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University of Copenhagen
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The keys, please

Portrait — Ralf Hemmingsen takes stock of 11 years of ups and downs as Rector of the University of Copenhagen. One thing still bugs him. It's not Penkowa. It's about the keys.

The door to the Rector’s office is open, and we can go straight in – where is he? There he comes to meet the University Post, a little hesitant, a little reticent as he welcomes you with his distinctive vocal fry on a low-key voice. The eyelids are heavy, but under their blinds, a set of lively, warm brown eyes play.

Ralf Hemmingsen has laid the table with Royal Copenhagen coffee cups. We sit down at one end of a large conference table, the mahogany so well-polished that it reflects his torso with light blue shirt and dark jacket. In his inside pocket he has his stock of nicotine gum.

Law of horrors to be implemented

We begin in the autumn of 2005. A time of upheaval in the old university, where Ralf Hemmingsen is Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences. The Danish centre-right government led by Fogh Rasmussen had in 2003 pushed through new university legislation and the entire academic community is responding as if with a scream.

The law overthrows the previous internal democracy, where university staff and students choose their own leaders. Now, professional boards are to replace the employee-democracy because the politicians want to strengthen the relationship between universities and business.

Basically I am pretty introverted. Reflective. I like the peace and quiet

The sense of apocalypse reaches its peak in the basic research communities as universities’ minister Helge Sander declares that university and business are to bond together, and formulates his dogma that the path ‘from research to invoice’ must be shortened. Ralf Hemmingsen participates as dean in the chorus of criticism:

»There was a sense of fear throughout the university. Where would it all end with this reforms’ short-termist business-style thinking? Will universities become a kind of development unit for industry?« he says. Ralf Hemmingsen himself helped to formulate a critical consultation response to the politicians.

Consultation or not, the universities got their boards, and the University of Copenhagen’s (UCPH) Board is brand new and had the former central bank director Bodil Nyboe Andersen at the table, when it in the autumn of 2005 decided who to hire as rector.

Hemmingsen remembers that he emphasised at the interview that rector should be the guarantor of academic culture and the whole ethos of the university. A kind of anchor for basic research.

»It was clear from the political context – also in the law – that they wanted a more outward-looking university, and they focused their attention on whether the new structure would lead to a fundamental change in the role of the university.«

When he takes stock of 11 years of ups and downs, Ralf Hemmingsen says today that the widespread fear that the world of business would shove itself in and dictate the terms of basic research has since proven to be unfounded.

»At present, major industrial companies are some of our strongest supporters, as they maintain towards the politicians that deep insight into subjects, combined with a willingness to interact with them, is the essential thing. We could not have known this at the time.«

It was not the business sector that Ralf Hemmingsen would sweat over in the last period of his 11 years as Rector of the university.

Elected glory

Did you think that you, as the first hired rector, would lack the natural legitimacy that staff-elected rectors had?

»Yes, I did. But I had, after all, been elected as dean for three and a half years. I had, therefore, maybe brought enough legitimacy with me,« says Ralf Hemmingsen, »because I had tried to run a real campaign. There were three candidates, election meetings, the whole machinery, so it was as if I had been tested in the large group which is the Faculty of Health Sciences.«



Born 12th October 1949

Married to his third wife, Sidse Hemmingsen Arnfred

Degrees and awards

1983 Specialist in Psychiatry

1981 University of Copenhagen

1981 Permission to independently practice medicine

1976 Gold Medal, University of Copenhagen

1975 University of Copenhagen



1995 Professor of Psychiatry, University of Copenhagen

2005-2017 Rector of the University of Copenhagen (since 1/11 2005)

2002-2005 Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen

1986-2002 Chief Physician, Department of Psychiatry, Bispebjerg Hospital

1986 Consultant Physician, Frederiksberg Hospital

1984-95 and 1978-80 Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, University of Copenhagen

1975-1986 Research and clinical training as specialist in psychiatry


Scientific publications

Has published 161 scientific papers, of which 142 are indexed in Medline, in the period 1975-2007

When the rector, deans, and heads of department, are employed today, they do not have the university’s popular majority behind them to back up their work. And this is a challenge, says Ralf Hemmingsen:

»Today, when there is no glory from being elected, it is a big challenge – and it is an ongoing process to ensure this legitimacy.«

The rector’s sherry

On 1st March, Henrik C. Wegener is to move in and establish the necessary legitimacy as head of the university’s 50,000 argumentative staff and students.

