A PhD graduation in times of crisis – is that possible? It is, and Guangcheng Ren from China was the first to experience it on Tuesday afternoon, defending her thesis using Skype.
The chandeliers in the Aula look suspiciously like coronaviruses. © Roelof Kleis
This PhD graduation in the Aula was a historic occasion. Not just because we’re in the midst of a crisis. Not just because there was therefore hardly anyone in the audience. And not just because the PhD committee had been hastily changed for corona-related reasons. No, the most extraordinary feature of this ceremony was that one of the ‘opponents’ (examiners) attended it via Skype. Now that’s a first.
Pim Marcusse (Facilities and Services) was afraid it would all going wrong when, just over halfway through the ceremony, it was the Leiden professor Jean-Louis van Gelder’s turn to speak. We could see him but not hear him. Van Gelder got stuck in transit from Freiburg, where he recently became the director of a Max Planck Institute, so he couldn’t get to Wageningen in time. The solution in such cases, say new regulations drawn up last week, is Skype. Luckily, the glitch was soon solved.
Without the third opponent, the PhD ceremony is not officially allowed to proceed, explains supervisor Nico Heerink (personal professor of Development Economics) afterwards. Co-promotor Xueqin Zhu (Environmental Economics and Natural Resources) had it difficult bringing a complete committee together, as two of the four initial examiners had to withdraw because of the coronavirus. A Chinese professor was not allowed to leave the country, and the American professor Spiro Stefanou cancelled his trip because of the health risks. Frederic Ang (Business Economics) was willing to stand in for Stefanou.
Stroke of luck
It was his first time, admitted Ang after the ceremony. He too was relieved. His presence and the Skype connection with Van Gelder meant that the ceremony just managed to conform to the new temporary rules allowing a committee with three members, possibly using Skype. And by a stroke of luck, the ‘first opponent’ Wim Heijman (Agricultural Economics and Rural Policy) caught the last plane out of Prague last Friday before all flights were stopped.
PhD candidate Ren said the unusual circumstances didn’t bother her at all. Even the chandeliers in the Aula, which did look suspiciously like a virus, didn’t put her off her stroke. ‘I was more relaxed in fact, because there were so few people in the audience.’ Ten, to be precise. ‘It’s just a pity that my parents couldn’t be there. But they were able to follow the ceremony online.’ She wasn’t completely without supporters, though. Her friend Minje Chen was by her side as her ‘paranymph’ (assistant).
After Ren’s graduation ceremony, there was one more planned for the Tuesday afternoon – this time, with two opponents participating via Skype. But it could get weirder than that. If the Executive Board decides to close the Aula, the entire ceremony might be conducted online via Skype. PhD candidates will be given the choice: using Skype or postponing graduation until the crisis is over.