1. Measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19
Taking into account the revised version of the Resolution of the Government of St Petersburg No 121 'On Measures to Counteract the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) in St Petersburg' dated 13 March 2020, additional measures the University should take to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were discussed at this Rector's meeting. All University employees working under civil law contracts and not participating in the technological processes necessary for the life of the University are transferred to the online mode of work. The same mode is maintained for academic staff aged 65+ and employees with chronic diseases.
2. Three out of the seven winners of the BASIS Foundation competitions are St Petersburg University employees
The results of the all-Russian competitions of research grants launched by the BASIS Foundation for research groups and individual scientists conducting theoretical research in fundamental mathematics have been summed up. In the 'Leader' nomination, three out of the seven winners work at St Petersburg University. These are: Eric Mortenson; Nikolai Vavilov; and Vladimir Peller. All the other research organisations and universities that took part in this prestigious competition have only one winner each.
It was noted at the meeting that all three University winners had previously won open and highly competitive University competitions for teaching positions. Remarkably, Eric Mortenson and Vladimir Peller have started working in Russia quite recently. Their previous jobs were at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics, Germany, and Michigan State University, USA. These foreign scientists are invariably attracted by: the high level of bachelor's and master's students of mathematics at St Petersburg University; the opportunity to deliver advanced courses of lectures; the popularity of St Petersburg University's mathematical laboratories in the world; and the working conditions that are as good as those at European universities. The Euler International Mathematical Institute created in the consortium of St Petersburg University and the St Petersburg Department of V.A. Steklov Institute of Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (PDMI RAS) brings to a new level the University's attractiveness for international researchers specialising in mathematics and theoretical informatics.
3. Organisation of the teaching and learning process
Over the past week, the Virtual Reception accepted 56 applications from students, teachers and other persons. 21 of them were related to various teaching and learning issues including: requests for academic statements; questions about student transfer to the University; and technical questions about access to online courses at St Petersburg University (asked by non-University students).
Abdulla Daudov, Director of the Institute of History, reported that he had had difficulties in identifying certain problems before. He started organising meetings with the monitors of the first and second years and the activists of the student council, so now the Director of the Institute is promptly informed every week about the organisation of training in each academic discipline. That helps him solve urgent problems and eliminate minor faults. The student council of the Institute has appointed student volunteers who help the teachers, including four professors, who have a low proficiency in organising online classes. Last week, there was an appeal from a student's parents: their son could not get access to the lectures of Professor Igor Froyanov (they believed that the lectures were not held at all). Yet, the lectures were held exactly on schedule. The problem was solved. The volunteers helped the student: they found and provided materials of all lectures and established information exchange between the student and the teacher.
Svetlana Rubtsova, Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages, recalled that the main problem of the semester was a large enrolment of first-year students, including international students, so the workload of the teachers had increased dramatically. Yet, this problem is being solved: additional payments are allocated to the teachers for additional hours of work, for overload. Another difficulty has surfaced recently: the organisation of elective classes (in a second foreign language) with a small number of students in the groups. Tatyana Frolova, Deputy Head of the Educational Programmes Department, proposed to solve the problem by combining students of different programmes into one group learning French (4 students of chemistry and 1–2–3 students of other fields of study). As a result, it became possible to create a unified group for students of several fields of study, who are now successfully learning French together. The online format made it possible to do what had been impossible in the on-campus work mode.
The participants of the meeting supported that fruitful idea. They suggested trying to unite in the same way students of various fields of study for classes in other elective disciplines.
The heads of academic subdivisions continue regular meetings with the student councils of the faculties and institutes.
4. Student practices during the autumn semester
Following the proposals from the directors and the deans, the field trips that were supposed to take place in the summer of 2020 were postponed to a later period. The following practices will take place in the summer of 2021: in astrophysics and astrometry for the students of mathematics; in archaeology and ethnography for the students of history; and all practices for students of biology. For medical students, their internships in general medicine have already taken place this semester. For non-resident students it was at their place of residence – for residents of St Petersburg at their local clinical facilities. The practices for students of geology, geography, journalism and management were organised on schedule. For some students of journalism internships are held in the autumn of 2020 alongside their on-campus training.
5. Organisation of dissertation defences at St Petersburg University
During the pandemic, the defence of candidate's and doctoral dissertations took place at the University in a new mode – in accordance with St Petersburg University Order No 2304/1 dated 23 March 2020. The dissertations were defended via remote interactive access using information and communication technologies. During that period of the pandemic, St Petersburg University was the only university in Russia that ensured the continuity of the state scientific assessment process in terms of dissertation defences. More importantly, it contributed to preserving the health of participants through the introduction of a full online mode.
A total of 38 dissertations were defended in the online mode from March to August. One month later, other universities followed our example. In May 2020, there was information in the mass media that online defences had started to be organised by Moscow State University, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) and others.
From January to September 2020, the total number of dissertations defended on St Petersburg University's own terms was 84 . About 70% of them were defended by postgraduate students and independent students of St Petersburg University. There were also external degree seekers, including those from other institutions of higher education entitled to conduct defences on their own terms: Moscow State University, St Petersburg Polytechnic University, RANEPA, St Petersburg Mining University and others.