But firstly he shall furnish the office in the historical surroundings of Frue Plads.

The interior is classic, good taste: Golden frames, tile yellow walls, dark style furniture and Danish cultural radicalism-epoch light fixtures. Four oval rector portraits have hung here since Rector Kjeld Møllgaards time in office (1994-2002). On the wall, behind the desk, hangs an expressive work and draws attention to itself with electric blue cubism. About the abstract Richard Mortensen-work, Ralf Hemmingsen says:

When the dark men claim that mass universities have led to a more ignorant body of students, I disagree

»It was one that Linda (Nielsen, rector 2002-05,) had hung up. It was a bit too violent for me, so I moved it back behind my working desk. And the two there, a little more quiet, I borrowed them from the Carlsberg Foundation,« he says nodding toward two pretty nature paintings with the colours of the coast..

»And in here,« says Ralf Hemmingsen and opens the door to a tall, slim cabinet,« Mogens Fogh (Rector 1966-1972) had his bottles and cigars. It was from here that student rebels took his tobacco and sherry when they occupied his office. They sat out here in the hallway and emptied the rector bottles and smoked the big cigars.” «

On top of the cabinet are small gift souvenirs, which Ralf Hemmingsen has received while traveling. He lifts up a finely carved small cedar box and turns it in his hands:

»”They like these in China, they use them for their business cards,« he says, and suggests with a smile that he does not have the habit of sharing gilt-edged business cards from a small wooden box.

The clean-up work

The other offices are occupied by the prorectors, which during Ralf Hemmingsen’s time have grown from one to two positions. The entire administration on Frue Plads has been overhauled.

»When I took office, the administration was spread around a lot of small offices, and there was an expectation that there should be a clarification of the administration’s purpose and direction. The university director at the time had 17 personal references or something like that,« says Ralf Hemmingsen and raises an eyebrow.

Most urgent was the need for professional and transparent management, for this did not exist, he says.

»In the old model, where someone was elected, they mainly made decisions on who should be made professor, and then there was some distribution in terms of resources between the departments, but there was no actual professional management of the entire staff.«

The university had no HR department. There was a personnel office that took care of legalities, but there was no development activity, so Ralf Hemmingsen took a hold of things there too:

»In my first years, there were many, probably especially among the technical and administrative staff, who wanted proper management. Introduction, hiring, coaching, crisis management – that managers themselves develop and accept feedback, this did not exist. It is important to act fairly transparent and professionally towards the overall staff. And this is a benefit of the new model. It is easier, because the expectation is there.«

All the news from parliament is bad news

Another expectation was that politicians, after having given the universities their professional boards, would give them more responsibility. As this was the explicit intention of the 2003 law, to regulate less from the central administration.

»This has in no way happened, quite the opposite,« says Ralf Hemmingsen and takes a deep breath before answering my question about management’s relationship with politicians:

»Allow me a short two to three minutes lecture on this point.«

»The bureaucracy has just grown. There are development contracts, audits, supervision from the minister, the national audit office and of course the entire financial regulation. In addition there is the buildings management, located in a different ministry, but also huge. There are layers upon layers of command and control mechanisms, and within each of them details, details and more details are effectuated.«


Anyone who has been affiliated to the University of Copenhagen has in recent years learned how to say study progress reform, dimensioning, reprioritisation contributions, and even more management speak as a result of politicians’ interventions.

It was a sad case, and it dragged down this university for a period of time, but I’m not angry or mad at anyone

Ralf Hemmingsen on the Penkowa scandal

»The detailed regulation of education programmes is complete, and yet politicians complain anyway that too many new programmes are being set up. They have not had the political courage to curb this trend, and now they say that it is the boards that have been irresponsible. This is all very good, but I heard from the minister up until three years ago, that we need to admit an additional 500 students a few months before deadline, when the supply of courses had already been decided,« says Ralf Hemmingsen.

