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Sacked geology professor Thybo speaks out

Dismissal case — The renowned geology professor Hans Thybo was fired in November 2016 from the University of Copenhagen. One year later, the two sides settled in a court of arbitration. Now Thybo presents his version of the most controversial personnel case in recent years. University management has not wished to comment on this story.

Professor Hans Thybo now speaks out for the first time in detail about his dismissal and the subsequent legal proceedings that he set in motion against the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).

The sacking of the professor attracted considerable international attention. The journal Nature wrote two articles about it, and 1,646 Danish and international researchers and students signed a protest against it.

UCPH justified its dismissal with the claim that Thybo pressured a postdoc to criticize the management of the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management (IGN) in a staff assessment. Thybo then sought legal redress, and arbitration ended on 27th November 2017, when he and UCPH entered into a settlement which paid him compensation corresponding to six months’ salary. In the settlement text it stated that “the dismissal was contrary to the AC agreement’s paragraph 22.”

Here, Hans Thybo talks about his dismissal and the lead-up to it, the arbitration proceedings, and the working environment at the department seen from his point of view.

The University Post has presented Hans Thybo’s criticism to management at department, faculty and central university-level. No-one has wished to comment on it, stating that this is a personnel case.


The official grounds for his dismissal

Background: Hans Thybo was suspended from his professorship on 5th September 2016. The reasons given for dismissing him appeared in a number of consultation responses that the University Post acquired in the beginning of November. Hans Thybo was to be dismissed because he used his private Gmail for work-related communication and – more seriously – because he allegedly pressured a younger researcher, the Egyptian postdoc Mohammad Youssof (who had worked under his supervision for a number of years at the University of Copenhagen) to get him to criticize the management of IGN in a workplace assessment.

In an email to Youssof on the 16th June Thybo had written: “Please remember to fill in the questionnaire from KU about work environment, and remember that you do not need to be kind to management – rather on the contrary – e.g. In relation to the firing of me as research group leader.” Thybo had, the year previously, been removed as research group head by the department’s management.

On the afternoon of 5th September, after being told that he had been suspended, Thybo met Mohammad Youssof in the IGN car park. According to UCPH, the professor yet again pressured the young postdoc – partly by asking him to send an e-mail that he had not been urged to respond critically on the UCPH workplace assessment, partly by encouraging him to record a conversation that he was to have with the department management team later on the same day. This, the department management now put on top of the other causes for dismissal.

In the documents for consultation, UCPH mentions that Thybo on 16th July 2016 was given a written warning by management, because he, in the words of the faculty, “had, as responsible project manager on the DanSeis project, not respected and complied with your management’s directions and instructions.” This warning is not included in the reasons for dismissal.

UCPH also writes about the use of private Gmail, that this is “a criticisable matter of a certain importance, but that it is not the decisive factor in this case.”

UCPH made the dismissal effective from 4th November. Employee-elected members of the UCPH Board and their alternates subsequently criticized the reasons for dismissal, and 1,646 Danish and international researchers and students signed a protest.

Hans Thybo: “Evidence was to be given on the first day in labour court (during the arbitration proceedings, ed.), and UCPH had four witnesses present. The dean and three from IGN management. The three from IGN were the Head of Department Claus Beier, the Deputy Head of Department Lars Nielsen and the Head of Section Karsten Høgh Jensen. These are the three that have claimed that I coerced Mohammad Youssof to act against his own convictions.”

“I was supposed to have threatened him to fill out a workplace assessment against his own conviction. I, on the other hand, could demonstrate that I had encouraged him to complete it in accordance with his own opinion. And I could prove this, because I had an e-mail from him from a year earlier, where he clearly expressed the opinion that management’s treatment of me was unfair.”

(To Nature, Youssof said in December 2016 that he had not considered himself pressured to criticize university management.)

The two other persons present confirmed as witnesses, that I had not tried to threaten Mohammad

Hans Thybo

“Countering this, Karsten Høgh Jensen gave an account of a conversation with Mohammad, in which Mohammad said he felt threatened by me, and that he was suffering from the psychological pressure of it, which is something that Mohammad twice had indicated was not the case.”

(From Karsten Høgh Jensen’s memo dated 6 July 2016: “During the interview, MS mentioned that HT sent him a email prior to the workplace survey. MS expressed that he felt pressured to give a negative assessment of management, including making MS mention that HT unlawfully had been deprived of his duties as research group head. MS expressed that the e-mail from HT made him uncomfortable’.)

