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Opinion

Is the University of Copenhagen defending its researchers? Here is where it could have, and still should

Editorial — As head of a university, you are the servant of its researchers, so you stand up for them when someone attacks the freedom of research. The University of Copenhagen should do this more often, and better.

Here are some examples of threats to the freedom of research. They range from smear campaigns and physical threats, to principled attacks on the fundamental freedoms of research. The cases are all different, but the university’s response to them should be the same: resistance.

Associate professor at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) and Iran expert Rasmus Elling has, for some time on social media, made people aware of how he and others with an expertise on Iran have been harassed with unwarranted accusations of being an agent for the Iranian regime. It is not difficult to imagine how this could damage your career if a misperception like this gains traction.

The corona virus is also a subject that attracts the loonies. A few months ago the University Post described how Jens Lundgren, a professor in infectious diseases and one of the country’s frontline academics in the fight against Covid-19, received threats when he shared his expertise with the media. Danish station TV 2 could report that another famous UCPH virologist, Professor Allan Randrup-Thomsen, had received emails calling him things like »paedophile fake Jew,« and threats that he will not be forgotten »when the accounts have to be drawn up.«

And in March this year, the media Forskerforum could list a whole series of examples of harassment of researchers by virtue of their work as researchers and their participating in public debates.

To the Forskerforum site, associate professors Michael Nebeling Petersen and Mons Bissenbakker, who do research on gender, sexuality and diversity at the University of Copenhagen, say that they get threatening messages. Nebeling Petersen says that he avoids expressing an opinion on topics like racism and integration because of threats.

In the same article, one of the University of Copenhagen’s best-known researchers, professor of philosophy Vincent Hendricks, who is of African descent, says that he has received a cartridge in the mail with the text ‘a dead negro is a good negro’.

These cases raise the question: What contingency plans to support researchers does the university have in specific cases of threats to academic freedom?

Are there lawyers at the university who are ready to assist the researchers, and who, for example, are responsible for maintaining links to – for ordinary folk otherwise completely inaccessible – companies like Facebook, so that the university can help slow down a coordinated smear campaign before it spills over into a physical attack?

It could be a body like the students’ student ambassador, a kind of ‘researchers’ ambassador’. It could also be the rector.

Management at the University of Copenhagen will undoubtedly say that all of the above cases are of course unacceptable. To the media Science Report, a senior employee said last autumn that the number of attacks on researchers has been constant in recent years. It has to do with the fact that the university takes up a lot of space in this society and has become ‘hyper-transparent’.

UCPH offers psychological counselling, so the HR staff are surely aware of the problem. But how does the rector of the University of Copenhagen publicly display, with all the hyper-transparency necessary, that if you ‘want to attack the researchers, you need to deal with me first,’ as they say in the movies?

Politicians with small, short T-rex arms

The freedom of research is also being suppressed on a more general level. The biggest example in recent times has been Danish universities’ embarrassing cooperation in putting gag clauses on researchers’ contracts when they conducted externally funded research, so they were unable to freely present their results.

Another problem is the ‘short limbs‘ of politicians, who ought to uphold the arms length principle.

After the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen recently set off a national debate on politically motivated research inside ‘woke’ academia with an article on the homogeneity of academic research on migration, politicians like Henrik Dahl (Liberal Alliance) and Morten Messerschmidt (Danish People’s Party) have challenged the arm’s length principle — the principle that research should be managed without political interference.

The two politicians claim that their criticism is purely academic and should not be seen as a wish to regulate research. But Dahl has also said to the University Post: »If you have a department at university that keeps on doing pseudoscience, then we should not spend money on it.«

At the same time, in a number of questions in parliament, Messerschmidt asked the Minister of Higher Education and Research how she will take action against courses and traditions that Messerschmidt does not want to exist at the universities. When the University Post asked him whether they should just shut down research communities, he was blunt: »You could easily do this. It has been done before. Back in the 1980s, they closed the sociology [department, ed.], simply because it had been infiltrated by communists,« Morten Messerschmidt said.