If you expect in turn that the fervour of political regulation is due to a strong vision for education and research, you should think again, according to rector number 258, whose tone now turns even darker:

»At the moment there is no long-term political strategy for research development in Denmark, and I regard this as one of the major policy issues. If we as a country with few other raw materials than brains are to do well, Denmark has to re-establish thinking in terms of research strategy. Globalisation means that the permeability of smart people in and out of the country has increased quite dramatically.«

Former minister Helge Sander has not completely earned his bad reputation, according to Ralf Hemmingsen, as he actually gave research and innovation environments the opportunity to make long-term strategies with solid funding from what was then the globalization pool:

»There was a sphere of action for positive development. As a politician, Sander brought the universities DKK 10-14 billion, and the huge investment made it possible for UCPH to lift itself up.«

In recent years, management has had to find two percent savings cuts every year and on top of this the national budget for 2016 dealt a severe financial blow to universities, with a round of layoffs in the spring of 2016 as a sad consequence.

»Globalization money has pushed us upwards. We are still floating in this hot air balloon, but we are mostly just being held up by the remaining fumes. If we don’t get any new flame from the burner, we will descend down into the treetops.«

The rector’s nicotine

The lecture about the politicians’ lack of vision is over. Ralf Hemmingsen retrieves a new piece of nicotine gum from his inside pocket. This happens several times per hour. A discreet manoeuvre which I only notice because I share his vice and love the sound of the little white piece that breaks the foil with a click. When asked about the effects of nicotine, he replies:

»Nicotine has a stimulating effect. You become a little more … on. The dependency ratio is on par with heroin. Before I chewed gum I smoked cigars, cigarillos and pipe, so I’ve never tried to be without nicotine,« says Ralf Hemmingsen and sends out three small puffs of air through his nose in a giggle.

When you are rector you have to be able to step forward and take centre stage. But it is the reticent role as a reflective and analytical strategist that suits Ralf Hemmingsen the best. The extroverted activities and the networking he often leaves to Prorector Lykke Friis, who shines in her public role.

He describes himself as an introvert.

»Basically I’m pretty introverted. Reflective. I like peace and quiet. Not that I have any social anxiety. I can turn it up, and speak at gatherings and assemblies – and I can lead them too if I have to – but I prefer it when there are not too many people at a time.«

Penkowa – doesn’t push up his heart rate

Ralf Hemmingsen was forced to argue his case to the public, when the largest research scandal in Denmark hit UCPH halfway into his rector term at the turn of 2010/11. Many of its threads led back to him, who was dean of the faculty that quite unusually let Penkowa re-submit a revised doctoral thesis, then hired her in a temporary professor vacancy, and ended up providing her with a prestigious elite research prize.

»It’s the Danish property agency that is the developer. They make the decisions, and we do the paying – and now the overruns are out of control«

Through the journalistic intervention of the Danish Weekendavisen newspaper Milena Penkowa’s document forgery and scientific malpractice became known to a wide public, and on the inside, many professors called for Ralf Hemmingsen’s departure. No other individual person has got their own tab on the university website. But the Board stood by him, and Ralf Hemmingsen rode out the storm. Today he regrets that he recommended her for the elite research prize (which was later retracted from her), as he knew very well that a foundation had notified the police of her abuse and document forgery.

»It was a misconception that we recommended her. We had discussions here with the legal apparatus, and the overall evaluation was that when there was no decision ascertaining her guilt, then we should not let it influence the decision. The government’s legal adviser wrote in his large report that we could very well have waited, because the whole case was too messy. It was perhaps our own naivety.«

So when I say Penkowa to you today, you say?

