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Researchers want University of Copenhagen to commit to anti-racism struggle

More than a hundred researchers sign open letter stating that black staff and students are presumed to be the object of discrimination at the University of Copenhagen. They want the university to investigate the problem.

Two researchers have sent an open letter to management at the University of Copenhagen.

A letter that has been inspired by anti-racist protests in the US and other countries in recent months, and which contains a call-to-action:

»We want UCPH to step into the fight of ending the injustice that Black people continue to face,« it states in the letter.

READ ALSO: Open letter to University of Copenhagen to address racism in academia

It was written by the two PhD students Francois Questiaux and Sofie Mortensen, both from the Department of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), and at time of writing has garnered 122 signatures, including from DNA Professor Eske Willerslev, who sits on the Board of the University of Copenhagen.

More signatures are likely forthcoming. The authors have still only been in contact with four departments, but after they have published the letter, they hope that more researchers will jump on board.

»After the Black Lives Matter protests and the debate about racism has become more widespread, it is important that this topic is also taken up at the university. We want to start a conversation with management and hold them to account,« says Sofie Mortensen.

There is, at the moment, no real focus on the problem, according to Francois Questiaux, who sits next to Mortensen in the old gardens of the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Copenhagen. He mentions the University of Copenhagen 2023 strategy which includes the promotion of equality and diversity, but does not specifically mention the struggle against racism.

»Nothing really gets done,« he says.

It is especially about the university as a workplace. Black people generally make up a very small percentage of permanent positions at the world’s universities, the authors write, and their work is often disregarded and ignored in curricula. And many universities neglect doing something about it – possibly also the University of Copenhagen, they say:

Nothing really gets done

Francois Questiaux, PhD student, IFRO

»Universities need methods to handle the racism that affects black staff and students. We have a presumption that this can also be the case at the University of Copenhagen,« the authors write.

The researchers, for example, want the university to enumerate how many people with ethnic minority backgrounds are employed in permanent positions, and how they experience racism in their daily lives.

Heated debate

In the letter, the authors and signatories describe themselves as »concerned academics [who] want to confirm that we stand by the … anti-racist movement« and »stand up against the structures that continuously exploit and violate Black people’s lives and bodies.«

By using this terminology, the researchers dive into an already heated debate at Danish universities about the boundaries between research and activism. A featured comment by fourteen professors on the news site Berlingske is the latest instalment in this ongoing debate:

»We are seeing increasing pressure on the freedom of research and on universities,« they write, and add that the university should not take a moral stance on specific ideas.

According to Francois Questiaux and Sofie Mortensen however, the content of their open letter is not controversial. What they want is more knowledge and that there is real dialogue about the subject, they say.


»This is not a criticism, it is more a call to collect more data. We are not attacking the University of Copenhagen. We just ask: What are you doing in this area?« says Francois Questiaux and looks at Sofie Mortensen.

»We have almost no knowledge about this right now. If we are to know how to achieve diversity, we need to know the challenges,« she says.

Wow, you only want this!

It follows from this that the two PhD students do not know how big the problem is. Or indeed whether there is a problem at all.

They write this directly in the letter:

»We have no data or information on how racism plays out in Danish universities,« they state, and continue: »it remains unclear whether UCPH indeed provides equal and diverse environments.«

Sofie Mortensen acknowledges that it can be seen as a contradiction that they call for action when they have no data on the problem, but adds:

»In the UK and in the US data they have collected data, and they have seen there that this is a major problem. In a Danish context, we can see that racism is a major problem in society in general, so why should it not also be a problem at the university? In this context, I think it is reasonable to encourage management to investigate the topic.«

If you as a university can work for gender equality and LGBTQIA+ rights, you can also fight racism

Sofie Mortensen, PhD student, IFRO

Do you have any examples of it being a problem at the university?

»We have, of course, never experienced anything ourselves. We are a couple of white scientists that want to raise the issue. This letter is only the beginning, and it is extremely important that those who experience racism are part of the process,« says Francois Questiaux.