“Then there was the allegation that I, in the afternoon after being suspended – how you can abuse your position, when you have been suspended, is unclear – had abused my position as professor by threatening Mohammad Youssof. There were two others present at this meeting. Mohammad says himself, that he was not threatened, but that I was trying to help him in a difficult situation. He claimed to me that he had been summoned to a meeting at 6 pm, and that he was nervous, as he had no idea what would take place there. I suggested that he should bring a friend or observer with him, but he didn’t dare to do this out of fear of what the consequences would be. I told him that he at least should be able to record it, so he could document what had happened. This was subsequently construed by management as me threatening him to make a recording, and asking for it to be made secret.”

The two other persons present  confirmed as witnesses, that I had not tried to threaten Mohammad, but that I had attempted to calm him down.

Mohammad Youssof has not wished to comment the case.

About the official reasons for his dismissal

Background: In the months after Thybo’s dismissal, the debate ran in both the University Post and in other media. In several featured comments and articles, it was mentioned or suggested that there were other grounds for the dismissal of Hans Thybo than those that UCPH had stated.

Head of Department at IGN Claus Beier wrote in a featured comment in the University Post about the dismissal on 24th November 2016, that it is “based on a wealth of information, but also information that are one-sided and selective, because UCPH does not have the option of contributing. The debate does not therefore reflect the truth, or the full picture. On the contrary, the case in the media is covered in a very simplified form, far from reality and the long and thorough considerations, conversations and discussions with different management levels and HR in a long, thorough, and difficult process.”

The University Post received in the same week access to documents from a Deloitte investigation of Thybo’s expense reports in the period January 2013 to September 2014 that had been requested by UCPH. The investigation only found what a legal expert called “pocket change” irregularities, and led to Thybo repaying a DKK 2,625 outlay. UCPH had paid DKK 505,577 kroner for the investigation.

I suggest that you either find yourself a well-paid and highly esteemed job abroad and hold your fire, or that you reveal what the actual reasons are behind your dismissal.

Associate Professor Hans Peter Ravn, IGN, in a letter to the editor on Unversity Post 20th December 2016

Associate Professor Hans Peter Ravn, also from IGN, addressed Thybo directly in a comment on 20th December: “From my perspective, you act as a coward by presenting the case as if it is based on trivial matters. You do not get fired as professor at UCPH because of trivialities.” He goes on: “I suggest that you either find yourself a well-paid and highly esteemed job abroad and hold your fire, or that you reveal what the actual reason for your dismissal. It needs to be the real reason – however embarassing this may be.”

The now-retired union representative and deputy chairman of the UCPH General Collaboration Committee Poul Erik Krogshave wrote on 24th February 2017 that the “currently applicable confidentiality clauses, in relation to personnel cases, prevent reference being made to relevant information, which have therefore just been suggested in the process.”

Former rector Ralf Hemmingsen wrote in a statement about the case on 30th November 2016 that UCPH does not dismiss people “just because they have used a Gmail account or for other minor violations,” and that the Faculty of Science had “no other option” but to dismiss Thybo.

Finally, an unnamed UCPH management source in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen was quoted as saying that there was a comprehensive case file on Thybo with reasons for dismissing him.

Hans Thybo: “I have applied for inspection of the files in my personnel file under the freedom of information regulations. I have been employed by UCPH for 30 years, and in the government sector for 38 years, and until the false accusation [Thybo here refers to the above-mentioned Deloitte study which included an investigation of whether he had abused travel expenses, ed.] there is not one problematic document. So I’ve actually got a 36-year, completely untainted, personnel file In spite of this, a newly appointed department head can come in from the street and say that he has no confidence in me. I find this quite serious.”

“They have repeatedly pointed out that there is more. There is no more. The consultation document I have received, and the letter of dismissal that I have received do not contain anything else. I was awarded a formal warning a month before I was dismissed. But the warning was not included as part of the reason for dismissal.”

So I’ve actually got a 36-year, completely untainted, personnel file In spite of this, a newly appointed department head can come in from the street and say that he has no confidence in me. I find this quite serious.”

Hans Thybo

“The formal warning process was based on the grant for research infrastructure DanSeis, which was established when the Ministry for Research distributed funds for research infrastructure

I applied for this funding pool. The attitude in geoscience circles was that it would be fantastic if we got it. But no-one thought it was possible, so no-one supported me in it. But I did actually get the grant for a total of three infrastructures in Denmark at a value of DKK 25 million.”

(The infrastructure project, which consisted of several universities, was subsequently referenced in this article on the UCPH website in March 2012. The process is complicated, but it culminated in June 2016 when Beier, according to Thybo, announced that he felt poorly informed about the DanSeis project.)

“On 22nd June 2016, the dean and the head of department decided to give me a written warning for inadequate information. This involved a consultation letter, which was sent on paper, a week later, at a time where I had already left to travel in connection with fieldwork. It was, in others words, in my mail box. My wife was not at home. And the warning came approximately 14 days later, after they had sent the consultation letter, and still before I got back. This was how I got it. It was not fair to send physical paper letters at a time when they knew that I was doing fieldwork. They knew, because they had discussed the use of instruments during the intensive fieldwork, and it was apparent on my Outlook calendar, which they had access to, that I was doing fieldwork.”

