage the University, the sequence of actions we adopted was optimal and we managed to implement the vast majority of actions planned for this year. We introduced a completely new model of managing the University of Gdańsk, and although we were forced to work partly remotely, this did not turn out to be an obstacle. On the contrary. It was possible to quickly organise online meetings and make effective use of the time spent working together on decisions and finding the best solutions. The changes in the statutes were very important for us, both from the legislative and organisational point of view, which on the one hand allowed for greater autonomy of the faculties and on the other hand for emphasising pro-quality measures in education and scientific research. It was also a time of deeper reflection on the consequences of the adopted solutions in the scope of teaching and scientific activities, allowing for a forward-looking view on the direction of the University's development in these areas. There are many such new elements in the Statute, although they may not be immediately noticeable. All of them will constitute tools that we can use to implement further changes. I am also glad that we have convinced our community of the need to implement a new, transparent and equal policy for the development of human resources at our university. Today we are implementing it to the full extent. It was equally important for me to mobilise the widest possible support for raising the quality of our scientific research. In the past academic year, this support was addressed primarily to those scientists and research teams who have so far found it difficult to obtain external funding for their research, but also to scientists who have good or very good ideas but simply need an 'impulse' to start implementing their research projects, which are often very interesting and socially necessary.

It seems that currently the third mission of the university, i.e. social responsibility, is more visible.

This is a consequence of deliberate actions. I see the modern University as an institution that is a partner of local authorities, be it municipal or voivodeship ones, and shares the responsibility for the development of the city and the region. Such an understanding of the University's role costs a lot of effort and time because, in the end, it is necessary to bring our daily activities closer to the citizens and even translate the results of our research into understandable language, pointing out their significance for the region, proving that society needs scientists, well-educated graduates and a constant 'injection' of innovation, ingenuity and inspiration in almost all branches of the economy and all areas of social life. It is also constantly encouraging cooperation between the local community, local government officials, politicians, NGOs and business representatives. Much has already been done in this respect, especially as regards cooperation with local authorities. Thanks to this, there is a greater understanding that the strategy for the development of our city and region should always take into account the academic mission.

I also have the impression, probably somewhat subjective, but nevertheless a strong one, that in many places at the University there is a real enthusiasm and willingness to act. Every day I meet many people from different units who talk about their new initiatives. I only regret that we are not able to support all these ideas financially or organisationally and that not everything can be implemented straight away.

I also have to ask about the plans and objectives that have not yet been achieved. Are these projects still feasible, but postponed for various reasons?

The reform of the university administration requires more time. The processes that have been initiated are not only a change of the organisational structure or a new division of responsibilities. Today we are facing the need for a complete change of mentality. Quick changes are not possible in this area, because it's about a new approach to one's duties, greater independence and introducing such a management climate that will foster decision-making friendly to other employees. This has been difficult so far for various reasons, but I am sure that convincing each employee that a sense of responsibility for 'their' part of the University is a very important part of these changes. Changes in which there is no room for hiding behind procedures, formalism and self-imposed regulations, but instead space for bold and responsible action, listening to the needs of the academic community. I don't see the lack of more spectacular changes in this area as a failure, because the fact that they are gradually taking place is already visible. I see it as a progressive process. What I do see as a failure is the construction of the sports centre, which has not yet been started. Thanks to a great deal of effort, we managed to raise the funds for the first stage of the investment and adjudicate the tender. An unquestionable success was the signing of the agreement on co-financing this investment with the Ministry of Culture, National Heritage and Sports. Unfortunately, the contractors selected in the tender procedure withdrew from signing the contract in the face of rising construction prices. We are at the stage of preparing the tender again, with the awareness that the implementation of the investment will be even more expensive. We have a lot of work ahead of us in preparing the next financial assembly of this undertaking because I am very anxious to start the actual construction work as soon as possible. The University of Gdańsk can no longer wait and function without a modern sports centre. This is currently our investment priority.

It was a difficult year also due to the need to rebuild the image of the University of Gdańsk after the plagiarism case of the former rector, which was very unpleasant for the whole UG community. In your opinion, have you managed to improve this image? What is certainly noticeable is the improvement of the University of Gdańsk's position in rankings.

I hope that the plagiarism case has not overshadowed the fact that the past fifty years of the University's development have been the result of the hard work of several generations of employees, students and PhD students. We are continuing the achievements of our predecessors, drawing inspiration from their determination and bold plans, the consistent implementation of which has allowed us to build a strong position for our University at home and abroad. Last year we managed to improve our position especially in those ranking areas where expert opinion is taken into account. We are visible in places where the university should be represented, and we seek opportunities to actively participate in debates and panels, including those organised by organisations that create these rankings, both national and international. We are also improving our English-language teaching offer, an area which has so far been simply neglected. This is an important element in every ranking, and I am convinced that all the actions we take will increasingly translate into a higher position for our University. We also draw a lot of inspiration and good practices from our partners with whom we cooperate under the SEA EU programme, the European University of the Seas. Together with universities from France, Spain, Malta, Germany and Croatia, we are working on increasing student mobility, joint academic exchange programmes and joint research projects. This is a huge opportunity and we have worked hard to make the current cooperation with our partners exemplary. Also, recently, even though we are a university from the second ten of the Research University Excellence Initiative, we took part in one of the two most important panels summarising achievements under this programme. As the Gdańsk centre, together with the Gdańsk University of Technology and the Medical University of Gdańsk, through our participation and sharing ideas, also in the scope of the Fahrenheit Universities, we have been noticed and pointed out as a model example of the university consolidation process, but also other activities worth following, including sharing good practices in the area of education, student care and interesting organisational solutions, which can be an inspiration for other universities. Our ideas, the increasingly intensive cooperation within the Fahrenheit Union, were very well evaluated by an international panel of experts. To sum up, I think it is important to constantly participate in groups that shape the opinion about the university, because rankings are nothing but a positive image, and not just 'dry' points.