»It’s not that I get heart palpitations over the case. I think it has been a very sad case. In many ways, Penkowa was a promising person. The review of all her many articles showed that there have been falsifications, and some have been criticized for scientific misconduct, but there were also many that the international commission could not find anything on. In this sense, it is tragic that a potentially skilled researcher has been embroiled in so many falsehoods, that it got the whole thing to come crashing down and also hurt this university.«

She has had an article published in a scientific journal recently, what do you think about that?

»I have no comment to make. I think it was a sad case, and it hurt this university a lot during this period of time, but I’m not angry or mad at anyone. It was a heavy case we had to go through. I have no comment on what Penkowa is doing now that she is no longer here.«

The big, black, blot

In these weeks, there are different and more cheerful events to talk about. In KUA3, lawyers, theologians and the Information Science Academy is packing out its boxes. The lower level class rooms and the upper floors of the Maersk Tower are open and have given the first flattered guests a look over the Copenhagen skyline. And in Nørrebro, the Faculty of Science’s new building is slowly rising up.

The University of Copenhagen has had no new buildings since the seventies, but during Ralf Hemmingsen period as Rector, the cranes danced for UCPH. About the building boom, he says:

»Of course you can make brilliant inventions in old buildings, but when you have a commitment to a large number of students and want to attract talented employees, there must be a progression. If we had to wait 10-15 years, we would be working with something completely outdated.«

The new construction looks undeniably like physical testimony to prosperity and progress in the university area. But backstage the buildings have become Ralf Hemmingsen’s biggest regret, as in his desk drawer there is a rejection letter:

»I have no idea whether the officials are managing this rationally, I’m just saying that this is a sick incentive structure«

»It is for me a big, black blot that we failed to get freehold ownership to our buildings. It has been completely ridiculous at times. It is the university that has the need that we describe, but it’s the Danish property agency, that is the developer. They make the decisions, and we do the paying – and now the overruns are out of control,« he says, taking a new chewing gum:

»It’s a very strange incentive structure in the public sector. If you were malicious, you would say that there is, at the structural level, an incentive to make the projects as expensive as possible because the Property Agency has to provide a profit to the Treasury. I have no idea whether the officials are managing rationally, I’m just saying this is a sick incentive structure.«

In 2015, the university handed in a thorough and excellent proposal for UCPH to pay a higher percentage themselves to own their own buildings than what DTU the Technical University of Denmark pays, says Ralf Hemmingsen:

»We never got to a debate on the freehold. It was just announced that the government based on the overall interests of society felt that this was not appropriate.«

He did not get hold of the keys, and this was a fiasco, says the outgoing Rector, not just personally, but for both the university and society:

»”It is a big issue. It is a structural problem. It is illogicality. It costs taxpayers money, and it annoys me. There is a task in creating trust between the universities and the ministry, so the freehold would be have been natural for a closer alliance. This task is now still waiting.«

There is currently no long-term political strategy for research development in Denmark, and I regard this as one of the major policy issues.
Ralf Hemmingsen, Rector no. 258 at UCPH

Back to the lectern

When Ralf Hemmingsen’s successor, Henrik C. Wegener, is to go out and try and fix this and his future tasks, Hemmingsen will not be going home to read books by Georges Simenon and travel away all the family’s savings, even though he would enjoy both. He is to return to his professorship and teach master’s students in psychopathology, the doctrine of psychological symptoms at the school of medicine, and his preparations begin now.

Are you looking forward to going back teaching?

»One of my old head physicians at the municipal hospital once said, when I had started talking about things as if I was teaching them: ‘I can hear you’re the son of a teacher’ (said with a drawl). So yes, I have the pedagogical, didactic nature about me from my childhood. And I am really looking forward to it.«

And he is son of a teacher. Ralf Hemmingsen’s father was an assistant professor in biology, geography and chemistry at the Efterslægtselskabets Gymnasium and for 25 years rector at Roskilde Gymnasium.

