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How the University of Copenhagen became a centre of the offensive behaviour debate

Timeline — Stories of sexism, drinking and crazy initiation rituals, a global #metoo movement and a set of guidelines on how to deal with offensive behaviour made the University of Copenhagen the centre of a stormy debate last year.

The debate about offensive behaviour – and perhaps, to a greater extent, the debate about whether your freedom of speech has been violated when someone gets offended by something you did – flared up in earnest at the University of Copenhagen in the summer of 2018. The tutors at the Faculty of Law got a »recommendation to reconsider« their costume parties on their introduction camps for new students, which had themes like ‘Mexicans’ and ‘The ghetto’.

The debate spread quickly, and media throughout the country wrote how it would no longer be possible to tell an obscene joke in Copenhagen’s old halls of higher learning. However, in order to understand how the debate went down at the University of Copenhagen, and to understand why a recommendation to reconsider a theme for a costume party suddenly went off the rails, we have to go back a few years.

READ MORE: Ten Little Indians And Then There Were None: How do you do intro camp without causing offence in 2019?

2014

The theme party was not the first time we talked about where the limits are for fun intro weeks at the University of Copenhagen. As early as 2014, the University of Copenhagen and, in particular, the Department of Political Science, got bad press when the University Post wrote about sexism, drinking and stark initiation rituals on the intro camps. (It included something about closing your eyes and burying your fingers in a fist of Nutella, and caressing the mouth of a cut-off sheep’s head, because it felt like labia.) But the Danish word for offence, ‘krænkelse’ had not yet become a buzzword. At the time, we talked more about a culture of sexism and drinking.

2015-17

Both in 2015 and 2017, at various places at the University of Copenhagen, it was possible to participate in a so-called ‘Bar Mitzvah’ which played on stereotypes about Jews being stingy. In 2015, it was the Department of Anthropology that encouraged students to bring along their ‘Jew gold’ to the bar, and in 2017 it was the medicine students that advertised that they »swap and trade Kahlua at very favourable prices in the best Jewish style.« The bars were criticized by Associate Professor of Anthropology Karen Lisa Salamon. But even though the Dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Ulla Wewer, said that a limit had been transgressed in the bar descriptions, it did not lead to a major discussion.

It was also in September 2017 that students at the Department of Economics organised a ‘Men’s Friday bar’, where men could be Rambo-macho and sling a girl (who was willing) over their shoulders. It was just meant as satire, the organisers said in their defence, but the party was not fun, but excluded people, said the critics.

And then something happened off campus and outside Denmark’s borders. In the autumn of 2017 the global #metoo wave surged like a virtual tsunami. All over the world, women talked about their sexual abuse experiences. The many testimonies changed fundamentally the way we talked about giving offence in the public debate.

2018

Back at university, there was also backwash from the #metoo wave. In February 2018, the Magisterbladet magazine looked into whether students had been subjected to sexism on their studies and on the student jobs. 11 per cent of female students reported unwanted touching, hugging, or kisses on the student job, 8 per cent on their study programmes in the course of the last year.

On 13 February 2018, a group claiming to be 48 anonymous female students from five universities, including the University of Copenhagen, submitted an open letter to their rectors through the newspaper Information. They appealed for a strong response to offensive behaviour from fellow students and staff.

On 20 February 2018, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Employment submitted an official letter to managers, companies and public institutions in Denmark, where they called for sexual harassment in the workplace to be put on the agenda. It was all about civility and respect for others’ boundaries.

Søren Pind, former Minister for Higher Education and Science, also joined in. On 11 April 2018 he sent a letter to the Danish universities and encouraged them to draw up »clear, well-informed and up-to-date guidelines for the handling of unacceptable behaviour«.

And sexual harassment and civility came on the agenda at the University of Copenhagen, and people got … upset. On 25 June 2018, the university published its new policy on offensive behaviour, which included that »it is the employee’s or the student’s experience of having been subjected to offensive behaviour that is the starting point.« This exact sentence, and a ‘zero tolerance’ formulation set off a debate.

When the University Post on 13 September 2018 published an article about the new guidelines, with an angle that it was no longer possible to tell obscene jokes on campus, things went fast.

On 16 September Jacob Mchangama, director of the think tank Justitia, published an e-mail from the University of Copenhagen on his Facebook profile. The email was addressed to the tutors at the Faculty of Law and was about the themes for the parties in the intro week. Prior to this, management at the Faculty of Law had received three enquiries from students who experienced the theme parties as offensive, and they encouraged the tutors to reconsider them.

Three days later on 19 September, the University Post wrote that the Faculty of Law were not allowed to hold their theme parties at the university. A tutor, Jakob Krabbe Sørensen, said on behalf of all the law tutors, that this was »exercising prior censorship«. It was clear that the university’s recommendation was a requirement.

The day after, on 20 September, the University Post followed up the case with a question from an anonymous employee at the University of Copenhagen, who was in doubt as to whether he would still be able to use the term ‘academic erection’ and be in accordance with the new guidelines. Both the trade unions Djøf and the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM) called for calm: Take it easy, both sides in a case have to be heard.

READ MORE: Beatings, bombs and sex with a pig’s head: The university’s crazy initiation rituals through time

A few months later, the debate flared up again. 14 December 2018 weekly newspaper Weekendavisen wrote that an associate professor at the Faculty of Humanities had been called in for a disciplinary conversation, which he had no idea what was about, and that he was being scrutinised. A group of anonymous students had complained to the dean arguing that the associate professor’s teaching was sexist, racist and eurocentric. The inquiry did not find that the associate professor had been racist or sexist, but – and there is a but – there had been a lack of sensitivity and understanding on his part for sensitive topics. The associate professor was not allowed to teach for the rest of the semester, and he was not allowed to supervise theses in the following semester. The debate was now about the extent to which the university’s guidelines had reduced academic freedom at the university.

20 December at an internal debate meeting, it was commonly agreed that the guidelines for dealing with offensive behaviour should be changed.

2019

After Christmas, 23 January 2019, the University’s General Collaboration Committee HSU decided that the guidelines for handling offensive behaviour should be changed.

13 June 2019, the University of Copenhagen sent a revised set of guidelines for consultation with employees. The controversial formulation on the employee’s or student’s subjective sense of being offended being central, was taken out. It now states that management at the university can assess that something is not offensive, even if a student or employee thinks otherwise. The university now refers to the Danish Working Environment Authority’s general guidance on offensive behaviour. (Where it is still the subjective experience, which is central).

This is probably still enough for the debate to continue.

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