(The DanSeis project and the written warning were not included in the UCPH stated reasons for dismissal of Thybo.)


The settlement in the arbitration case

Background: On 23rd and 24th November 2017, the case about the sacking of Thybo was heard in the Court of Arbitration with former president of the Danish supreme court Børge Dahl as chairman. The Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM) led the case for Thybo, while the legal adviser to the Danish government represented UCPH. On 24th November, Hans Thybo and UCPH settled.

In the settlement text it stated that “the dismissal was contrary to the AC collective agreement §22”. Hans Thybo received, as part of the settlement, a compensation corresponding to 6 months’ salary. It is, according to the collective agreement, the maximum compensation.

Hans Thybo: “UCPH had [before the arbitration, ed.] offered a settlement, where I had got approximately the same, and an emeritus position at the Niels Bohr Institute. But I hoped that the court would rule in favour of re-appointment. It turned out that the labour court could not do this.”

(The court interpreted a provision in the collective agreement in a way that it is not possible to be re-employed if one of the two parties does not wish to do so, and in the cases where compensation can be paid instead. According to Thybo, UCPH at this stage of the proceedings was no longer prepared to offer a scheme that matched the previous settlement offer.)

“I would have got a key card, a desk and access to the library, but apart from this, I was not allowed to have contact with students or PhD students, they would not administer grants for me, and there would be no annual grant. Nothing. The agreement would also have been kept a secret, it would simply state that we had entered into a settlement. It was inadmissible. Then I would prefer to just have the ruling.”

“It ended up with my lawyer suggesting that we settled on six months’ salary and no emeritus position. But the agreement would not be a secret, and this is the way it turned out.”


I don't know if I would say that I had expected to be reemployed, but I had hoped that UCPH would behave like a decent university.
Hans Thybo

What’s your situation now (with reference to the case)?

“The situation is that the labour court has found that the dismissal was in contravention of the collective agreement. Yet this has not led to UCPH withdrawing its dismissal, and I consider this very strange. You break the rules, and yet you do not correct the errors you have committed. This raises some scary perspectives on academic freedom and job security in Denmark. The proceedings have, if not otherwise, proven that the concept of ‘tenure’ which otherwise existed for scientific employees around the world, does not exist in Denmark.”

Did you expect to be re-employed if the labour court had ruled in your favour?

“I don’t know if I would say that I had expected to be reemployed, but I had hoped that UCPH would behave like a decent university.
This is also the reason why I have kept my mouth shut in the period of 18 months from the moment I was suspended until the labour court reached its decision. This was following advice from my lawyer. If I was to be re-employed, I couldn’t stand up in public and tell everyone what had happened. That is why I only informed friends and acquaintances. There has been a group, which I have kept informed with copies of all documents, and I have seen to my satisfaction, that some of these have been passed on to the media.”

“There are no more reasons for my dismissal than what has been mentioned in the media.”


On the department’s support, or the lack of it

Background: Immediately after the suspension of Thybo on 5th September 2016, students at IGN organised a petition in support of the professor. On 27th September, 106 students had signed.

Thybo did not get the same support from the staff at the department. 19th December, the news site Berlingske wrote that the rector’s office at UCPH had received two letters of support for IGN management – one from the union representatives at the department, one from some of Thybo’s fellow researchers. The declaration from the trade union representatives stated that: “Criticism of the management of the department, faculty and UCPH has arisen as a result of the negative press coverage of the dismissal of Professor Hans Thybo,” and continues: “Without being able to, or wanting to comment on the specific case, we would like to express that we continue to have confidence in the department’s management and good co-operation with the department head Claus Beier. This includes all aspects of the department’s activities.”

Thybo was increasingly seen as difficult, because he wouldn’t toe the line. And if you want to keep on focussing on minute administrative details, you never finish major scientific projects.

PhD student Kasper Lundvig to the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen on 1st January 2017

On 22nd December, one of the union representatives, Bruno Bilde Jørgensen, made it clear to the University Post, that their statement should not be seen as support for the dismissal of Thybo: “The idea was to simply state that we as employees at IGN continue to have confidence in our local department management, and nothing else.”

Only a few people have, through the course of the case, wanted to be quoted on the work climate among IGN employees. PhD student Kasper Lundvig said in January 2017 to the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen: “In the three years I’ve been employed, I have seen an increasing amount of red tape at the university, and this has resulted in less freedom to professors. Thybo was increasingly seen as difficult, because he wouldn’t toe the line. And if you want to keep on focussing on minute administrative details, you never finish major scientific projects.

