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Henrik C. Wegener: Being rector is about solving wicked problems

Portrait — The University Post followed the 259th person to be made Rector of the University of Copenhagen. We wanted to find out who it is that is weighed down by the gold chain and ceremonial robes of rector. What is his vision?

Henrik C. Wegener never dreamt of managerial positions or rector postings when he started his career. This is no secret, he says. The opportunities came to him because he was a talented researcher, and because he was talked into it by officials multiple times. As he puts it, »because we are all suckers for flattery,« using the English word.

The University of Copenhagen’s 259th rector is fond of using non-Danish expressions. German, English and French ones. This is no secret either. He thrives on a packed meeting calendar, as long as it is not spielverderberei, that is, irrelevant or corrupting. At the office, he never has a dull moment, because there are constantly cases that need his undivided attention. And at his first annual Commemoration ceremony as rector in 2017, he described the winding paths of microbiology with the words of Louis Pasteur: le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés – chance favours only the prepared mind.

Pasteur is a personal role model for Wegener. He recently re-read an old biography of the researcher when he had to write a brief presentation on the life and times of Pasteur and wanted to make sure that he was not fibbing. The Pasteur biography is still on the rector’s desk when he — briskly making his way towards his large hybrid BMW — explains that it illustrates the importance of new research.

»The arms race of the past was in the field of microbiology. It was the new frontier where Pasteur was the hero of the French, while Robert Koch was the hero of the Germans. They fought like crazy to come up with vaccines against all sorts of diseases and made some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the period. At this time, being technologically and scientifically proficient, was not just a question of getting the biggest companies and the biggest economies. It was also about national prestige,« he says, and gets the car moving with a button to drive home to the detached house in Sorgenfri north of Copenhagen.

Just like when Morten Meldal got a Nobel Prize in chemistry?

»You can say that. He got the award for something he did 20 years ago, so now it is mostly about recognition and prestige.«
The car is in the middle of the Lindegården courtyard behind a large gateway across from the Church of Our Lady cathedral in the middle of Copenhagen. The gateway has to be unlocked electronically on a daily basis, with hinges and a few locks that have to be twisted to get the old gate to open. It has taken a bit of getting used to, but after five years, Wegener has got the hang of it.

You have to push an old institution a bit to get it to move?

»Yes, it’s going nowhere. It is called inertia. It needs a sustained push.«

The chaos and the crises

Many conversations with Wegener start one place, then via his train of thought, end up somewhere else. According to him, it is because he has a curious mind and is prone to enthusiasm. Suddenly you are left with the story behind the mad cow disease, which some experts feared would eradicate most of mankind back in the 1990s. Or that he meets up with some friends from his secondary school four to six times a year in a Kierkegaard club, where they have analysed soccer striker Preben Elkjær’s penalty at the 1984 European semifinals from the Danish philosopher’s perspective.

He also takes this curiosity to work. At a welcoming meeting for three newly appointed researchers a few weeks earlier, he talks about experimental chemistry and the sociological studies of rankings. And at a meeting with the University of Copenhagen’s Board of Governors a few days later, he starts with a brief explanation of why quantum computers are so devilishly complicated.

But it was something more down-to-earth that had him accept the rector’s position. It was the chaos, and the crises. Like being a louse between twenty sets of nails, squeezing and crushing him from every direction. Politicians who will do anything to shape an otherwise independent university. Students who want to immerse themselves, and researchers screaming for more time for free research without paperwork. Employers’ and unions’ demands for robust, practically suitable, graduates that will increase Danish productivity. It is precisely in this role, as a mediator of compromises that he comes into his own.

The outcome that is politically achievable can easily be an ugly compromise.
Rector Henrik C. Wegener

»It’s about accommodating your idealism. The political changes are rarely the optimal ones from a scientific perspective. The outcome that is politically achievable can easily be an ugly compromise,« he says.

»This is a shame, because you think that you can do better, but you have to live with the whims of the politicians. I like the conflict, where science proves itself and shifts the way people think, their attitudes and thereby also political decisions. That’s how science is useful.«

Henrik Caspar Wegener is the first rector in the University of Copenhagen’s 500-year-old history who has neither studied at, nor done research there. This, even though he likes to emphasize his background at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University which was later merged with UCPH. Some staff found this a bit questionable before he took up his position. They were worried he was some zealous bureaucrat that did not know the institution and its particular aura. He is the second rector to have been appointed by a board and not democratically elected by the university’s employees.

