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New prorector wants more UCPH T-Shirts: »I understand why people find this a bit weird«

Some people reacted with scepticism when the University of Copenhagen’s newly appointed prorector Kristian Lauta announced that he wants to be evaluated on the number of UCPH T-shirts worn at Danish secondary-school class reunions. But, according to the new prorector, if you can get people to put on the T-shirt, you can solve everything from well-being to interdisciplinarity.

There’s a real mess in Kristian Lauta’s office. The white walls are empty, and there is a folded moving box behind the door. The law professor, who has been associate dean for education at the Faculty of Law for the past three years, has got a new job in UCPH top management as Prorector for Education.

The post is the culmination of a skyrocketing university career for the only 40-year-old law professor, who completed his PhD in 2011. But it is not the speed of his upward trajectory that has attracted most attention to Kristian Lauta’s new appointment.

He announced that he wants to be evaluated on something very unusual. Not graduate unemployment, not well-being, not grade point average. No. The new prorector wants, instead, to be assessed on how many people show up for their class reunions in a UCPH T-shirt.

Kristian Lauta laughs when the topic is brought up – because it is not the first time he has been sceptically quizzed about this particular goal, he admits.

»Now I get this unique opportunity to shape this university as prorector, and I focus on something so banal as a T-shirt – and I get it: It can seem weird.«

You go to war for the nation, but you die for your comrades in arms. It is specific communities that get people to thrive in their daily lives.

Kristian Lauta, Prorector for Education

But for Kristian Lauta, it’s not just a question of the »damned T-shirt,« as he calls it. It’s about the pride, the community, and the common identity that is needed for you to want to put on this T-shirt at your secondary school’s class reunion party.

Because it is in the identity, and in the community that, according to Kristian Lauta, you have to find solutions to many of the challenges that UCPH faces. And there are almost no limits to what the community can help solve, he says.

He mentions a few of the challenges: Political pressure, innovation, the transition to the labour market, interdisciplinarity, well-being.

»The more people that share this community feeling, the easier I think it will be to tackle these challenges. Even though it may sound silly, the T-shirt is one of the many indicators of how well we are doing as a university. And that is why I’d like to be measured on a T-shirt, even though it may sound stupid.«

The question is whether it is possible at all to create a shared identity across the entire University of Copenhagen, spread across four campuses and 36 departments, each with their own separate identities. And if the identities, traditions and symbols are so important for UCPH, why is there no longer, say, a real diploma on graduating, but only an electronic one. And why is the traditional master’s thesis defence threatened with being cut?

The university as a society

The idea that ‘community’ is key, is not new to the prorector. In April – in connection with his 40-year birthday — a Danish news site Politiken referred to Kristian Lauta’s strong connection to the local community outside Roskilde, where he currently lives.

»It is important to feel that you belong somewhere. It makes you resilient in the face of adversity to be part of a local community,« he said to the news site.

You get the feeling that he sees the University of Copenhagen the same way. When he talks about employees and students, he uses the term ‘the university society’ or ‘the university populace’, and when he talks about the community of his dreams, he draws parallels to both local communities and to national communities. The University of Copenhagen is more than just an organisation, you see.

Kristian Lauta

Born 1982

Started 15 June as Prorector for Education at the University of Copenhagen.

Has since 2019 been Associate Dean for Education at the Faculty of Law.

Professor at the Center for International Law, Conflict and Crisis.

His research field is the interaction between law and disasters, climate, and risks.

Published a book last year ‘Katastrofer – og hvad de kan lære os om os selv’ or ‘Disasters – and what they can teach us about ourselves’, which offers insight into disasters and how we as people, and as societies, react when they arise.

»The students at UCPH should feel the same things that you [Danes, ed.] do as being a part of Denmark,« he says, for example.

He points to the feeling Danes get when they meet other Danes on holidays in Greece.

»You suddenly feel that there is something you are connected to. It gives a sense of homesickness, of community, of identity and not least of belonging.«

He wants the university’s students to get this feeling.

»When you meet a student who is also a UCPH graduate, I would like you to feel that you have something in common. And that this community is something that you can rejoin.«

The university is far from being able to create this feeling up until now. There are not enough, so to speak, that pop up for their school reunion parties in UCPH T-shirts. And the explanation is, according to Kristian Lauta, that identity simply has not been a big enough priority for management.

