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Opinion

Infringement culture - made by the media

Rector's comment — In the public debate, it is all upside down: The students are never a threat to skilled academics by asking critical questions.

​”Are we no longer allowed to call people “he” or “she”? That was the headline in an article in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in mid-January. A few hours later, the other major Danish newspapers had published copycat articles. On social media, readers were met by clickbait headlines such as ‘New infringement issue at the University of Copenhagen: Associate Professor of Biology happened to talk about males and females”.

And journalists ran the story as an episode in an infringement series. Fortunately  this is more media-created than university reality. Facts are lost somewhere in the indignation. Much of the recycled information from Jyllands-Posten was wrongful. And it did not get more correct by being repeated.

On Twitter people complained that small issues were being inflated. Others wondered why no journalists had talked to the so-called complaining and offended students. There are several reasons: Nobody had complained, and it had not been discussed in a broad context at the department or in the study board among students and researchers.

The case concerns a comment given after a biology class. In connection with probability calculus in statistics classes, a lecturer had been questioned on the use of examples of females and males (invented data). The episode was first mentioned in December on a second-hand basis at an internal dialogue meeting on the University’s staff policy guidelines for the handling of offensive behaviour. After that Jyllands-Posten chased down the researcher in question.

Science tolerates much and endures everything. And I hope that people do not believe everything they read in the media about a so-called infringement culture at UCPH.
Henrik C. Wegener

In this infringement debate, the media play a special role in relation to exposing individual cases and polarising the debate. As Rector I find it hard to detect all the infringement-ready students the media seek to conjure up. Each year, UCPH receives very few formal complaints concerning the teaching and not a rising number. Last year, there were seven complaints of teachers and the year before there were twelve.

We more than welcome students asking questions about academic, didactic and well-being themes. A researcher at the University should always be able to justify their didactic choices and priorities in relation to academic standards. Of course, questions or objections from students do not automatically result in changes of how the teaching is conducted.

The public debate has turned things upside down. No matter what, students are not a threat for the trained academic when asking critical questions. Researchers and politicians must accept that students ask questions that do not comply with the ground rules of an academic debate. Students are not professors or associate professors but, as it happens, students. The researchers must show their academic energy and overview and guide the students about what constitutes genuine scientific arguments and evidence and what does not. It only becomes a serious issue for the University if a lecturer is unable to explain and defend his/her examples, choice of theories or, for that matter, conduct in the classroom using academic arguments.

Students have always challenged their teachers. And that’s a good thing. It reflects the undergraduate’s critical view of the teacher’s academic arguments. And it reflects young people’s new perspectives which contrast with older people’s more conservative views of the world. Professors must tolerate questions without feeling their professional integrity and authority compromised.

Science tolerates much and endures everything. And I hope that people do not believe everything they read in the media about a so-called infringement culture at UCPH.

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