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Black and white in the Mette Høeg case

Mette Høeg’s account of the conclusion of her PhD process at the University of Copenhagen is filled with false, misleading, biased and distorted interpretations. It is an unfair, one-sided, intervention, writes Associate Professor Marianne Stidsen

The University Post published 17th November a large scale article on the so-called ‘Mette Høeg-case’, which concerned me as a former PhD supervisor for Mette Høeg.

The article gives a completely one-sided account of the process that ended with Mette Høeg’s termination of her position as a PhD fellow at the University. In support of the article’s account of the process were excerpts of mails from the undersigned to Mette Høeg. Without my knowledge and without my consent, it should be added. In excess, these detached mail quotes were set up as some kind of ‘documentation’ in the best tabloid manner. Somehow indicating that ‘a crime has taken place, now we will reveal the murderer’.

As the article was biased and factually incorrect, I subsequently asked the University Post to publish, in a relevant and visible manner, my call for Mette Høeg and the University Post to publish all the correspondence subsequent to the mentioned debate article by Mette Høeg which allegedly ultimately gave rise to her ‘harassment process’ by UCPH. This was considering that now you are in the business of reprinting mails from the correspondence.

My request was rejected by the University Post on the grounds that the contribution did not meet the formal requirements for a debate article. Instead, I was relegated to the readers’ comment column. With the predictable result that few would see it.

I am therefore compelled to write an actual contribution to the debate to correct things. I must, as I said also in the comment below the article on the University Post website, clarify that I cannot comment directly on the case. This goes without saying all things considered.

But I can in more general terms, make this clear: Mette Høeg’s presentation of the case is filled with false, misleading, biased and distorted interpretations. It is an unfair, one-sided, intervention, which involves and dishonours my practice as supervisor.

I have never had the attitude of a policeman

Let me therefore point out that I have never, ever, not even in this case, been guilty of harassing someone because of their attitudes, opinions or ideas. On the contrary, I have always sympathized with people – including students and PhD students – who dared to go their own way and stand up to authority. This is a part of my own character that I myself have unfolded, and that I value.

At the same time, I have also always tried to get those who have been under my supervision, to keep their focus on their academic work. Both because it is the main thing when you are studying at or employed as a researcher (with pay) at a university, and because it is the best way to ensure that you actually have a solid foundation under your opinions and ideas.

I have also never, and this is true in this case, exhibited a sudden mood change, as is claimed in the article. Implying that others have intervened from above and influenced my assessment of how a supervisory programme is moving forward.

In cases where I have intervened, and this also applies to the specific supervisory process, it has been the result of a gradually increasing, justified concern about a task or dissertation’s lack of progress.

Let me put it this way. I am known for quite the contrary. As a supervisor with now 20 years of experience I provide as high a degree of freedom as possible. This is also how I work best. I have never had the attitude of a policeman. And I never will have. This is regardless of the fact that I note that it is not everyone who can figure out how to manage this trust and freedom, but instead see it as their mission to abuse it.

This means that I never, not even in this case, would sound the alarm, just because a student or PhD student did not reply to my emails and inquiries about guidance meetings. Or who stayed away from those meetings that were agreed upon, without giving specific reasons.

”I wish I could open up the bag of goodies in this case and offer documentation for all of the above in relation to this specific case. This would once and for all dispel the myth that you cannot determine whether there has been harassment on the part of this institution or just the inability – perhaps even deception – on the part of the PhD student” – Marianne Stidsen

In the real world there are lies and truth

My persistent focus as supervisor is – and always has been – to try to support the student and PhD student’s own independent ideas. I praise them to the skies when they present themselves, as I am a supporter of the free, independent personality that dares to form its own opinion and go its own way.

But my focus is also to get them going with the academic work, without which even the best and most independent personalities will end up like a small flame that quickly burns out.

If there is only the independence but none of the academic work, I can no longer vouch for the supervision process. And then there is only one thing left to do. To go to the institution, like the PhD school in the event that this is a a PhD student, and get it involved so it can help rectify it.

Or take the consequences that must now be taken if things appear to be irreparable. Either because the skills are lacking in the student or PhD student. Or because – something you would not believe possible when you know what a privilege it is to be allowed to conduct a free university education and PhD education in Denmark – the will is simply missing.

You can keep on quibbling over whether an evaluation report has been signed or not – without knowing anything about the circumstances of it. But it does not change the fact that what occurred, occurred. And there is a history behind everything that you ought to know just a little bit about before you speak out about a failed study or scholarship period.

I wish I could open up the bag of goodies in this case and offer documentation for all of the above in relation to this specific case. This would once and for all dispel the myth that you cannot determine whether there has been harassment on the part of this institution or just the inability – perhaps even deception – on the part of the PhD student

But just because Mette Høeg has opened proceedings in her own way, it does not me give the same rights as her supervisor. I have therefore had to expand on this process in general and vague terms in the hope that those who can read between the lines will be able to see what is up and what is down, black and white here. As it is only in the world of art that things are ontologically undecidable. In the real world there are lies and truth. And it’s usually just a matter of looking carefully through the facts to find it.

Only Mette Høeg’s decision to leave UCPH

I would like to add one thing. When I am obliged to publish a proper featured comment, as I do now, I do so not only for myself and others in this institution who have been named in this article in a factually untrue and distorted manner. Without having the right to defend ourselves. I do it for the sake of the democratic debate in this country.

It has almost been a surreal experience for me as an ordinary citizen who happens to have first-hand insight into one of the cases that has popped up and rolled like an avalanche through the media in the past few weeks. To see how people I otherwise have counted on as being serious, and to see media who we all otherwise should be able to count on as being reputable, running with this story. Apparently without even devoting one single second to examining whether there is anything in it.

Lately it even took place in an editorial in the Weekendavisen newspaper 2nd December by none other than the chief editor. Here, the ‘Mette Høeg case’ (the quotation marks are quite conscious on my part) give her good reason to reach very, very far-reaching conclusions and to make very, very far-reaching judgments on both the university and the PhD program as such. On the basis of one case of which she clearly knows nothing about.

Or she only knows about it from one party, and obviously from a subjectively coloured side. If those who play key, if not powerful, roles in public discourse and in the way things are handled, do not quickly begin to take firm, basic positions on dubious stories that you spin on even further, without examining them, I see a serious long term threat to democracy. For readers must surely be entitled to expect that they can trust that what is being put forward in serious newspapers to incite debate (as many of them, we know, may have political consequences) is actually true. Otherwise there is nothing left to build on.

Let me finally here eventually repeat what I said in the beginning, so no one should doubt it. The decision to leave UCPH was solely the decision of Mette Høeg. She could have chosen to write her dissertation in the time allotted, and proven her professional skills. The skills that she was so lucky to get a PhD scholarship on, ahead of so many other qualified students, who also applied.

This would have been the most desirable and happy end for me as her supervisor and for the University as an institution that housed her. And – I must be honest and say – probably for herself.

uni-avis@adm.ku.dk

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