He does not see this as a disadvantage to himself. Wegener has previously stated that he is not the kind of manager who is out patrolling the different departments. He insists on this because the Office of the Rector is all about the strategy and the wider, long-term agreements. You have to be able to both talk to »the people in fleece jerseys at the Forest and Landscape College in Nødebo just as much as the people in the suits in the Berlaymont building in Brussels,« he said in his inaugural speech. He reportedly has both sets of attire ready in his wardrobe.

A well-intentioned reprimand

Wegener has not always been a pragmatic man. As a young man, he was a real idealist with long hair, and he moved into a collective the day after he got his upper secondary school exam papers. He shared a toothbrush with his mates, lived on chickpeas and took a diving certificate. And as he did not have time to be a conscientious objector to military service, he spent eight months instead in Allinge on the island of Bornholm as part of the local fire brigade. These were different times, he notes from his couch in the Copenhagen suburb of Sorgenfri, and mentions an episode in 1986 where he, with his »large Dario moustache on his upper lip« went on a study trip to southern India to look into food production.

»I had great faith that we were making a difference. I thought personally that I would go out and save the world as a good altruist.«

He and other volunteers rode a bike every day from village to village to collect data on crops to optimise production during a famine crisis. But the work was discouraging, because it did not seem to make a difference, and one day he was pulled aside by an Indian professor.

»He told me that it wasn’t because they lacked the knowledge. That was not why people were starving. It was the political and economical situation and their caste system and so on, which was the real problem,« says Wegener.

»This made me realize a few things. You do not save the world just with the goodness of your heart. It was a well-intentioned reprimand. Just go home, goddammit, and upskill yourself. Just piss off

The experience led to two new insights for Wegener. If he were to make a difference in India, he would need to become an expert within his own specific area. And if he wanted to create long-term changes, he needed his knowledge to have influence on the people who make decisions.

He has taken this to heart in his work as a scientist and as a manager. Wegener calls his work assignments as rector the wicked problems, because they are often the challenges that have no perfect solution for everyone.

»If one group is to have the ideal outcome, another group often has to have a much worse outcome. To be a bit cynical you could say that the role of management is to distribute this frustration evenly.

He mentions the student blockade of the Department of Psychology last December as an example of a case that he could not, or would not, take a visible part in.

»If I stood up and said something heroic about how the students should go home, or that I understood their frustration, then both of these statements would be used and abused uninhibitedly. It would not lead to a solution.«

Does this also apply to political issues also?

It is, to be a bit cynical, the role of management to distribute this frustration evenly.

Rector Henrik C. Wegener

»No, but I am a great believer in working with politicians and not yelling at them via the newspapers. I meet with all the parties’ political spokespersons on an ongoing basis, and I talk to specific politicians about specific cases, but it is of course behind closed doors.«

Do you think that some of the university’s employees need to know where you stand?

»Yes, I think so. But the sharper my public profile is, the more polarising I become as a person. That is why it is always about striking a balance between what is best for the university, and how I make myself playable. That I take a strong stand on anything other than the things that are really vital.«

And it is not because you can’t deal with confrontations?

»No, heaven forbid. But these crises need to be solved, and that’s my job. You can’t be scared of being in deep shit. But in most cases, I just have to help my fellow managers, where the catchword is solving the case through them. I can’t solve the cases for them.«

Confirmation moped

In Sorgenfri, Wegener has gone down into the basement after a short walk with his dog Emma. She is, by the way, the only family member in a glass portrait frame at the rector’s office. He comes up with an ochre yellow-coloured family tree, which unfolds like an accordion across the oak table. He has just told me that the surname Wegener comes from a German pub owner on the island of Funen who made a good brandy. Now he wants to show me the carefully handwritten table of ancestors that go back to the first Viking kings because his great grandfather married the countess Nathalia Nielsine Cathrine Ahlefeldt-Laurvigen.

The chronicle of his family on his father’s side contains both a national archivist, a solo dancer at the Royal Theatre, the founder of Rødding Folk High School and a painter from Odense. And a man with a noble sounding name of Ægidius Hennings. Wegener points to the central symbol of the crest.

»It is actually unclear whether Wegener is German for a ‘weighing scales’ or a ‘road’,« he says.

