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After brain drain and collapse of merger: Natural History Museum now, yet again, an independent department

From the beginning — Just before Christmas you could find a brief story at the bottom of a newsletter about the Natural History Museum of Denmark. The news item was a small, low key conclusion to a huge conflict at the University of Copenhagen.

If you scrolled far enough down the ‘news from management’ newsletter which the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) sent on 17 December, you would see a small item about the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

In the news article, which had also been shared on the Faculty of Science’s own website in November, the outgoing dean John Renner Hansen said that the museum had once again become an independent department.

Not, at first glance, a news item that required a breaking news ticker. But this brief item was actually a kind of full-stop to a long dispute at the University of Copenhagen.

It included: An aborted merger with the Department of Biology, a horde of angry staff, and a handful of internationally acclaimed researchers who ended up abandoning the Faculty of Science altogether and settling at a brand new department, at a brand new faculty, in protest. Along the way, the ministry, and the Board of the University of Copenhagen got involved with the case, which developed into a real headache for university management.

Blindsided by merger

If you are to believe the employees at the Department of Biology, nobody had the faintest suspicion that their place of work would change so dramatically before it did. At the beginning of November 2018, employees learned that the dean John Renner Hansen was in the process of pushing a merger of their department with the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

It has been a one hundred per cent 'top down' decision, and it goes against everything the university stands for.
Olaf Nielsen, Professor at the Department of Biology

The idea was to pick up a number of research groups from the financially challenged museum and put them under the Department of Biology, which would make it the biggest department at the Faculty of Science with a staff of 7-800 employees.

This had six employees at the Department of Biology using strong words in the University Post.

»The decision has been a one hundred per cent ‘top down’ decision, and it goes against everything the university stands for. The open dialogue and debate has been totally absent,« Professor Olaf Nielsen said at the time.

»The way in which it was taken is not only contrary to the university’s soul, it also contravenes the University Act, which clearly states that in the event of major and significant changes, staff must be involved,« said academic staff member Caspar Elo Christensen.

Dean John Renner Hansen write in a comment that it was not »a decision that could be taken in plenary.« He promised, however, that employees would be »deeply involved in the implementation phase of the merger«.

Appeal from top scientists

It was not only the employees of the Department of Biology who were dissatisfied.

In the Danish newspaper Politiken on 16 November 2018 five top researchers at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Eske Willerslev, Tom Gilbert, Martin Bizzarro, Minik Rosing and Carsten Rahbek warned about the consequences of the merger.

According to these high profile researchers, some of the most-cited natural science researchers in the world, the merger would damage their research, because they would lose their special access to the museum’s collections.

»I find it incredibly sad and a big loss for Danish research,« DNA scientist Eske Willerslev said, and geologist Minik Rosing added that it was »to cry for.«

The merger had more to do with the museum than with the Department of Biology. The Natural History Museum of Denmark housed the five researchers and their research sections, but was also suffering from such huge financial losses that 17 employees had to be fired at the end of November 2018.

The reasons vary, depending on who you ask, but according to the dean, John Renner Hansen, the numbers were in the red partly due to the fact that it was expensive to host the five research sections, while the department only picked up minimal government subsidies for education to cover the costs.

READ ALSO: Staff representatives at Natural History Museum of Denmark: Management has failed

There was certainly no money left in the till as the new Natural History Museum in the Botanical Gardens was to be set up – a  DKK 1 billion construction project.

Ministry intervenes

In a review of the merger case by the Politiken newspaper, it came out that the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) had negotiated with Eske Willerslev to accommodate the research sections. In documents rendered after a Freedom of Information request from the University Post to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, Anders Johannes Hansen, a former research director at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, wrote that the University of Southern Denmark was ready to invest DKK 1 billion in a new department in Copenhagen to attract the scientists.

In an email to the University of Southern Denmark, the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, Agnete Gersing, did however write on 9 April that it was »the first priority« that researchers should stay at the University of Copenhagen:

At no point did we have any strong opinions about where the researchers should be.

Former permanent secretary Agnete Gersing

»In this light, I ask you to wait to proceed with the case until you hear more,« she added.

To the University Post, however, the permanent secretary later rejected the idea that the Ministry had got involved in the dispute.

»At no point did we have any strong opinions about where the researchers should be. From the outset, we have made it very clear to the researchers, to SDU and to UCPH that it is entirely up to the researchers where they want to be. Nor is there anything that has forced the researchers in question to stay at the University, « said Agnete Gersing.

The FOI request also showed that SDU did not want to compete with the University of Copenhagen:

»If the university can reach an agreement with the groups, there is no reason why SDU should try to maintain them. Our priority is to ensure that the groups stay in Denmark, « Chairman of SDU Niels Thorborg wrote back in a response to Agnete Gersing.