»There is data and studies showing that racism is a problem at many universities, but the data we have on UCPH is limited. That’s why we say that the first step is to investigate it.«

He explains that the researchers have shown the letter to a colleague at a British university who, after reading it exclaimed: »Wow, you only want this!«.

The colleague suddenly understood, however, when she subsequently read the University of Copenhagen’s 2023 strategy. She said she understood why young researchers from Copenhagen start by asking for more studies and reflection.

»This is something that many British universities have already done. Thanks to the data they have collected, they can do something about the problem,« says Francois Questiaux.

»The struggle for gender equality at the university is not over yet, but it helps that you, for example, have data on how many women are employed in different positions. This is a powerful tool. It would be good to have the same data on which to base an anti-racist struggle.«

No need to embrace Black Lives Matter movement

Not all Danish researchers see British universities as role models in this context.

In the comment on the Danish news site Berlingske, the 14 professors mentioned Imperial College’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement as a glaring cautionary example – testimony to how academic freedom is under pressure as identity-politics allegedly takes over Danish and foreign universities.

The open letter starts by mentioning some of the killings that have ignited the Black Lives Matter movement, but the authors do not demand that the University of Copenhagen supports any specific movement, they say:

»The university does not need to embrace any particular organisation to be a part of the anti-racist struggle. They can develop their own strategies,« says Sofie Mortensen.

»The anti-racist struggle is not about being on the right or left wing, it is more universal. And I don’t think it takes away freedom from any researchers.«

There is surely a difference between not being racist and being anti-racist. The second term has a more activist tone, and perhaps this would challenge the university’s political independence?

»The university has always been political. It claims itself that it serves society, and when we choose what to research and not research, this is in itself political. The university does not become more political by getting involved with this,« says Francois Questiaux.

Sofie Mortensen adds that the University of Copenhagen apparently has no problems with being an activist in other areas:

»The university supports the Pride event every year, for example. If you as a university can work for gender equality and for LGBTQIA+ rights, you can also fight racism,« she says.

It is good that the university has staff and students who are making efforts to develop and maintain a safe environment and an inclusive culture.

Henrik C. Wegener, Rector at the University of Copenhagen

The authors focus mostly on the University of Copenhagen as a workplace, but they also encourage researchers to »educate themselves« and »deconstruct racist structures in their workplace, in their research, and in teaching«.

It is therefore obvious to interpret the letter in the context of the culture wars at the University of Copenhagen which included the debate flare-up over Ole Wæver, whose theory of securitization was accused of being racist.

But the authors reject the idea that their words are on the slippery slope towards restricting academic freedom.

»This does not stop anybody from doing free research. The only thing is, you have to reflect on how you work, and on whose shoulders you are standing on. The first step is to think about it. If you have inherited bias, it is important to acknowledge it, so you can change it,« says Francois Questiaux.

»This is clearly a topic that many people find it difficult to talk about. But it is important that we do it, so that we can make sure that the University of Copenhagen and our work is not racist,« says Sofie Mortensen.

»Again: We don’t have a long list of requirements, and we believe that the university can discuss this issue without anyone losing their freedom.«

Rector Henrik C. Wegener considers the contents of the open letter in a written reply to the University Post:

»Ensuring that you are safe, and that you can flourish as the person you are, are important keystone principles at UCPH. It should therefore be made clear that we as management do not accept any form of discrimination due to gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality or any other background,« he writes.

»The core of the University of Copenhagen is contributing to research and education at the highest level. It is the talent and the opportunity to perform the very best that is in focus. It is good that the university has staff and students who are making efforts to develop and maintain a safe environment and an inclusive culture. This supports the university’s objective of diversity among staff and students.«

Henrik C. Wegener writes, however, that it is difficult for the university to accommodate the letter’s requirement of investigations in the form that the authors propose:

»Due to Danish legislation, UCPH cannot register ethnicity and several other parameters among staff and students. This means that there are challenges in creating the data that they are looking for. That’s why we need to find other ways to do this. The university will take a closer look at this.«