What can you expect this academic year at UG?

In terms of support for scientific development, we expect to launch further programmes, such as a programme of short internships at the world's best universities called 'Ticket to Excellence', a programme to build facilities for a large research infrastructure, and finally a programme to support visiting professors, which will make it possible to additionally attract outstanding scientists from all over the world. New developments in teaching include a whole range of new majors and specialities in English, but also the activities of the recently established Academic Centre for Polish Language and Culture for Foreigners, which has already actively supported students in improving their language skills. I am also very happy about the first recruitment to the Interdisciplinary Individual Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences or the next edition of joint studies with the Naval Academy in Gdynia with an engineering profile called Marine Hydrography. The Centre of Didactic Improvement and Tutoring is also being developed, which will increasingly support the development of staff competencies in the field of didactics and will strengthen the didactic career path of academics. The Centre will coordinate the training of tutors and will develop the principles of mentoring support for our teachers. And while we are on the subject of centres, I think that the Centre for Student and Doctoral Activities will gain momentum. We can also boast the Centre for Sustainable Development, which after only a few months of operation is a nationally recognised think tank on various aspects of sustainable development. Similarly, the Academic Psychological Support Centre, which has already shown how its activities are relevant to the current needs of support for our community in times of pandemic, but also prepares interesting forms of counselling in the area of mental health care. In the coming year, we will also see further implementations of new IT solutions to support the effective management of the University. We hope to complete several important projects in this respect, especially in the area of finance and accounting and management of the teaching process and project management.

What are the biggest challenges the University of Gdańsk will have to face this academic year and in the years to come?

We are finishing the last year of the period of the upcoming evaluation of our scientific activity. In mid-2022 we will find out how we have coped with this process. It has been a year during which faculties have done a lot to improve their academic standing. Thanks to the solutions available and ongoing bibliometric analytics, we are monitoring scientific progress closely and we can see that there is a significant reduction in the number of staff who, in our view, are underperforming in research, meaning that they need to increase their efforts in this area. From a level of more than fifty per cent of staff who were still eligible at the beginning of the year, we have now gone down to around forty per cent. Given that we are only talking about a year of change and accelerated action in this area, this should be considered a significant drop. It should be an inspiration to all of us that our university is not far from the best. We can see which disciplines are leading in our school and can compete with the best in Poland, but also those which are not above average. We have to work on constant improvement of quality in the field of research activities. The rector's team and administration staff will provide support to scientists all the time. Within the university, we have already offered many new competitions and opportunities to win research grants. As I said, there will be more and more such programmes for scientific excellence and they will be more and more diverse. However, we must also be clear about where we will not achieve this excellence. Perhaps it would be worth proposing the organisation of strong teaching centres in these places, which would also deal with commercial education, for example in the framework of postgraduate studies. In my opinion, the University is such a 'capacious institution' that everyone can pursue their professional ambitions. Not all teaching staff have to work at top speed for their entire career when it comes to research activities. There is also time for teaching or organisational tasks. We have tried to incorporate all these solutions in the policy on the development of scientific staff mentioned earlier.

This pandemic has been very difficult, and many of our wonderful professors and academics have passed away, including recently the Senior Rector of the University of Gdańsk, prof. Andrzej Ceynowa. How should we take care of their memory at the University?

First and foremost, the university should nurture the memory of the research, teaching and social activities of our professors through publications and scientific conferences commemorating their work. Symbolic remembrance is also important, such as naming university halls of residence, as well as other places in the university, after our eminent professors. There are many such places at the University of Gdańsk. Not long ago, prof. Janusz Sokołowski, the first rector of the University of Gdańsk, was honoured by having one of Gdańsk's trams named after him. This is a very nice, unpretentious way of appreciating his contribution to the development of our city. These must be bottom-up initiatives of various kinds - actions arising from a need of the heart, a sense of gratitude - which the University of Gdańsk authorities will be happy to support.

In conclusion, I would like to ask you what can you wish for the academic community of the University of Gdańsk?

Recalling the path the University has travelled over the half-century of its existence, it is worth noting its continuous and uninterrupted development, despite not always favourable times. It was a time of building research and teaching infrastructure, but also of implementing new organisational solutions. These elements of the university's development still need support. Ahead of us is the continuation of a comprehensive renovation of the Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science. Certainly, the commencement of construction work on the sports centre will also come in handy. But most important of all are the people who make up the University and the concern to create the best possible conditions for the development of scientific research and modern solutions for the education of new generations of Polish intellectuals. Let us hope that in these difficult times of an ongoing pandemic and challenging economic conditions all members of our community will continue to develop with unflagging energy. I hope that a year from now we will be able to admit that together we have made our University better.

dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz, Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication, University of Gdańsk, PR specialist for promotion of scientific research