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The lead candidates — Pia Quist and Jesper Grodal are fighting to retain their seats as academic representatives on the Board of the University: We have fought hard to show that management cannot ignore the employees. We have won several victories, but our work is far from finished, they say.
The two candidates who top the election list called ‘Involve the researchers!’ show up for the interview and take off their jackets and shirts.
Professors Jesper Grodal and Pia Quist want to be photographed with their T-shirts with the text ‘Talk to me! I’m your UCPH Board representative’, which they put on at all gatherings where university people meet up.
»Pia and I are working to open up the work of the Board, and we have shown that employees can actually influence the university,« says Jesper Grodal.
In 2019, the last time academic staff could vote for the Board, he was elected for four years together with Eske Willerslev, who moved to Cambridge in 2021. Pia Quist, who had also been active in the election campaign, took over his place. Behind the two lead candidates are 16 other researchers, and the group meets regularly to discuss both specific cases and the list’s political line, says Jesper Grodal:
»Before we were elected, two academic candidates were elected who sat on the Board and just took care of things on their own. But our whole group is very active, and for that reason Pia was already well into the loop when Eske left.«
The office of the rector is somewhere completely different from when we first arrived.
Professor Jesper Grodal
»We have been successful in the Board because of our good support base. We have been able to speak on behalf of many when we have presented our arguments,« says Pia Quist.
One of their the Board victories is the introduction of ‘institute faculty boards’ [forskerkollegier, ed.] at the departments on a two-year trial scheme. The institute faculty boards are fora where academics and the department management collaborate on the academic development of the departments, including permanent positions and other strategic activities.
The group’s most important issue, which has also given its name to the list, is that the academic staff should have influence on management’s decisions at all levels. This is instead of the widespread practice where employees were often involved in consultations subsequently, when major decisions had already been made. Involve the researchers! wanted to get in on the decisions and defend Humboldt-inspired university ideals.
»The institute faculty boards are a good example of how we work,« says Pia Quist. »We were the ones who took control and designed the process. Together with our supporters, we formulated a text, and then we met with the Board’s technical and administrative staff reps and student reos, so that all the internal members had talked things through beforehand before all the Board were put together.«
Jesper Grodal says that the rector’s office today is »in a completely different place« than it was four years ago. And the two of them take some credit for that. When the Board had to decide in 2021 whether Henrik C. Wegener should continue as rector until 2025, Pia Quist and Jesper Grodal had certain conditions:
‘Involve the researchers!’ wants to:
1. Fight to ensure that the university stays focused on its core tasks, which are research and education.
2. Fight for academic freedom and good academic management, with good career paths for all employees, including PhDs and postdocs.
3. Fight for an unbureaucratic UCPH with a strong local administration that relieves the pressure on researchers – not the opposite.
See their full programme here.
»We got into the negotiations about the extension of the rector’s term and issued demands. We said that we would like to keep Wegener if he would work for better involvement of employees,« says Pia Quist. Grodal adds:
»And we wanted to focus on managers not just being administrators, but having a strong professionalism. And we want an administration that functions and supports our core activities, research and teaching. Those were the three things that needed to be put right,« he says and thinks back:
»We sat in the Studenterhuset and negotiated an entire afternoon with students and technical and administrative staff, and then we went to the chairman of the board with our wishes. We got all the Board in on this being a good agenda for Wegener’s extension.«
»Our work in the Board has been characterised by a pragmatic approach, where we find good solutions that suit us all, and we have stood together on them,« says Pia Quist and then adds her trump card:
»We have a recipe that works«
In recent years, senior managers at the University of Copenhagen have complained about political interference in university affairs.
Pia Quist and Jesper Grodal praise Merete Eldrup, Chair of the Board, for being good at listening to, and being inclusive of, all points of view. They believe that the Board’s collaborative and non-confrontational style can improve the sometimes frosty relationship between the university and politicians after the reform storm of recent years.
»The better that UCPH works, the stronger our voice is. Today, we are more united in our dealings with politicians, which is why we have a better hand when arguing against regionalisation, for example. When politicians can see that a unanimous university board makes good decisions, we have more credibility and more clout,« says Jesper Grodal, and gives an example of how not to deal with political criticism:
»Back in 2010, politicians said that UCPH was spending too much money on administration, and instead of looking at the area, they made a pointless bureaucratic manoeuvre where half of the technical and administrative staff were reclassified as TAP-FU (personnel that can be said to work with research, communication or teaching, ed.), and then the problem was solved… It’s frivolous.«
University democracy is a good thing, but damn! it is hard to stand up and try to get the vote from among your colleagues
Professor Pia Quist
»By the time we got on to the Board, there had just been lots of bad cases. Construction projects had been derailed; reforms were on the fence; mergers had fallen through; academic freedom was under pressure. In the recent period, things have calmed down,« says Grodal.