In the most recent survey of the workplace environment at IGN from 2016 – the workplace assessment that was referred to in Thybos email to Mohammad Youssof – the department is close to the average for the entire Faculty of Science on all parameters. Employees give their ‘Immediate managers’ 3.8 on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is best (equal to the average for the faculty), while the statement ‘the department management contributes constructively to co-operation in the department’ is given 3,3 (0,1 percentage points below average).

Hans Thybo: “A turning point [in relation to management, ed.] was that they had an external evaluation carried out on the former department (IGN was called the Department of Geography and Geology until a 2013 merger with a Forest & Landscape section) which resulted in a very clear recommendation: that the group i represented, should be awarded three new positions as quickly as possible, in consideration of the quality of our work, the importance of the subject area, and because we were undermanned. And this meant that there were many who were jealous. They took no action on this recommendation, but simply discarded it. But it meant alot.

At the same time, I won some prizes and became the President of the European Geosciences Union, which is the second largest geoscience organisation in the world, and, despite the name, a global one. I also think this was the cause of envy. There was a large number of issues that were negatively affecting the working climate. And it was at this time that they tried, for the first time, to accuse me of violating the UCPH travel expense rules.”

It has been striking that when you look at the case from the outside, there have been petitions and a large number of people outside your department and outside UCPH, who have supported you, and encouraged UCPH to reconsider their decision to dismiss you. But locally at the department, there was not the same support. Quite the contrary, a kind of statement of confidence in management has been sent out. Have you been a very unpopular man?

“The students backed me without qualification. Virtually all of the students who were there at that time, and which I had taught, signed a declaration of support. And it was only some of my colleagues, that signed the declaration of support, just around half. And I have, during conversations, heard many of them express candidly their distrust of management, which they signed a declaration of trust for.”

“Of course there are some that have been dissatisfied with me as a person, but this has not been prevalent in general.”

“But it is also a power struggle over academic turf, as they are closing down everything that has to do with deep, fundamental, processes in the Earth in favour of looking at things that go on at the surface, like climate research, sedimentation, water and environment. While the things that are behind tectonic developments – mountain ranges, volcanoes, oceans etc. – are given a poor existence”.


About the international reactions

Background: On 14th November 2016, 22 professors from universities in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia penned a letter to the Rector’s Office at UCPH stating: “Throughout the world, Denmark has a well-deserved reputation as a modern, progressive country with an admirable social system. That a Danish university professor can be dismissed for reasons that, at the most, can be seen as insignificant seems to be totally at odds with normal international practice. If the news of this decision were commonly known, it would damage the university system and the reputation of Danish science.”

Nature published on 4th December an article ‘Sacking of prominent geoscientist rocks community’ on the dismissal of Thybo. On 15th December the same publication wrote the editorial ‘Corporate culture spreads to Scandinavia’ based on the Thybo case.
Hans Thybo is currently employed as professor at Istanbul’s Technical University.

Hans Thybo: “In the international research community, they consider this case to be madness. Rector has also received critical letters, I know. You shake your head and shrug your shoulders. As a colleague wrote to rector with a quotation of Shakespeare: There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. This is their position.”

Has anyone withdrawn their support?

“Not one person. Quite the opposite, I got the satisfaction of having the entire Council of the European Geosciences Union [Thybo is now vice president of the organization, ed.] fully supporting me through the entire process. Since my dismissal, I have been invited to participate in research council collaborations in Sweden and Portugal, and I have become chairman of one of the large international research organizations, the International Lithosphere Program, so the reaction has been the opposite of what they wanted.

But this is not an optimal situation. 18 months have passed in my case, and prior to it, I had to use an estimated 500 hours responding to questions in the auditor’s investigation. It has taken time away from my research. But now I have reasonably good opportunities to carry out my research.

They broke the rules, and yet they do not want to correct their errors. This raises some scary perspectives on academic freedom and on job security in Denmark.
Hans Thybo

From a career and reputation perspective, I stand no poorer today than I did previously. It seems paradoxical that I have colleagues in China that say: This could not happen at a university in China. This also applies to all the places where they have tenure, which actually means a permanent hire. Denmark is different, in that we do not have any labour market laws, only collective bargaining agreements. In Germany, France, the US, Spain, Norway and Sweden – virtually everywhere you look – my dismissal would have been completely unthinkable. You need to have committed something criminal to be dismissed in other places. And this meant that it took a long time before people in other countries were convinced that UCPH was not right, and that I had not committed a criminal offense. In the environments where they came from, it was inconceivable that anyone should be dismissed if they had not committed any form of criminality.

The big change was probably the article in Nature. The made people realise that Denmark’s rules and regulations are unique, and this is not meant in a positive way.”