»But our crest has a weighing scales on it, and this had great power in the past. It stood for balance and propriety. I also try to live up to this myself,« he says.

He has been fascinated by the family tree with the obscure names and job designations ever since his childhood in another part of Sorgenfri’s detached house districts. His mother stayed at home, but was educated as a nursery teacher and his father had a bookstore on Valby Langgade street in Copenhagen. It was a regular family Saturday routine that dad came home from work with a box of non-marketable books that the four children could dive into.

»I was passionately preoccupied with animals. I read reference works on mammals, fish and birds, and I could almost memorize them, including the Latin terms.«

It was as if the German occupation was physically present in the house, just like the dream of adventures and world peace would be in his youth, and just like molecular biology became in his research life. When his fascination peaked, he had 16 aquariums with all kinds of fish and an aviary in the garden that was packed with weaver birds. In the boy’s room, there were terrariums with snakes, geckos, swamp and land turtles, cages with guinea pigs, and a couple of parrots. He sat there glued to the TV when host Dr. Lieberkind with a nasal voice and in black and white talked about ravens or rabbits, and he immersed himself in the world’s oceans with Jacques Cousteau.

»There was a pet shop on Virum Torv, where I hung out permanently for many years. I was really interested in all of that, until I reached the age where I had to invite girls back to my room, and I saw how strange they thought it all was.«

The neighbourhood was a consequence of the 1960s’ economic boom, according to Wegener. There were children everywhere and there was space for them. The buildings were new, the schools were new, even the parents were new. The teachers at the local school were in the transition between the sporadic hard slaps of the older generation and a younger, more progressive way of teaching. Both the book shop and the parents’ marriage faltered however, and the parents got divorced shortly after the book shop fell through.

»It was one of the first families to divorce in the neighbourhood. It was not a scandal, but it was the cause of unrest at home. My dad left the shop, got a new family, and more or less disappeared out of my life.«

He was eleven at the time, and from that day he was the oldest boy among his siblings, and money was hard to come by for one sole breadwinner on a nursery teacher salary. It got to be the young Henrik’s job to repair his mum’s 2CV car. Sometimes with nothing more than a piece of wire and a couple of good hands. He painted the house when it needed it, and he did some simple electrical installations when there was not enough money for an electrician.

»I became the family’s handyman because it was necessary if we were to keep the house,« he says.

»And when I was to be confirmed, I got a choice. Do you want a present or a confirmation party? I went for some contributions towards a moped. Then the guests had to come another day.«

Hard cheese and piglets

Wegener can speak for hours on end about the technical challenges in detecting diseases, the political pressure that he faces, and the effect that his research has had both nationally and globally.

He remembers a former Minister for Food and Agriculture screaming at him one day up to Christmas: According to Wegener’s statistical calculations four people would die over the next 100 years if they made hard organic cheese from non-pasteurised milk legal. The minister wanted a zero level of safety risk, and even though he explained that in scientist language this was zero, the former minister could not — with any peace of mind — amend a law that statistically would cause death.

»The minister freaked out, but if you can’t stand up to a bit of political pressure, you are an academic sissy,« he says.

Wegener got his first job at the Danish Veterinary Serum Laboratory the day after his master’s thesis defence in bromatology, which is now called food science. He used new molecular-biological techniques to find the so-called DNA fingerprint of bacteria. The research methods, that were new at the time, could trace how infectious diseases bounce around between animals and humans, and from which foods the diseases came from.

»I was discouraged from taking the job by my fellow students, because it was seen as a sleepy institution with distinct hierarchies,« he says.

»It was, actually, a bit like this. The academics had lunch at one specific time and the lab technicians had lunch at another time. There were many chief physician types who turned up at 10 am and left again at 2 pm to take care of their own private clinic next door. But my group was a new, interdisciplinary, venture with me, some engineers and a biologist.«

In fact, Wegener’s former colleagues advised him to not take the jobs as prorector at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and as rector at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) respectively. They just couldn’t see the sense in stopping a brilliant research career.

The Danish Veterinary Serum Laboratory was modernising, however. He did his PhD on staphylococcus hyicus. It is a bacterium that causes the skin disease exudative epidermitis, and which kills piglets as the »the skin pops off like in a third-degree burn.« But he really got into the limelight when he published a large-scale salmonella project where they had discovered that you did not get the bacterium from chickens, that people had previously thought, but mostly from pigs.

