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After the dismissal

Well-being — He was one of the 209 fired from the University of Copenhagen in February last year. But Johan Olsen still works here – now on external funding. He talks about being bitter and grateful at the same time, and on what is missing in his life after getting the sack.

It’s Thursday morning. Johan Olsen is sitting in a canteen at the North Campus in animated conversation with a colleague. With his cap, black leather boots and blue denim jacket with sewn-in patches (it says Rubber Soul on one of them in the font from the classic Beatles album) he separates himself from the crowd of scientists you would otherwise see at campus.

He was given the sack just over a year ago, but he is still here – at the Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen –where he, alongside his career as the lead singer in the band Magtens Korridorer the ‘corridors of power’, he has spent the past 10 years as a researcher in proteins.

His laboratory, the SBiN lab, is just behind the canteen kitchen. We put ourselves into a small office so as not to disturb the working students and colleagues, who are busy in the open office environment next door. Johan Olsen is himself involved with several projects right here, he says. Projects that he cannot live without. And it hit him hard when he was called in for a meeting with management in the middle of February 2016. The government cuts meant that 209 UCPH staff were laid off in the biggest round of layoffs in recent times – and he was one of them.

When you get a big kick in the behind like this – like a bolt from the blue – then your thoughts start racing.

“When you get a big kick in the behind like this – like a bolt from the blue – then your thoughts start racing: I thought, I’m 47, I have so and so many years left in the labour market. Now I really have to think about what I spend the rest of my life on. When I go to the grave one day, then what I did when I lived, must have been meaningful to me. It should not be something that I just do automatically, or because somebody thinks I should. It was really an existential consideration: What is my life worth? What the hell do I do with it?”

Fired and hired

Johan Olsen has made a multi-faceted career for himself over the years, and this alongside his research – and not just as a musician. Most recently, he hosted a TV programme on DR2 ‘Great Danish scientists’ and this summer his book will be released. It is for children and young people, and it is about “how the world is organised.”

JOHAN OLSEN

Born 25th March, 1969

Master in Biology at the University of Copenhagen University in 1996 and subsequently took a PhD in protein crystallography.

Since 2005 employed at SBiN lab at the the Department of Biology.

Since 1995, lead singer in Magtens Korridorer

With a CV like that you are tempted to wonder whether life would have been easier if you just turned your back on research and the eternal competition for funding. And this is the precise thought that crossed his mind in the midst of his existential reflections, he admits.

“But after a while I found out that I wanted to be here. This is what makes sense to me when I get up in the morning and when I wake up at night and think of my projects. I live and breathe here.”

Together with his boss, Birthe Kragelund, he managed to find some “emergency funds” that could pay some of his salary. And then Johan Olsen was rehired, now exclusively on external funding. Fortunately for him and his well-being.

“For me research is a bit like breathing. It is so important for me. I have been made to do this, and I have been like this ever since I was a kid.”

The first thing, he misses

Despite the joy of being able to become a researcher in the SBiN lab, working life changed for him. The dismissal meant that Johan lost two of the things that he liked most about his work. The first was his teaching obligations and the face to face interaction with the students. Something he really missed.

“I don’t know whether I am a good teacher, but I love doing it. It is a great feeling to be face-to-face with your students. When you are on the receiving end of teaching, your lecturers pay more attention to you than you think. As a teacher you really get an impression of what the students’ different interests are, and which of them really distinguish themselves from the others by being creative or pleasant.”

Several of the creative students that Johan has taught, are sitting right now in the SBiN lab hard at work. And it is the creative students that can do something out of the ordinary in the laboratory, he says:

“It may be that 80 per cent of their ideas are completely hopeless, but then there are the remaining 20 per cent! It’s fun to work with the students, because you are constantly involved in an academic discussion. You cannot do research without it. I fortunately have professional conversations with a lot of students and the adults here at the lab. But you also have it in the teaching situation. The students ask the most basic questions that you forgot to ask all the time you have been an adult.”

Discussion lost

And it is exactly this discussion with the students that was lost when researchers are fired from universities, Johan Olsen reckons.

When the round of dismissals was announced back in the fall of 2015, UCPH management went to great lengths to say that they as far as possible would keep the cuts away from research and teaching. It was the administration that would be cut. Seemed like good news for Johan Olsen.

But there was a ‘but’.

The UCPH layoffs

The government budget for 2016 resulted in the largest round of layoffs in recent history at the University of Copenhagen. 209 employees were fired in February 2016, 255 agreed to a voluntary redundancy scheme and 68 vacant positions were abolished.

New cutbacks are slated for 2019. University of Copenhagen has not denied that further layoffs are in store.

