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Management on dentistry discontent: »It is hard to go back and find out who was responsible«

Inquiry — Discrimination on the dentistry study programme goes beyond individual cases. And they will have a particular focus on improving the study environment, says the management at the Department of Odontology. It is difficult, however, to pinpoint who exactly has been responsible for the many years of discontent on the degree programme.

The problem with discrimination on the master’s degree programme in dentistry at the University of Copenhagen has turned out to be greater than we were previously aware of.

This is according to the management at the Department of Odontology, who now comment again on an independent inquiry into the study programme which the University Post has been given access to via a Freedom of Information request.

The inquiry concludes that there have been »isolated cases of discrimination« which, however, are not considered to be ‘recurring’ on the clinical subjects. The report emphasises that management at the Department of Odontology became aware of discrimination problems in a study environment survey in 2021, without it drawing up a sufficient action plan at the time.

READ ALSO: Minority dental students: »In the ideal world, we all start at level 0 … but I feel that we begin at minus 5«

In the new inquiry, you can read about serious discontent on the dentistry degree programme, including:

»Examples of crying during, and subsequent to, teaching sessions. Apprehension and worry the day before class. And examples of patients having to comfort the dentistry student when the instructor had left after a harsh criticism of the student leaving them with the experience of being openly shamed.«

The University Post has spoken to both the Associate Dean at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences Jørgen Kurtzhals and the Head of Department of Odontology Anne Havemose-Poulsen.

What does a psychologist know about discrimination

Why have you chosen to get a psychologist to do this study instead of an expert on discrimination?

»We have treated this study as a follow-up to the workplace assessment and have therefore hired a person who has been certified to do precisely this type of study,« says Jørgen Kurtzhals.

Is there not the risk that you, for the same reason, miss out on important points in terms of discrimination?

»The psychologist we have chosen has a wide field of work within well-being, which also covers discrimination. We still believe that it has been meaningful to look at the study programme in a broader well-being perspective rather than from a purely discrimination angle,« says Jørgen Kurtzhals.

It is important for us to say that there has been discrimination, and that we will work actively to ensure that there is none in the future.

Jørgen Kurtzhals, Associate Dean, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences


The report concludes that this is a case of »isolated cases of discrimination«. We hear from discrimination expert Mira C. Skadegård that it can be problematic to talk about ‘isolated cases of discrimination’, as this can lead to a dismissal of the problem and lead to symptomatic treatment.

»We agree, and we will therefore not place emphasis on the phrase ‘isolated cases of discrimination’. But we do not want to define the type of discrimination that has taken place – whether it is structural, systematic or something else. We think it confuses things more than it is of benefit. It is important for us to say that there has been discrimination, and that we will work actively to ensure that there is none in the future,« says Jørgen Kurtzhals.

Does this mean that you acknowledge the experienced discrimination that a number of young, brown-skinned, men talked about in the University Post earlier this year?

»It is important to emphasize that discrimination can occur without it being intentional. And that’s why I’m saying that we need to handle the things that happen in the study environment, because there may be situations in which some people experience a harsh tone as if it is discrimination, even though it may in fact be a result of the tough study environment at Odontology, which is also due to some very high academic requirements,« says Jørgen Kurtzhals.

Anne Havemose-Poulsen elaborates:

»I am really pleased that some people have dared to stand up and say out loud that they think there is a problem. The most important thing for us is for the students to feel comfortable when they turn up for clinical training. We all have to look inside ourselves and see whether there is anything in our behaviour that can be perceived differently from what we intend.«

I think we are completely in agreement that you can discriminate without the intention. But do you recognise the experience of discrimination that a number of students have expressed in the University Post?

»Yes, we do. There are probably students who have been discriminated against, and have experienced discrimination. And this should not happen,« says Jørgen Kurtzhals.

How has it been for you as managers to read the report?

»It has not been a nice experience. We are here to create the best degree programme and the best dentists, so we need to learn more about what is not working. And we need to ask for help from students and staff, so that we can make the right changes that at the same time assure the quality of the degree programme,« says Anne Havemose-Poulsen.

Hard to place responsibility

In the report the psychologist notes that management at the Department of Odontology became aware of the discrimination in a study environment survey in 2021, without it drawing up a sufficient action plan at the time. Do you agree with that assessment?

»It is the ministry that does study environment surveys, and the problem with them is that they do not include a plan on how to follow up on them. For this reason it has not been clear who was responsible. And this is of course one of the points that we need to take a closer look at. Not just at the Department of Odontology, but at the faculty level.«

Who is, and has been, responsible for well-being at the Department of Odontology? Are you?

»We are responsible now, yes. But it is difficult to rewind and point out who was responsible many years ago, because it was not clear who had it at the time. In principle, the university’s management needs to go in and define who has the responsibility,« says Jørgen Kurtzhals.

I still think that the students need an actual apology from management.

Dokugan Jesper Gür, spokesperson for the students


But apart from the study environment survey, which was not followed up, who is, and has been, responsible for the study environment at the Department of Odontology?

»We have not been aware of the extent of the problems before this inquiry, so it is difficult to answer who was responsible for something that we were not fully aware of,« says Anne Havemose-Poulsen. Jørgen Kurtzhals adds:

»But it is a problem that questions about well-being can slip through the cracks, and of course we need to look at that. This is a bigger agenda that is not only limited to the Department of Odontology.«

How are you going to work with discrimination in the future?

»We have already had Mira C. Skadegård out for a seminar on discrimination, and it may well be that we work with her in the future again. In addition, we are still working on an action plan, which will be prepared on the basis of the recommendations that the psychologist has listed. I have also decided to employ a manager for the part-time academic staff that will take care of educational and diversity issues.«

Student: The report underestimates the scope of the problem

After the University Post requested a Freedom of Information access to the independent inquiry, the management decided to send it to students and staff on the dentistry degree programme.

Medical student and member of the Academic Council Dogukan Jesper Gür, has been the anonymous dentistry students’ spokesman throughout the entire process. He is pleased to have been given some clarity over the unanswered questions. What he needs, however, is a clearer statement from management on key areas.

»I am pleased that I have been given the opportunity to read the study now, and I think it confirms almost all of the criticisms we have had of the study environment. But I read it with mixed feelings, because I think it beats about the bush by not naming what it actually is: structural discrimination. I think the report underplays the scope of the problem.«

He believes that the language use can give the students an experience of not being taken seriously:

»I still think that the students need an actual apology from the management about the problems that have been on the programme for so many years. I’m surprised at how little management responsibility is described. Both in the report and in the messages that have been sent out to the students.«