»And then all hell broke loose, because the pig producers did not think this was too great,« he says.

»I was interviewed on flow TV about ‘this dangerous food’, and I started getting abusive calls from irate slaughterhouse managers.. But when all the emotions died down, we could find common ground. Even though the agricultural sector initially questioned my methods and my research because it was all so new. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I was a pioneer.«

Together with a number of colleagues, he set up the Danish Zoonosis Center, where he was to lead the systematic monitoring of diseases in humans and connect them to animals.

»It radically altered the whole pork industry with different slaughtering processes, decontamination areas and systematic studies. We checked millions of samples and got some of the early robots to do some of the tasks.«

»I was very active on this frontier, and I was also therefore at the centre of pressures coming from multiple directions from both science, politics, and society.«

The oldest and best

A few weeks later, inside the rector’s office in Nørregade street in central Copenhagen, Wegener says that he has less UCPH experience than many former rectors. He was not »born and raised within the four walls of home,« but has worked under a more or less direct political influence through his work with ministries and government agencies, the European Commission, the World Health Organisation and so on.

»This has given me an irritating insight into how economic, political and civilian systems work. You have to understand the rules of the game if you do not want to run into too many obstacles in life. Nobody is all-powerful. Me neither.«

The majority of Wegener’s working life has been in ‘applied’ research. A term he, by the way, just can’t stand, because it divides science into pure and something less than pure. Research for the sake of research is a myth. There is only research and the application of research, he says, and it is something that Pasteur once also said.

If he is to answer what the visions and goals are that he had for UCPH when he took on the position, he meanders.

»I did not think that UCPH had as strong a position in society that the university deserved. I wanted to make it more clear how indispensable UCPH, as one of the oldest societal institutions, actually is. Why we are indispensable when good decisions have to be made in society, and an informed dialogue needs to be had about all the new stuff and the old stuff. And, of course, that we as an institution educate to the highest level of education possible, and at the same time insist on delivering graduates of the highest quality to the Danish labour market.«

This is very idealistic. What is your main goal for the university?

»It all gets very pompous when you are working in such a big shop. UCPH is extremely mixed with a wealth of disciplines, and we need to get even better at showing why the different sciences belong together. What it is that they can help each other shed light on, in order to answer the extremely complex issues in the world. I find it exciting to be a place where you can make a difference and be responsible for the research and education of the future.«

Fact resistant

Something needs to be at stake for Wegener, and it has always been like that. Like the time when he, as a lazy primary school pupil, suddenly had to dig in, hard, just to be declared suitable for upper secondary school. Or when he, as a scientist, had to convince the world’s leaders to stop using growth promoters in animal breeding for fear of antibiotics resistance, which led to death threats and lawsuits worth billions. Or, as now, when he has to safeguard a top international university that is surrounded by misinformation, cuts and relocations. No matter what time or topic, Wegener is at his best when his head is in the guillotine, he says, and keeps on returning to the ‘growth promoter’ case.

For decades, antibiotics were given to healthy animals, so that farmers could get their animals to grow faster and thereby earn more money. On the other hand, the number of antibiotics-resistant bacteria grew at a faster rate than it was possible to invent new antibiotics.

I was quite the activist as a researcher.

Rector Henrik C. Wegener


»It was, and is, a huge problem. When we presented our research, the global pharmaceutical industry threatened legal action against him personally and as an institution for all of their current and future losses. I sat in my office and looked into my wallet, and had DKK 400 in cash. In front of me there was the threat of billion dollar litigation,« he says, adding that it was the period in his life where he worked the hardest.

»There was a year during this period when the registration of working hours was introduced. In that first month I had 170 hours overtime. From that time on I no longer registered it, because the system could not handle it.«

Eleven years would pass before the European Commission introduced a ban on growth promoters. During this period, Wegener spoke to both the US Senate and the US Congress. He spoke of his research to politicians, interest groups and to peers in the World Health Organisation.

»The scientific community felt that a ban was the only right thing to do. Still, the global pharmaceutical industry used all kinds of intimidation. They hired professors to say that it was ‘junk science from Denmark that is not to be trusted’. It has happened to me several times that a man has suddenly appeared next to me after a conference saying that if I didn’t stop, I would be killed. This happened in both the US and in Mexico.«

Were you not frustrated or disgusted by the fact that they did not take your research more seriously, or tried to stop it?