St Petersburg University has a wide range of foreign citizens applying for academic degrees. Recently an Iranian citizen defended a dissertation in the speciality 'Radiochemistry'; while one of the next defences will be that of a Latvian citizen in the scientific speciality 'Mathematical Modelling, Numerical Methods and Software Systems'.
The need to work with postgraduate students was highlighted. It is important that they defend their dissertations on time, and understand and fulfil the University's requirements for dissertations. For this purpose, every six months, a meeting is held with postgraduate students. Such a meeting was organised in September 2019 at the big assembly hall of St Petersburg University. In March 2020, a webinar titled 'Organisation of the presentation of a dissertation for an academic degree' was held. It was attended by 93 postgraduate students of philology and their academic supervisors. Such meetings are also planned for the autumn of this year.
The interest to dissertation defences in the University dissertation councils is high. They are very popular. While in the system established by the Higher Assessment Committee the defence takes place in an already existing dissertation council, at St Petersburg University a separate dissertation council is formed for each defence. There is even a queue: as of the date of the meeting, about 70 people have applied for a dissertation defence.
The meeting participants discussed why defences on the University's own terms were growing in popularity. They came to the conclusion that the main reason for that was the openness of the procedure and an open assessment of each dissertation (The University's own academic degrees: the past and the present). Each defence (they are all held online) is watched, depending on the topic and the person, by up to 40 people (not the members of the dissertation council meeting) from different parts of the world. Therefore, serious scientists who are confident in the quality of their research choose to defend their dissertations at St Petersburg University.
It was noted that at the recent meeting of the Higher Attestation Commission, many ideas implemented at St Petersburg University were discussed. They were related to delegating responsibility from the University to the members of dissertation councils.
6. The work of safety audit boards at the University
In order to fulfil the requirements of the Chief State Sanitary Doctor regarding the mandatory use of personal protective equipment (face masks), 20 safety audit boards continue their work at the University (On amendments to Order No 7541/1 dated 31 August 2020 'On the need to use personal protective equipment on the territory of St Petersburg University'). The boards include student activists and representatives of the trade union organisation (Minutes of the Rector's meeting dated 14 September 2020). Over the past month, the boards carried out about 500 checks. The reports of the chairpersons sent to a specially created e-mail address state that at the entrance to the University buildings strict control of observance of the face mask mandate is organised, the temperature is measured, and the requirement to wear face masks is mainly fulfilled. Students and employees respond correctly to the comments of the board members, and teachers in classroom monitor the correct use of masks by students.
At the same time, not all of the teachers are aware of their responsibility for observing the face mask mandate by their students in the classroom. They believe this is the responsibility of the administration. Some teachers either do not reprimand the offenders, or they do it only when members of the board show up in the classroom with a check. Others even accuse the members of the boards of violating the University's Code of Conduct and ask at the Virtual Reception to punish the members of the board for unfair practices (such as Konstantin Lavrov, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Mathematics and Mechanics).
Upon the recommendation of the chairpersons of the boards, for violation of the face mask mandate, as well as for non-compliance with the security measures, disciplinary measures are applied, regardless of the position held by the offender. Konstantin Krotov, Head of the Graduate School of Management, was reprimanded. Alexey Shirkin, Deputy Head of the Department for Technical Support of Educational Programmes, was also punished.
The participants of the meeting spoke of the need to manifest personal responsibility and commitment. They stated that non-observance of security measures posed a threat not only to the health of University students and staff, but also to the health of their relatives and friends.
7. Students' appeal related to the teacher's actions
Students reported that the posts of one of their teacher's in social media contained insults on account of other people's ethnic descent and confession, pictures with banned Nazi symbols, and racist statements. All publications have become available to an unlimited audience. This information formed the basis for a statement sent by Deputy Rector for Security Elena Sharygina to law enforcement authorities, as well as an appeal to the University Ethics Committee.
8. On University badges
Since 2019, the University Marketing Department and the University Publishing House have been working on a line of the University's own souvenir products. The first products have recently been finished. They contain the symbols of the Vladimir Nabokov Museum, Dmitri Mendeleev Museum and the University Botanical Garden. Stationery, bags, thermo mugs and other goods can be bought at the stores of the University Publishing House. Moreover, the creation of a specialised online souvenir shop is almost finished.
The issue of expanding the product line is being discussed, in particular, the release of the first batch of University badges. The stylistics of the new badge reflects its evolution: from the 1899 lapel pins issued to graduates of the Imperial St Petersburg University (diamond shape, white enamel edging) to the USSR academic breastplates issued since 1945 (blue enamel, gilded edging). The University coat of arms is organically included in this symbolic row.
During the meeting, Senior Vice-Rector Elena Chernova demonstrated two versions of the badges made of different materials and having different types of fastening.
The option of reviving the lapel pins issued to the graduates of the Imperial St Petersburg University was also discussed.