The vast majority of researchers and lecturers at UCPH are engaged in so-called VIP positions, which in Danish is short for academic staff. But Johan was employed under the TAP-FU category, i.e. as a technical administrative employee who does research and teaches.

When the smoke from the round of layoffs had subsided, it was clear that just TAP-FU category had been hit hard. Although they represent only about 15 per cent of the employees at the University of Copenhagen, almost 30 per cent of those who were sacked or accepted voluntary severance were TAP-FUs.

“It was incredible that UCPH management did not believe that it would hit the teaching, that it was ‘just’ technical administrative staff. It’s just a job title, and lots of people do research in TAP positions. So many teachers lost their jobs there and it is a huge problem for UCPH. If higher education has such a low priority for you, I think you are narrow-minded,” says Johan Olsen.

 

I've never been particularly good at forgiving if someone steps on me
Johan Olsen

The other thing, he misses

The second thing he misses – apart from the teaching – is also about communicating.

“Before I was fired, I also had a few hours a week to do external communication, where I visited high schools, technical colleges and to some extent primary schools to give talks. I also spent some time doing science on television and radio, and this is also over now.”

How do you feel about that?

“I feel terrible about that. Well, I think it’s fun to teach, but I can do without it. The other stuff, I really think this is a bummer. Not being allowed to do this.”

You may not do it?

“Well, I may do it outside my working hours. But I was hired to do it before. They have not appreciated these efforts by firing me. So the incentive in doing it are not big.”

Do you feel bitter about your being sacked?

“Now? After a year? … Yes,” he replies and pauses.

“I’ve never been particularly good at forgiving if someone steps on me. My wife is trying to educate me on this with some success,” he says and laughs.

The luxury problem

Johan Olsen seems a bit surprised that his dismissal is still inside him.

“I’m really happy to work here. I am happy with the University of Copenhagen as a workplace. But it is true, there is a bitterness in the wake of being fired. There are two basic instincts which are set off when you get fired. One is this instinctive basic fear of being thrown out of the pack. And this is not nice. The second is the sense of injustice. You feel unfairly treated. You do not feel appreciated. And the emotions – the injustice and the feeling of being excommunicated – they were much more violent than I had expected. When they are mixed up, you get a bitter cocktail.”

When this is said, there are limits to how much Johan Olsen can feel sorry for himself.

First, he managed to continue his research. Second, by virtue of his other projects, he was not as exposed as many others who got fired.

“You have to remember that in my situation it’s not like I would lose my house if I got fired from here. It is not that serious. So it is a luxury problem, if you zoom out just a little bit. It is important to me that this is made clear. Otherwise you can sit here, privileged and well-educated, whining, and this is not very seemly.”

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The merchants don’t get it

But the situation is there anyway, he said. And this situation was the same for almost 500 other employees. 330 of the sacked and voluntarily resigned were employed at the two faculties of Science and of Health and Medical Sciences. And Johan does not understand the government’s downgrading of basic research.

“The civilization will die, if only the merchants are left. It will be Atlantis, it will sink to the bottom, and then nothing. The only thing that distinguishes man from the other animals is that we have consciousness and the knowledge of our own mortality – and this is research: to find out how the universe works. And I think it’s great that we gain new insights from throughout the world, whether in the field of relativity, quantum physics, extrasolar planets, or in what a virus looks like. And it all starts with basic research”.

His criticism is not only levelled at the politicians in parliament at Christiansborg. When we ask him about the consequences of the layoffs, he says that this is not something you like to talk about at the university. You just don’t do it. A bit strange perhaps. Should you not, as a researcher, fight for basic research?

“The academic ‘puppets’ just duck their heads in shame, because they do not think like a trade union. If you went into a factory and fired some employees, they would talk about it and make a lot of noise. The trade union would be involved and it would be written about in the papers. It’s not like that here. Here you are bitter, and silent, and ashamed. And there is no one talking about it. I think it’s a cultural thing, but I cannot exactly explain why this is so.”

He thinks a little and then says “now I cannot be fired again, so I do not have to worry” with an easy smile.

But you’re a little concerned anyway?

“Well, I’m really concerned about my colleagues, and I am concerned about the state of the nation.”

“This is not a feeling I am particularly proud of”

The dissatisfaction is tangible. Even after a year.

Johan Olsen is still working at Biocenter, in the SBiN lab, behind the canteen. He goes to work happy every day, he says. But the University of Copenhagen’s decision to fire him still rankles.

“I can feel it inside, and it’s not a feeling that I am particularly proud of. But I think it is important to be honest and say that this is how I feel. There is no reason to present yourself as someone who can just brush this off, because it is not like that. These are quite instinctive feelings that I did not realise I had before I was fired. I had simply not known what it was like – I was that privileged.”

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