Criticism = good, threats = not so much

There is nothing wrong with criticising research in ‘woke’ topics. The dispute over identity politics is one of the most important public conversations, and it is a good thing that elected representatives want to get involved in it. With respect to Dahl, this conversation is thorough and of a high standard. Research communities should appreciate this.

But Dahl and Messerschmidt do not differentiate between their roles as funders and legislators on the one hand, and as academic debaters on the other, and this is a problem.

Christoph Ellersgaard who does research on power elites at the Copenhagen Business School says to the University Post: »Scientists are not naive, and can easily not say things people don’t like, if they fear for their jobs.«

A bigger problem is that the Minister of Higher Education and Research Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen (Social Democrat) has given some support to the intervention into ‘activist research’ by calling in the rectors to a meeting where she informed them that she expects them to solve the problem whereever it may be found.

This was a public signal that Danish politicians reserve the right to determine what researchers do via the rectors, which is why the meeting was a bad idea.

But unfortunately, the rectors trooped up politely, and afterwards the rector’s association even talked down the seriousness of the matter.

To the DM Akademikerbladet news site, Rector Anders Bjarklev from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) said that if the minister had a concern, then »it was not about Denmark, but about trends in other countries and about the term cancel culture.« So there is nothing to be afraid of, apparently, if you were to believe the chairman of the rectors.

»She said nothing that indicates that she does not have full confidence in what we are doing and the mechanisms that ensure high academic standards in our research results,« Bjarklev also said.

If you read the responses the minister has given in parliament since then, it is clear that her ministerial gaze is still sharply focussed on the researchers though.

The minister writes directly to the Danish parliament that she intends to continue the dialogue with universities »if a worrying picture emerges of a slightly simplistic theoretical approach within certain fields of research. Or if there are reports about stated political objectives in the research.«

Why are the rectors choosing to shy away from this dispute instead of standing up to the politicians on this important issue?

And why is Henrik C. Wegener, the rector of the largest university in Denmark, not shouting out over the rooftops of Copenhagen that the minister can shove off back to her office when she starts interfering in research? It is, after all, not at Bjarklev’s Technical University of Denmark that they do research on gender, race, identity and migration.

Thankfully there was one exception from the rectors’ lackadaisical performance. Professor Eske Willerslev, a member of the University of Copenhagen Board on leave of absence from UCPH, took on Henrik Dahl in a radio programme on national broadcaster DR’s P1 programme. He defended the university’s right to regulate itself – also when research circles go a little bit nuts and turn ‘activist’.

It is the researchers’ own job to regulate themselves, and if the UCPH rector does not believe that they can handle this, then he should say it.

Important rector words

A final case that has to be mentioned is an associate professor in the philosophy of law Jakob Holtermann, who since 2014 has used the Muhammad cartoons in his teaching at UCPH on the philosophy of law. A subject which includes fundamental rights like the freedom of speech.

In a featured comment on the front page of the debate section in the Politiken newspaper 10 April, Holtermann describes how he sees himself threatened after seven years of teaching in the conflicts and legal problems associated with the drawings.

After the murder of French teacher Samuel Paty in 2020, he is uncertain about whether he dares continue his teaching the, arguably, most significant case on the freedom of speech in recent times. The so far peaceful case of the British teacher from West Yorkshire recently sanctioned and sent home by school management after showing a (yet unidentified) Charlie Hebdo cartoon in their teaching, is also scary from a freedom of expression perspective.

But there is one resolute and beautiful response to stories like those of Jakob Holtermann. As the rector says, teachers who use the cartoons in their work have »management’s unwavering support in being led by information and pedagogy, and never from fear or the wish to please.«

Unfortunately, the words are not from the UCPH rector’s office. They were said by rector Stefan Hermann, head of the University College of Copenhagen, in a speech to commemorate Samuel Paty in the autumn of 2020.

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