‘We will follow the rules’

| Michaela Nesvarova

‘This is strange, isn’t it?’ whispers somebody in the audience. It is ‘strange’ indeed. After all, it hasn’t been done before. Today was the first official 1.5 meter PhD defense at the University of Twente.

As the UT researcher Binbin Zhang arrives to his thesis defense in the Waaier, he is surrounded by nervous energy. Just like every other doctoral candidate before him. In this, and many other ways, today’s PhD defense is exactly the same as we were used to. The room is the same, the ceremony’s schedule is the same, the beadle and the professors wear the same festive togas. Yet, the ‘corona rules’ make it all ‘strange’.

‘Let’s make a nice corona proof picture!’ shouts the photographer, asking the PhD and his two  paranymphs to stand 1.5 meters apart. They just fit along the grey wall in the foyer. Luckily – for the picture’s sake – other family members are not there to be photographed. They will watch the ceremony via a livestream from their homes in China. Even if they were in the Netherlands, they might not be allowed in the Waaier this afternoon.

‘Don’t leave the room’

‘Maximum fifteen people can be in the room and all of them have to register upfront,’ explains the beadle Wim Koehorst. He and his colleagues now need to enforce this and other new measures. ‘Each defense will have a corona coordinator, who will make sure people follow the rules.’ Today that is Astrid Scholtens. She welcomes the guests downstairs and guides them to their assigned seats. ‘Please stay here and don’t leave the room,’ she tells me. ‘We are very strict.’

What if people ‘disobey’, I ask. ‘We will tell them – and not very nicely,’ responds Koehorst. ‘If they don’t want to listen, they will need to leave the room. There are also a lot of people watching online via a livestream and we want to give a good example. Moreover, we are simply obligated to do this – by the government and the university. And we will do it. We will follow the rules. It is difficult. It is also difficult for us, but we will do our best.’

2D people

Apart from a rogue guest, who doesn’t sit on the chair with a big sign ‘please sit here’ but right next to it, everyone seems to respect the rules and the ceremony begins. Three committee members enter, keeping large gaps in between them, and sitting at prepared (and freshly cleaned) tables. The rest of the committee is joining us digitally, their life-sized heads visible on the giant screen at the front of the room. Although present only virtually, they also have to follow certain rules, explains Scholtens. ‘We ask them to wear nice clothes and to sit in a nice environment with a clean background. We don’t want to see a messy bed, for example. They have to look nice. This is still a very official occasion.’

For the rest, the defense runs according to usual standards. The ‘highly esteemed opponents’ ask their questions, one after another. The PhD candidate calmly answers them all, addressing the talking heads on the TV. So far so good. At one point, the doctoral researcher turns towards the presentation displayed behind him: ‘As you can see on the screen…’ Yes, we can but: ‘Actually, not really. We 2D people cannot see the screen,’ responds a member of the ‘digital’ committee. ‘People in the room will need to confirm it for us.’  

No handshakes

It’s precisely 13:30 and, as is tradition, the beadle walks in to end the defense. ‘Dear candidate, normally I’d ask you take your seat, but today you need to keep standing.’ The committee members leave, the screen is temporarily disconnected and the professors deliberate in another room. The photographer uses this opportunity to take a picture of everyone present. No groups shots, though. Everyone stays exactly where they were placed, spread out throughout the room.

Twenty minutes later, Binbin Zhang is granted the doctoral degree. ‘I’m very proud of you,’ says Zhang’s supervisor Kees Venner, handing him the diploma. ‘I can’t come closer, so we both have to exercise our long arms.’ Now everyone is asked to leave, exiting through the assigned route. ‘You can congratulate the young doctor, but no handshakes. Bows only. And wash your hands. Keep washing your hands!’

Exit please

With a neat diploma in his hands, Zhang seems pleased with how everything went. ‘It was exciting,’ says the graduate. ‘I was okay with the 1,5 meter defense. We will celebrate tonight.’ His thesis supervisor Kees Venner is also happy with the result. ‘I really enjoyed that we could do it live again. There is so much information we radiate to each other through body language. Of course it was still a bit awkward for the committee members who joined digitally, but it was a big improvement to doing it fully online.’

No time to chat any longer. We are being ushered out. ‘Okay, let’s go. There is no reception,’ Astrid Scholtens reminds everyone. Guests can grab a bottle of soda and a candy bar, if they wish, but there won’t be any party here. ‘Please, everyone follow me. Everyone needs to leave the building at the same time. And keep your distance.’