»I do not think that we have done enough to foster this identity over the past 30-40 years. And this is not meant as a critique of previous management teams. There has been plenty of other stuff that they had to take care of. But I think we’re at this place now — and that I can convince the university’s populace that we need it.«

We have seen a UCPH that has abolished the physical exam diploma and reduced the options for the traditional master’s thesis defence. Is this not, precisely, a removal of the rituals and symbols that are required to create the community you want?

»Instead of criticising previous decisions, I’d rather focus on what we can do now. But I’m fully aware that we need to stick to everything we have of things that actually make you feel connected — and that we need more of it. Whether this is a master’s thesis defence, a graduation ceremony on the central campus square at Vor Frue Plads, or some other traditions in the ceremonial hall, I don’t know. We need to work this out together.«

Disaster communities

The community is not just a goal in itself, emphasises Kristian Lauta. It is also a means to tackle many of the challenges that UCPH faces. This applies, for example, to well-being, which he would like to see improved among students.

»What is it that gets you to show up on a rainy Monday?« Kristian Lauta asks rhetorically.

»You go to war for the nation, but you die for your comrades in arms. These are specific communities that get people to thrive in their daily lives. You start university, of course, to make something of yourself and learn something. But when it gets difficult, and learning is about friction – then you need someone to support you in the same situation. It is a question of community.«

All the disaster research that has been done demonstrates how people want to help each other, first and foremost.

Kristian Lauta

 

In fact, it has never been more important for students to have a sense of community at the university, he says.

»It is not just about the university. The world feels gigantic, complex, and uncertain for many people, and this feeling will not disappear. That’s why we need some communities within which we can find meaning and identity«.

When the law professor holds forth on phrases like identity and communities, it is partly due to his long-standing research into people’s specific behaviour during disasters. Catastrophes reveal new aspects of societies, he says. And one of the aspects revealed by disasters like, for example, the coronavirus crisis is that we, as people, strive for a sense of community.

»When there are disasters, some people think that everyone will start fighting for themselves. But all disaster research demonstrates that people first and foremost want to help each other. You can see that neighbours help each other, and that a particular type of solidarity arises, where people are energized by doing things for each other. We have seen this with corona, but also right now with Ukraine. And this is the potential I want to have for UCPH.«

The other side of the road

Another challenge that the community is to help solve, according to Kristian Lauta, is that there is not enough interdisciplinarity at the university.

»Most people start today on five-year degree programmes and stay on this track with no diversions. But we need to be better at course trajectories where you can be at different faculties. And if the community is there, I also think it will be easier for a law student to move over to the other side of the street where the humanities are,« he says.

For Kristian Lauta, the community is not just about the fact that the university needs to be better connected to itself. He also points out that part of the project is connecting to the outside world through our alumni, which we »have not used enough«.

He sees this happening by inviting more alumni to the university to talk about their practical experience and the challenges that students can help solve. This can be done through master’s thesis collaborations.

And if the community is there, I also think it will be easier for a law student to move over to the other side of the street where the humanities are.

Kristian Lauta

 

»These master’s theses are a giga-production of knowledge from talented people. And the vast majority of them end up in a drawer somewhere, and this is a huge loss. If we can get students to do collaborations with alumni and businesses that actually solve things in the real world, then this is good. Also because it builds a bridge to the world of work after university.«

It can sound abstract and distant with talk of values, community and identity. And when you ask the new prorector what the values are that we are talking about, and how the community should emerge in practice, he is reticent in his responses. For good reason, he believes.

»I’m not going to be a prorector that sits here saying, ‘listen up, friends, this is how we’ll run this place’. One part of the formation of identity is precisely that decisions are from the bottom up. If we are to succeed in creating a sense that the university is a place we own together, then it is important that there is a certain leeway across the university for things to look different.«

Can one part of the explanation that people do not identify with UCPH as a joint community be, that UCPH has been criticised as being managed top-down?

»I don’t think so. I’m aware that it might seem to be the case. But I don’t remember the identity as being that much stronger before 2003 [where a new Danish university act abolished self-governing universities and introduced boards with a majority of external members, ed.]. It is not a given that a different management system will ensure the emergence of this identity. And I will say that, in the field of education, where I am to be manager, virtually all the power is placed locally in the different boards of studies. I want to work to ensure that they become as strong as possible, so they can assume responsibility.«

If it is so crucial for the community that things are created bottom up, does this not then mean, like many people think, that top-down management is opposed to this goal?

»This seems overstated. I can speak for my own area. I believe that you can have quality education by taking ownership. And I don’t think there’s a contradiction between this, and the fact that we also have to make some joint decisions that can be difficult.«

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