»Yes,« says Pia Quist, but then slams a contentious issue on the table:
»A very bad workplace assessment came in from the Faculty of Social Sciences, and we often said clearly that the Board could not ignore that. We get lots of inquiries from people, and I can reveal that the working environment at the social sciences faculty is one of the things we have received the most inquiries about.«
»The dean is quoted as saying that it was the worst idea in the world that he appointed himself as head of the Department of Anthropology. It reminded me of Taylor Swift, who once dominated the entire top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.« This is what Jesper Grodal says about Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, who has subsequently announced that he will be stepping down as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences in the spring.
»They have now set up an institute faculty board at Anthropology, and they have turned things around the department, where today they are actually united in being behind the decisions,« says Jesper Grodal. His face widens into a smile: »This is a success story«.
»The Board needs to address well-being as a collective ambition,« the election manifesto states. Pia Quist says that work pressure and uncertain career paths have for a long time been the cause of poor well-being among PhDs and postdocs. Now there is also an increasing number of permanent employees who succumb to stress.
Focus needs to be on the conditions and representation of temporary staff with greater job security and transparent recruitment processes. And academic staff should receive administrative support of a quality that facilitates their work, so that researchers have time for deep work.
»Well-being issues need to be solved,« says Jesper Grodal, »with concrete action where things lag behind. We have a practical take on things. We are not in favour of a specific mandate under the rectorate, where senior consultants write reports on well-being.«
The ongoing reform of the administration is not just something that creates insecurity among the technical and administrative staff. It is also the issue that has caused the greatest divisions among the Board recently, according to Pia Quist:
»There are external members who, like the rectorate, think that it would be really good if we could find large savings.«
It reminded me of Taylor Swift
Professor Jesper Grodal
It is surely a fait accompli? The university director has announced expected cuts of DKK 300 million and this will mean layoffs.
»Savings should not be the primary goal. Improvement should be,« says Pia Quist. Jesper Grodal says:
»At UCPH it is unclear who it is that is making the decisions. Everyone thinks that the mistakes are being made somewhere else. When they did the survey prior to the reform, it became clear that people do not feel that the administration is cohesive today.«
He explains that earlier this year the rector’s office presented to the Board proposals for administrative restructuring:
»But we could not see that the presented model was an answer to what the employees asked for in the analysis, so we could not give it our stamp of approval. We want to get the most research and education for our money. The academic environments need to have proximity to the administration. And we should not just let tasks move from technical and administrative staff to academic staff.«
»It is incredibly important that we are allowed to continue our work, because we are involved with the details in all the processes. We’ve been working on this for so long, and we haven’t landed it yet. There is a lot to struggle with, so there is a lot at stake in this election,« Pia Quist says, and implies that she is far from feeling confident about re-winning her seat:
»University democracy is a good thing, but damn! it is hard to stand up and try to get the vote from among your colleagues
The election may end up with the number one from two different academic election lists getting the most votes, and Quist calls this »a very unfortunate scenario«:
»Then there will be two men from the Faculty of Science. This does not reflect the gender and professional diversity that should exist on the Board. We need to implement a graduate reform, and there needs to be someone from the non-STEM subjects at the table, because it is primarily the humanities and social sciences who will feel the consequences.«
»Pia and me are the best choice in terms of broad representation,« says Jesper Grodal.
»I went into university politics with the slogan ‘Don’t ruin my university, this is where I keep my stuff’. I came from Chicago to Denmark as a professor in 2006, got a basic research centre and put enormous effort into building up a strong environment. But then a manager came along and wanted to merge departments, and I had one administrator smash everything with a stroke of a pen. That was my wake-up call,« he says.
You will fight to ensure that the university stays focused on research and education, you say. But is this statement actually meaningful? Who does not want to do this? What are the specific threats?
»The threats are real,« Pia Quist says. »You could imagine strong forces in the Board wanting all research and education to be focussed on innovation in order to legitimise the university in society. This will destroy the core of the free basic research university if we have to adapt to specific missions dictated from the outside.«
That sustainability is not part of the strategy, this is just a straw man argument
Pia Quist and Jesper Grodal (in unison)
Several voices, notably the Green Youth Movement, have criticised the Board for adopting an unambitious strategy. And the question of sustainability has led to the competing list ‘A Sustainable University’ to challenge ‘Involve the researchers!’ at this year’s election.
»I have sympathy for their project. There should be good – and also better – conditions for researchers and students who want to work with the green transition. But the Green Youth Movement would like to change the entire UCPH system and have sustainability incorporated into all curricula. Here I will make the parallel to innovation: It’s not a good idea,« Pia Quist says.
Jesper Grodal interjects: »It says sustainability 12 times on four pages in the draft strategy, so saying that sustainability is not part of the strategy … «
»… this is simply a straw man argument,« Pia Quist concludes his sentence.
»We have pushed for the university to reduce its climate footprint. Where we disagree is on the question of whether there should be mandatory sustainability courses for all students and teaching staff – we do not think so. The Green Youth Movement wants us to set up a lobbying organisation that will work to get Independent Research Denmark to have a sustainability clause. But then research is no longer free. The university’s role is to come up with good ideas, it is the political level that has to respond to them,« says Jesper Grodal.
You can vote during the election period from 20 to 24 November.