»My father was not highly academic, but he had done research in his youth and had travelled for his academic subject and things like that. I went with him to the school and saw the labs, so I had a sense of what the academic environment was.«

Garden of childhood

Ralf Hemmingsen’s description of his childhood is happy:

»We lived on the Brønshøj church hill, and this was good for both roller skates and go carts. We had the gardens, the hideouts, the treehouses and the climbing ropes. And even though the mothers were homemakers, they were not overprotective of us in the gardens, constantly seeing what we were doing.«

Ralf Hemmingsen says the environment was “a suburban neighborhood with a lot of life around the mental activities.” His companions were the sons and daughters of tenants from North Zealand farms, and the particular spirit they brought with them was formative of character, he believes:

“Globalization money has pushed us upwards. We are still floating in this hot air balloon, but we are mostly just being held up by the remaining fumes.”

»”I got a very strong sense of the Grundtvigian folk high school environment with get-togethers, songs and pianos playing. The Grundtvigian countryside came to mean a lot to me. It gave me a chance to pack in a wide variety of influences through my first 15 years.«

Ralf Hemmingsen is a talking head, but as we approach the most personal matters, he finds the first way out.

When I ask him what kind of a father he himself is, his discomfort moves all the way out into his right hand, and it lands heavily on the table between the sentences as if he is swatting down the questions that go to close.

»You’d have to ask them, but I don’t think we should go that far. I see them often, also those that do not live at home. I have … I think I have a very close relationship with them, and we have a family tradition of travelling together.«

His parents divorced when he was ten, but two things helped him through, he believes: The folk high school-like community in the Brønshøj environment where he stayed with his mother, and the trips that his father, who had started a new family with three children, took him on:

»My father introduced me to travelling through Europe. That’s what he stood for that has meant the most to me existentially. He was a bit of a restless soul, and he liked some action. «

Ralf Hemmingsen has been to Paris 45 times.

Humanist or doctor

The high school years planted an interest in the humanities subjects with Hemmingsen, who was interested in both language and history and who also inherited his mother’s great interest in music. But he also wanted to be a doctor, as he could then work on the human brain. So what to choose?

»”I wavered until the last hour between history and medicine. And I cannot explain my choice. Had the deadline been three hours earlier, it would have been history.«

There were no doctors in the family, so the student Hemmingsen was ‘tense’ about whether he would be able to cope with the harsh studies that began in 1968:

»It was considered difficult, and it is. In particular at the beginning. We were 800 in the year group. After the first year there was a stop test with 5 to 6 examinations, where 70 per cent failed, so I was definitely nervous. For months I said, ‘I cannot talk to anyone until after 19th June.«

But Ralf Hemmingsen passed. He got his master’s ‘’ degree in 1975, in 1981 and since then he became a specialist in psychiatry. In 1995 he was made professor of psychiatry at the University of Copenhagen, and the rest is history.

Take it easy, students

It is an analytically strong and well-educated generation of bright young people that is waiting in the classroom, according to the teacher’s son Hemmingsen. He predicts that their knowledge of the world is enormous, not least because of the digital media, and that what he would like to teach them is to … stop:

Currently, the major industrial companies are our strongest supporters

»The basic mental structure – and the things that can be disturbed – they do not change at the same rate as the electronic media. And there may be a task in communicating this to the students: Take it easy. You have to concentrate a little to be able to learn to use phenomenology, the ability to through conversation – and the information on how people behave – to get an overall picture of the other person to find out how best to help them. And it is almost a generic, fundamental psychological function to be able to do it.«

Ralf Hemmingsen feels confident about developments within the student segment, he says:

»When the dark men claim that mass universities have led to a more ignorant body of students, I disagree. Today, the best are even better than they were 30 years ago. The largest group is neither worse nor better than it was then. It may well be that 5 to 10 percent would not have slipped through in the past and this, then, has its challenges. But the overall picture is strong.«

It sounds like, when we except the big black blot, that it has been the best job in the world to be Rector of the University of Copenhagen?

»Yes, I would say that. As a teenager, I remember that in my naïve admiration for authority, that bishop, national police commissioner and Rector stood out as the three most attractive and prestigious titles. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to be Rector of this university, and if a fairy gave me a choice between the three – or for that matter the defence chief, or pope – I would choose the Rector position again.«

But then he would also insist on having the keys to the buildings.