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Interview — Kevin Olesen went into student politics during the great blockade of 2019. On most issues, he agrees with the centre-right Denmark’s Liberal Party. On the Humanities Student Council he finds common ground with anarchists and Marxists.
evin Olesen does not believe that being the chairman of the Humanities Student Council is a career booster in terms of realizing his ultimate dream of one day becoming a minister in a future cabinet. »I am probably being naïve – thinking that I can explain my way around it,« he laughs.
27-year-old Kevin Olesen is a dyed in the wool liberal. He grew up in the town of Skjern in western Jutland, and as a teenager he completed secondary school in Tarm, where he served as chairman of the local branch of Denmark’s Liberal Party’s youth organization (Venstres Ungdom). He worked on former Minister for Higher Education and Science Esben Lunde Larsen’s election campaign. On the other end of the spectrum, the Humanities Student Council is known for its left-wing politics. Some might call it down-right Marxist. And according to Kevin Olesen, approximately half of the members of the board belong to the Anarchist Students organization (Anarkistiske Studerende).
The Humanities Student Council, which is the Humanities branch of the Student Council at the University of Copenhagen, became famous across the country in the fall of 2019, when the council organized a 38-day long blockade of the faculty’s management corridors, or the Dean’s office as it is known. Following the event, the council stormed the speaker’s podium at the university’s Annual Commemoration attended by among others the Queen of Denmark herself.
The council protested the so-called target plan in which Dean Jesper Kallestrup presented faculty cutbacks which among other things would entail the merging of courses. At the time, the students at the faculty did not feel they had had a say in the decision making.
When the blockade started, Kevin Olesen was not part of the action. At the time, he was serving as president (yes, that is the official title) of the History Subject Council (Historisk Fagråd) where he thrived because he believed »the study boards were the only place where your vote legitimately makes a difference.« But when he heard that the students participating in the blockade were being threatened with expulsion from the university, he found his sleeping bag and joined the protesters on South Campus. At that point, the blockade had lasted about a week. Kevin Olesen would not emerge from his sleeping bag for another 25 days.
»More often than not, the students do not trust the administration, so we had to show our dissatisfaction with their decisions,« he says.
Six years ago, Kevin Olesen served in the Danish military, but not a lot was happening at the time, he says. The Danish military effort in Afghanistan was coming to end, so Kevin Olesen did not feel there were many exciting job prospects as a soldier.
He applied via quota two to Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, but was not admitted.
So, there he was. He had no job and nothing to do really. He moved in with a friend in Copenhagen and got a job at a warehouse. The following year, he once again applied to Political Science as well as Social Sciences, but his grade point average only got him as far as his third priority on the application, History. And that is how Kevin Olesen ended up on South Campus in Amager.
He had all but forgotten his love of politics, when a fellow student encouraged him to put all of his opinions to good use on the History Subject Council. In many ways the blockade kickstarted his career as a politician.
I have no problem arguing for political activism as a Liberal Party voter.
During the blockade, Kevin Olesen got to know the then chairwoman, Sidsel Dorthea Vedel, and vice-chairwoman, Anna Nørgaard Sørensen, as well as other driving forces behind the blockade. Kevin Olesen was present when the Humanities Student Council met with attorney Knud Folschack who agreed to broker the negotiations between the students and the administration, and he became a member of the board when former chairman Niklas Zenius stepped down during the blockade leaving a vacant seat behind.
»During those weeks, I became involved in a lot of things. I realized there were battles that needed to be fought on a higher level than what could be achieved at the Subject Council level,« says Kevin Olesen.
After the blockade, the council sat down with the administration to author a new set of target goals. Subsequently, both the chairwoman and the vice-chairwoman resigned their posts. It is far from unusual that chairmen and -women only serve brief periods of time on the Humanities Student Council as balancing the political work with course work can be quite difficult. In fact, the role of chairman is rarely fought over among the students. »It actually took quite a bit of convincing before I accepted the position,« says Kevin Olesen.
In the end, he was convinced. As he sees it, he has more time on his hands than many of his fellow students: »History was only my third priority when I applied. One of the reasons, I have stayed on is the student community, and I am only a part-time student at the moment,« he says.
»My philosophy is that a university education is all about contemplation and gaining knowledge about a field that interests you. I am very interested in politics and power structures. In that way, engaging myself with student politics is also a form of study for me. Whether that is an excuse to spend all of my time on political work instead of home-work or not, I am not completely sure.«
»I do not always get all my reading done, and I could definitely do more work as a student. Definitely. But I have chosen to prioritize differently.«
In January, Kevin Olesen sent the University Post an email. In the magazine of the Danish-language site, he had read an article about liberal students (students, he himself is ideologically aligned with) who felt their freedom of speech was under attack at the university. In the email, Kevin Olesen said that he did not recognize this sense of persecution in his own life on campus. Kevin Olesen had helped secure »Esben Lunde Larsen (probably the most hated liberal among Danish left-wingers) a seat in parliament,« and he wanted to present a more nuanced image to the debate, he said.
So, Kevin Olesen appeared alongside fellow students, a researcher, and a department head at a public debate hosted by the University Post in March. Here he stated that he as a liberal went into political debates with great care.
