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University of Copenhagen
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Opposition to merger wrapped up in dinner and champagne

Merger — Toasts, dinner and champagne could not suppress employees' frustrations when the Department of Biology held its New Year reception. Employees wanted clear answers from the department head.

W“hy have we not been consulted?” This, simple, question cut through the noise and got one of the afternoon’s biggest applauses when more than 200 employees at the Department of Biology assembled at the Niels K. Jerne auditorium on Blegdamsvej Friday 11th January.

Employees had several times since November 2018 expressed their frustration about being sidelined in the merger between the Department of Biology and Natural History Museum of Denmark – and this frustration now needed to be vented.

At 1 pm, the biologists’ department head Niels Kroer welcomed staff to this year’s new year reception. After a brief review of the merger plan, there was, according to the invitation, the option of a ‘dialogue with the head of department’ of one hour’s duration.

Censorship in the run-up

But the entire process up to the new year’s reception was, according to several of the employees, characterised by constantly amended guidelines. Sources have sent to the University Post a number of e-mails showing that the run-up to the reception was confused.

Tuesday 8th January – just three days before the large, staged, reception with champagne champagne, canapés and dinner – employees and stakeholders received an email stating that guards would be posted at the doors to the auditorium. An open meeting had now turned into an event with “registration obligatory”.

This is crazy. The first time we are heard at all, and the merger is wrapped up in a new year’s event – and censored

Meeting participant

Registration had to be the day after at the latest – Wednesday 9th January at 12 noon. But just as you thought the level of regulation had peaked – another decree went out on Thursday 10th January at 3:34 pm, less than 24 hours before the event.

This time with a guideline that critical questions concerning the merger during Friday’s new year’s reception should be sent via text message. These would then, according to an email from the Department of Biology’s management, be selected and facilitated by head of communications Rikke Mørch from the museum, and science communicator at biology, Helle Blæsild.

After the text message-guided dialogue, employees should work in groups for 5-10 minutes to think up “ideas to ameliorate the negative effects caused by the merger that had been identified during the dialogue,” according to the text that the University Post has seen.

Doomed debate

If management had thought that the email would put a lid on the frustration, it was wrong. At the entrance to the auditorium, loud dissatisfaction with the entire process up to the long-awaited meeting was being voiced.

The merger

Finances have been fraught for several years at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, which is the home of three basic research centres led by renowned top researchers.

On the 1st November 2018, the Dean John Renner Hansen (Faculty of Science) announces that the museum is to be merged into the Department of Biology, already one of the university’s largest departments with about 450 employees (excluding those on an hourly salary).

The merger leads to unrest. Researchers from both departments, including the heads of the natural history museum’s three basic research centres, criticise in November 2018 the management plans.

Media like the journal Science, and the news site Politiken, write about their criticism.

6th December, the University of Copenhagen confidentially discusses the management plans. Minutes from the meeting have not yet been made available.

“This is crazy. The first time we are heard at all, and the merger is wrapped up in a new year’s event – and censored,” a participant said in front of the auditorium. Another quickly followed up: “Text messages? What happened to the time-honoured hearing, listening and understanding? Is the debate dead?”

The debate was not dead – but neither was it lively this Friday in the Niels K. Jerne Auditorium. After two months of uncertainty about the future, an hour had been squeezed into this year’s new year’s bash to get a response about one of the largest mergers at the University of Copenhagen in a decade. And the responses were not forthcoming, to great frustration, according to several of the employees at the Department of Biology that the University Post spoke to.

“Only two of the seven selected questions were critical. And we received no answers. The discussion was shut down when the follow-up questions got too close for comfort,” said an employee who had been employed at Biology for more than 20 years, and continued: “Now it is all top-down, and we are not even heard. This is disappointing.”

Text messages were for the shy ones

Department head Niels Kroer has sent the University Post a reply to a number of questions about the merger and the meeting 11th January. Here he states that not all employees at the meeting experienced the merger as something negative.

“The meeting certainly showed that there was great uncertainty and frustration among the employees, but it also showed that not everyone see this merger as something negative. My focus is now on the employees, and how we can turn things around, so that daily life for most people will remain unchanged.”

Niels Kroer writes that the decision to require registration was “exclusively a question of getting an overview of how many were participating for the refreshments.”

The text message discussion of the merger was, according to the head of department, to ensure a broad representation of opinions.

“In a meeting of about 300 employees, it can be, for some, intimidating to have to stand up and ask questions. And there would not be time for everyone to have their say, even though they would like to,” he writes. “I am therefore responding to all the submitted sms questions in writing.”