»I was quite the activist as a researcher. And some might say more politically, than academically, because the lack of action had me feeling righteous indignation. But the role of science is to inform politicians so that they can make decisions on an informed basis. The research showed that there was a real problem. And I also felt that this damn well could not be right. But I understand the way other people act, no matter how many times they have tried to beat me down.«

The final suit was not directed at Wegener himself but at the European Commission, and he was called instead to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to testify.

»Farmers from all over Europe had been hired to drive to Luxembourg in tractors. They were supposed to sit in court and look hungry and poverty-stricken because we took their vital medicines away from them. It was a huge spectacle, great fun, but also hyper intense.«

»But it has never been made illegal in the US or China. Infinite amounts of antibiotics are still being abused for no real world benefit. Then the bacteria become resistant, and many more people will die unnecessarily.«

Gaze of the falcon

At his inauguration speech, Henrik C. Wegener told board members, students, friends, family and scientists said that a rector is a part of a larger ecosystem. The rector is a beneficial organism that spreads seeds and nectar. A breadwinner that finds funding. An interpreter between elected politicians and the university. And finally, an eagle that soars above, and that can see what is coming ahead.

He has tried to do this. But not without meeting critical voices like the long-standing staff representative for the HK union, Ingrid Kryhlmand. In December 2020 she made the front page of the Danish-language printed magazine of the University Post, when she openly spoke out about the poor working environment in the General Collaboration Committee due to the new management style that came in with Wegener. Employees were not being heard, and they had refused to be left with the correction of commas in an already finalized management plan.

»It doesn’t really matter whether we are a margarine factory or a university, the way we are managed today,« she said at the time. She pointed out that the poor collaboration was partly due to an entourage of deputy directors and middle managers in many layers of administration.

Wegener remembers this front page. Especially because the newspaper was published just before the corona lockdown of Denmark, and he saw it every day on his way to lunch for six months. He does offer a »a small« nod of recognition to there being a poor working atmosphere at the time. He does believe, however, that it has improved since then.

»But I actually do accept that the General Collaboration Committee is not necessarily a place where you have to be all sweet and harmony. The management faces the staff representatives at the highest level here. We can never become a unified team when we sit across from each other in negotiations. It would be strange if this was a space without conflict. That being said, I have probably changed for the better, according to them. And I think they understand me better.«

Many people speak of top-down management …

»Yes, I hear that too. I have to admit that I find this completely nuts, because 99.9 per cent of all management decisions are delegated out to others. It is incredibly few decisions that are made centrally. Most faculties are self-directed to a large degree. The core tasks have been delegated to an extreme extent.«

According to the criticism, it is often more formal than actual involvement?

»I completely disagree with that. If that is the case, we have really big problems. It can feel like a ritual to be on a committee that examines an institution’s budgets, accounts and strategies. But that’s exactly where the influence is. That’s when we talk about where we are going to go for the next four years. If this is not influence, I don’t know what it is. You are allowed to think that the management’s final decision is completely idiotic. But sometimes they are just ‘wicked problems’ with no ideal solution.«

Wegener defends himself, quietly, in his office. Even though he does not find the criticism justified. He actually misses having a more constructive dialogue. And this even though he is criticised for having an entourage around him that makes this impossible.

»I sometimes think that we encourage conflict rather than dialogue. Fighting should not be prohibited, but it is seldom constructive in the longer term,« he says.

Is the fight not precisely a result of the lack of cooperation?

»I’m not sure this is the case. The fight may also come from the fact that you do not always get your way in a democracy where the majority want something else.«

But Wegener also knows that people will always say that it is the boss’s fault. He has said so himself as a researcher. And as prorector at DTU, he often brokered between various committees and the rector. At the time, however, it was easier, because you were always able to pass on responsibility to the top office. Now he himself is in this office, sitting at the end of the negotiating table and has to work with everyone. Students, researchers, deans, technical and administrative staff, companies, foundations, the Board. But politicians too. In particular the new Minister for Higher Education and Science, the 10th minister in 11 years.

»I hope that our ministry will have real influence in the present government, and that the minister’s office gets the respect and appreciation it deserves. It has slid too far down the ministerial hierarchy,« he says.

»I would have liked to see that it was the posting that Lars Løkke and Jakob Ellemann had fought over, after not getting the prime minister job. It should be.«