University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management

Working environment

Prorector: »Good idea to have academic freedom written into the Danish University Act«

Academic freedom — Denmark lags behind its Nordic neighbours in terms of academic freedom. Think tank proposes minimum standards for academic freedom enshrined in Danish university legislation.

Over the course of the last 20 years, Denmark has dropped from a first place among Nordic countries, to being behind Sweden, Norway and Finland in terms of academic freedom. This is according to the latest Academic Freedom Index, which assesses academic freedom based on factors such as institutional autonomy and freedom of research and teaching.

»You can see it in two ways,« says Jacob Mchangama, director of the legal think tank Justitia, that on 20 September released an analysis about the extent to which academic freedom is under pressure.

»The level of academic freedom in Denmark in general is high, and there has not been the same major drop in academic freedom that we have seen in the US or in the UK. But there seems, at the same time, to be a downward trend in academic freedom in Denmark over the past 20 years.«

Academic freedoms — like being able to carry out independent research and to ask your own questions about established truths without external influence — have been fiercely debated in media, parliament and internally at Danish universities in recent years.

Caught red-handed

In 2019, the Danish news site Information revealed that meat producer Danish Crown and the farm lobby Danish Agriculture & Food Council had rewritten chapters in a report from Aarhus University on the climate impact of beef.

It was a public scandal that both the meat producer and the business lobby had been involved in the research and the presentation of it. Since then, the Ministry for Higher Education and Science, and the university lobby Universities Denmark have set up a committee to come up with new recommendations and guidelines for universities’ future work with government agencies, organisations and companies.

This is a weaponizing of the debate over what knowledge is.

Prorector David Dreyer Lassen


Other areas have also seen a shift. Politicians in the Danish parliament have called out specific researchers who they accuse of doing activist and biased research. A debate event with the former chairman of Muslim fundamentalist group Hizb ut-Tahrir at the University of Copenhagen also set off a political storm and strong headlines. Critics were both opposed to a man like this being given speaking time in the university’s hallowed auditoria, and the fact that the event was segregated in terms of gender. That the event was legal and within the framework of academic freedoms did not help calm those who opposed it.

This episode had the Minister for Integration Kaare Dybvad criticizing the university and indirectly threatening to intervene.

»If you as a manager on the public payroll cannot find a solution, then it ends up at some point being the subject of political debate. Then things can end up being decided somewhere else than in the individual institutions,« he said to the newspaper Weekendavisen.

Attacks or arm’s length principle

In the think tank Justitia’s analysis ‘Academic freedom under pressure,’ the status of freedom of research and freedom of expression is investigated in the Nordic countries.

If you compare Denmark with the other Nordic countries, Danish researchers and students, according to director Jacob Mchangama, have a weaker legal position.

While the Danish university legislation protects the freedom of research, the Norwegian and Swedish counterparts cover the broader term ‘academic freedom’. In Finland, both the freedom of research and the freedom to teach are guaranteed by the constitution. That is why Mchangama thinks that academic freedom should be included in the Danish University Act, because it applies to both research, teaching and the students’ right to express themselves.

»It would also ring fence universities from being influenced by politicians,« he says.

According to Jacob Mchangama, it is not the liberal-conservative critics of gender studies — neither is it the ultra woke, oversensitive students — who in recent years have been the most direct and real threat to Danish universities’ autonomy. It is instead statements like that of Kaare Dybvad Bek about the debate event at the University of Copenhagen. He sees it as a glaring example of how politicians violate the arm’s length principle.

»Here we had a minister who said that if the University of Copenhagen did not do something about it, they might intervene as politicians.«

Prorector for Research at the University of Copenhagen David Dreyer Lassen is partly in agreement with the conclusion of the new analysis. He acknowledges that academic freedoms are both challenged by social media, critical politicians, and by the general struggle for knowledge in society. He believes that »it would be a good idea to write in academic freedoms and freedom of teaching into the Danish University Act.«

They could also set up a commission to find out how necessary it is, and how it should be designed. He is, however, more sceptical about the practical effect it would have on researchers and students.

»There has been a weaponizing of the debate over what knowledge is. But does an amendment to legislation solve the problem of politicians who, for example, criticise particular fields of research? I don’t think so,« says David Dreyer Lassen.

Principles and noble intentions

However, it is not only politicians and lobby organisations that, according to the analysis, are a challenge to researchers’ and students’ academic freedom. In the analysis, examples include a 2018 change in the harassment/offensive behaviour guidelines at the University of Copenhagen, where students and the university itself infringed upon freedoms.

The 2018 rules laid down a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to offences. But according to Jacob Mchangama, the guidelines were »designed so broadly, and so imprecisely,« that they blurred the boundaries of students and employees freedom of speech. It took a personnel case with an associate professor at the Faculty of Humanities, and several media revelations before the guidelines were revised.

»Academic freedoms can be threatened from many different directions. We are not saying that they are under massive pressure right now, but the trend is moving in the wrong direction. We have specific cases, and we have countries that we normally compare ourselves with, who have moved towards protection of academic freedoms, while we have not,« says Jacob Mchangama.

David Dreyer Lassen does not reject the fact that an amendment to legislation, or an official declaration on academic freedom, might have a soothing effect on students and researchers. But the real problem is actually the self-censorship of a more polarized and all-encompassing debate, he says:

»It is very difficult to legislate out of self-censorship. It might be necessary to change the law in order to set off a debate. Most importantly for me is that we have an ongoing discussion with both students and researchers on how to safeguard academic freedom.«

At the University of Copenhagen, the faculties’ academic councils are currently in the process of discussing the so-called Chicago principles, which describe the universities’ code, objectives and visions for academic dialogue.

The councils are to find out whether they want a similar declaration concerning freedom of speech at the University of Copenhagen. Jacob Mchangama does not doubt that a declaration, or the establishment of principles, can supplement an amendment to the law. He points out also, however, that principles cannot stand alone.

»Both the University of Southern Denmark and Aarhus University have made good statements, but they are not legally binding. They can be interpreted whatever way they want to be, but a fundamental safeguarding of academic freedoms would serve as a minimum standard that you cannot deviate from,« he says.

Copenhagen principles

David Dreyer Lassen does not reject the introduction of Chicago principles, perhaps as Copenhagen principles, or declarations about the freedom of expression in the future. He believes the declarations formulated by both the University of Southern Denmark and Aarhus University are fine and have noble intentions . If there is a real wish from students and staff to have a code of conduct on academic freedom formulated, then this will be done according to the prorector.

»Maybe I lack imagination. But I think we are covered by the Danish University Act. It safeguards the universities’ fundamental rights and it describes what we need to do. If there is a need for independent principles, then they should be formulated on the basis of researchers and students,« says David Dreyer Lassen.

He would rather strengthen »the culture and trust« of the university via conversations and discussion.

Would it not be better to react to a downward curve, rather than talk about trust?

»Trust and culture are in many ways more important than some pointed formulation in the Danish University Act. There are not many opinion shapers, debaters or politicians who are concerned about the Danish University Act anyway. There is the saying [in Denmark, ed], trust is good, but supervision is better. In reality it is the other way around. What is important is the huge amount of work on the other side of a legislative amendment.«

What kind of work?

»That the universities continue the discussion among themselves and politicians about the role of the universities. This role sometimes includes saying unpleasant things, or showing other ways of perceiving the world. We need to safeguard this freedom without researchers being pilloried, persecuted or threatened with funding cancellation.«