»I do not enter a political debate to convince others of my opinions, but to learn more about their opinions. By acting with care, being a liberal and expressing your views openly is no problem at all. I certainly have not had any problems with that approach,« he said, after which moderator Mads Aagaard joked about Kevin Olesen’s ability to swim like a liberal fish in a red sea.
So, is Kevin Olesen navigating the red waters of the Humanities Student Council just as easily? According to him there is a lot of friendly teasing across the political divide, and some people call him a closeted left-winger, but all in all the answer to the question is, yes.
»Even though you do not share the same ideological standpoint, in student politics you often find common cause in what you are fighting for,« he says citing student welfare and influence on decision making as examples.
But when the administration decides to shut down subjects and merge others at the Faculty of Humanities, is that not a consequence of the austerity measures imposed on the field of education during Esben Lunde Larsen’s reign as minister?
»Yes, that is not exactly something that makes me popular. He is not very popular as a person either, and the two-percent cutbacks have hit hard.«
Did you agree that those cutbacks were necessary?
»I am of the opinion that if all of society has to cut back on spending, then all individual parts of society have to cut back. But it went too far. The austerity measures have had a detrimental effect on the quality of the education. The longer I am a student here, the more I realize that that was not the right thing to do.«
Voting for a liberal politician is not the same as approving of every decision the Liberal Party makes, says Kevin Olesen. »I like the centre of the political spectrum, and I am a strong proponent of working together across the political divide.«
The Humanities Student Council is known for its activist approach. The council has frequently occupied the Rector’s office, organized protests, political happenings, and most recently the blockade – in short, their tactics are mainly associated with those of the left-wing. But Kevin Olesen wishes it was not like that. He wishes that liberal students would protest as well. It is a political tool just like so many others, he says.
»The relationship of power between on the one hand the students and other the hand the administration, whom we are working and negotiating with, is imbalanced. When that is the case, you have to work with all the tools you have at your disposal. During negotiations you can then leverage that power to your advantage.«
That is also why Kevin Olesen is ready to organize blockades and protests in the future should they be necessary. According to him every liberal should be ready to do so.
studies History and Social Sciences at the University of Copenhagen
current chairman of the Humanities Student Council, member of the study board at Political Science and a member of the Student Council board
former chairman of the Liberal Party’s youth organization in Ringkøbing-Skjern and member of the Liberal Party’s business committee in Ringkøbing-Skjern
is not currently a member of a political party
works as a caregiver for the disabled alongside his studies
represents the student council on the University of Copenhagen’s post committe
»If we look back at how at how we secured the Constitution… « he says, referencing the early liberal protest movement against the conservatives in the nineteenth century.
»I think, it is a shame that protesting is exclusively left-wing domain today. In an ideal world, organizing blockades is not necessary, but I have no problem arguing for political activism as a liberal voter.«
However, at the moment, there is no reason to organize any protests (it is also not possible because of coronavirus), says Kevin Olesen. One result of the blockade is the fact that a joint taskforce consisting of Humanities Student Council members and representatives of the administration are currently devising a new target plan. They plan to have it ready by the end of June, according to Kevin Olesen. The students also demanded a new set of guidelines for cooperation between the council and the Dean’s office. That has also been achieved.
At the moment, the entire administration at the Faculty of Humanities is undergoing great change, as Dean Kirsten Busch Nielsen, of the Faculty of Theology, has taken over at the Faculty of Humanities, where Jesper Kallestrup has resigned half way through his term. Kevin Olesen is disappointed by the continued chaotic management at the faculty. It is his hope that the next dean of the faculty will have greater respect for student democracy.
Because Kevin Olesen is a great advocate of student democracy – he has even ensured that the Humanities Student Council in 2020 will discuss taking a stand on whether or not academic offices should be elected democratically by employees and students.
»In reality, we do not have a lot of truly democratic processes left at the university. We need to change that. I call for transparency in the administration and transparency when it comes to showing students how to influence decision making. If the rector and the dean were elected democratically that would ensure transparency in my opinion,« he says.
He also wants to ensure more autonomy for the student cafés. For instance, Kevin Olesen feels it is strange that Mødestedet on South Campus is allowed to serve beer all week long, while the individual student cafés around campus are only allowed to do so on Friday afternoons.
»The student cafés are very well managed by staffers who put a lot of their own time into operating them. I think they deserve to be rewarded for their efforts and have more influence on matters that concern them.«
We return to dreams for the future. The near future as well as the distant one. Because even though Kevin Olesen is new to the office he holds, he is practically on his way out again. Kevin Olesen wants to pursue a career in politics, so he is switching from History to Social Sciences. That means he will also be swapping out South Campus for City Campus.
However, this does not mean he is done with student politics. Earlier this year, Kevin Olesen ran for the office of vice-chair-person in the Student Council. He lost the final election, but next time he will be running for a seat on the council.
»As long as I am a student, I doubt that I will give up on student politics. One of the benefits of switching programs is that I will probably end up extending my course work by a year.«
The ultimate dream is to become Minister of Education and Science or Minister of Defence.
Translated by Theis Duelund