Say hello to the Globe Institute

Whether it was through the efforts of the ministry, the University of Copenhagen management and board, or the researchers, a solution was found at the University of Copenhagen. On 30 May 2019, what was first rumored became official when the museum’s five famous research sections were given a brand new institute, the Globe Institute. Not at the Faculty of Science, but at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen.

»After a very chaotic time, it is my hope that the establishment of the Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen can give us the peace and stability that is the foundation of a strong, interdisciplinary research environment at an international level, « said Eske Willerslev.

It ended up being a very contentious issue. And when it could end up damaging the university’s image, it becomes a Board matter.

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, former chairman of the board of the University of Copenhagen

As part of the larger FOI request from the Ministry of Education and Research, the University Post received a memo outlining the Globe Institute’s finances. The document states that the department receives DKK 20.7 million in annual subsidies, DKK 15.2 million of which is from the University of Copenhagen, i.e. money that the rector has found in the joint university budget.

It looked like the result of a successful negotiation by the five researchers. »Financially, some of the Globe Institute’s research environments have probably been strengthened,« the former chairman of University of Copenhagen Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen said in a later interview.

At the same time, Krogsgaard Thomsen explained that the board had been involved in the merger case because it simply risked damaging the University of Copenhagen’s image:

»The reason why the board ended up talking quite a lot about this matter is of course that it ended up being a very contentious issue. And when it could end up damaging the university’s image, it becomes a Board matter.«

READ ALSO: We hate it when politicians micromanage the university

With the new department, the museum’s veteran scientists moved to the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, even though many of them deal with topics that do not have much to do with the health sciences (geology and planetary research are a few examples).

Their new colleagues welcomed them:

»There is no dissatisfaction. I think you should take a more long-term view of things. It may be that something like this doesn’t look health-related now, but once we get talking, we can probably figure something out,«  said Claus Juul Løland, a professor and a member of the Academic Council at the faculty.

Board sides with the staff

While the staff at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences were satisfied with the outcome, the resentment continued to spread at the Department of Biology. On 11 June 2019, staff sent an open letter to the Board of the University of Copenhagen with nearly 200 signatures asking the members to look into the process.

And the board did so, most unusually, a week later.

»As the board now sees this process, we must recognize that the involvement of the Department of Biology staff in connection with the Biology- Natural History Museum merger has not been good enough,« they wrote to the employees.

READ ALSO: UCPH Board agrees with Biology employees that they should have been consulted

In a later interview with the University Post, former board member Signe Møller Johansen said that it is not the task of the board to interfere in individual cases. But she defended the letter to the Department of Biology.

»This case, in particular, has been going on for a long time, and it ended with the Board being drawn into it, which we really shouldn’t have been. But when we got involved in the case, I think it was good that we finally came up with a response … I pushed for this myself, and I stand by it,« she said.

The Board’s response generated some restrained enthusiasm from the researchers at the Department of Biology:

»What is in the letter is very positive,« Professor Lars Ellgaard said, but added:  »We are also excited to see what this will really mean in practice.«

Election campaign with a clear theme

The canceled merger clearly was an issue in the election campaign when University of Copenhagen staff had to elect new representatives to the Board in late 2019.

Two of the researchers ran for the Board, Olaf Nielsen from the Department of Biology and Eske Willerslev, the new Globe Institute researcher, who had already sat on the board of the University of Copenhagen previously.

Both Willerslev and Nielsen pointed to the merger as the reason they ran for office, and they described the process as an example of the lack of leadership at the University of Copenhagen:

»There has been no responsiveness towards the people who know where it hurts and where it doesn’t, i.e. the researchers and students. The only tool they could find in their toolbox was the sledgehammer,« said Eske Willerslev.

READ ALSO: Eske Willerslev and Jesper Grodal: It feels like the decision makers do not know what they are doing.

Willerslev ended up being re-elected to the board, and his running mate candidate Jesper Grodal was also elected.

Renner quits

The man behind the failed merger, John Renner Hansen, was supposed to continue as dean until the summer of 2020, but on 4 April 2019, he announced that he would quit early.

The outgoing dean explained the decision would give the next dean of the Faculty of Science »better working conditions« and the opportunity to hire two new heads of department and one associate dean to the faculty.

From the turn of the year, Renner has taken up a new role as advisor to the rector, while Katrine Krogh Andersen has taken over the top job at the Faculty of Science.

An independent institute

And now we have reached the small item at the bottom of the newsletter.  That is: the story of the Natural History Museum of Denmark once again becoming an independent department.

In the news item, the former dean John Renner Hansen writes that the premises for the merger between the museum and the Department of Biology had been ‘substantially changed’ after the establishment of the Globe Institute, before adding:

»At the same time, sustainable financing has been set up at the museum and provides a strong scientific environment around the museum for the benefit of the exhibitions and the collections.«

All without the five top scientists who fled because of the merger. A merger that is now completely dead.

Translation: Mike Young

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