University Post
University of Copenhagen
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Working environment

That déjà vu feeling: She has seen it all before

Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard knows what back-to-back restructuring drives and cuts can do to a workplace. Now she is concerned that the administration reform at the University of Copenhagen will lead to shoddy work, and even deception.

An adage from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard pops up in Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard’s mind when she describes her concerns with an upcoming administration reform. It is perhaps the most famous Kierkegaard quote of all: Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

»They say that.« Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard pauses. »But there should be a limit.«

By ‘limit’ she means that there should be a limit to managers’ lack of learning from those who have lived (and reformed) before them. She wished, in other words, that the University of Copenhagen would learn from other people’s mistakes in its work on an administration reform that is expected to be adopted on 19 June.

Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard is currently an employee at the Department of Biology, but has held several positions at UCPH. She has worked at the Rockefeller Complex under Geophysics and Astronomy, the former Theoretical Astrophysics Centre, and worked on the Board of Studies at the Faculty of Science.

Horror scenario Aalborg

But when the conversation turns to the administration reform, Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard talks about another university: She worked for five years at Aalborg University’s unit in Copenhagen almost ten years ago.

»I went through exactly what I think we are seeing at UCPH: That everything is managed top-down. People further down the hierarchy have little influence on decisions being made.«

At Aalborg University, it was not a comprehensive reform like the one that the University of Copenhagen is facing. But an ongoing process of restructuring and cuts. Several master’s degree programmes were shut down while Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard worked in the Aalborg University unit in the Sydhavn suburb of Copenhagen.

READ ALSO: Administration reform: How will it affect the workplace?

During her years at Aalborg University, Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard experienced an increasingly poor working environment. As a staff representative, she saw colleagues who developed tinnitus, anxiety, and — in some cases — just quit their jobs. She ended up developing stress herself.

»You know … stress does something to people,« Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard says.

The problems culminated in an inquest by the Danish Working Environment Authority in 2016 after a critically poor working environment was assessed among academic staff. The conclusion was – after a report by the consultancy firm CRECEA and focus group interviews – that there were multiple factors at work in the poor working environment among academic staff: This included poor communication between the University’s central offices in Aalborg and the eight departments in Copenhagen, an absentee management, and the increasing amounts of time spent on administration.

An evaluation of the academic staff’s working environment at Aalborg University’s Copenhagen unit carried out by CRECEA in 2018 showed that it was »difficult to set up lasting working relationships, especially with the administrative support functions in Aalborg …«.

»I get a sense of déjà vu,« says Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard referring to the UCPH plan to place more administrative employees into what was initially dubbed service centres, but which they are now working on calling something else.

Real-life spreadsheet

While the reform’s programme steering committee reckons that it’s the name that it is the problem, Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard thinks that it’s the whole concept. She is not the only one who has this assessment: She has been a member of one of the user groups involved in the design phase of the administration reform. She experienced a general agreement on the inexpediency of merging technical and administrative functions into three large administrative units.

Proximity is not something on a screen

Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard

»Proximity is not something on a screen,« she points out and elaborates: »Untrained eyes might be able to reduce our work to a row in an Excel spreadsheet. But there is a lot of work involved in this one row. These ‘cutback warriors’ will think: ‘Oh well, everyone can just do it themselves – register holidays, days off and so on. It’s a piece of cake’. But people can’t.«

Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard mentions other examples of tasks that she believes will be more difficult to solve if she was not in the vicinity. There are the study cafés that are set up on courses with high fail rates – where older students are hired in to provide extra teaching. Here Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard and one of her colleagues take care of all the practicalities. There are the field trips, a regular part of the biology programme — where Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard and the course coordinator make sure that students’ special needs in the form of allergies, social phobias and the like are accommodated. And then there are all the multiple daily challenges that are overcome just by stopping by at an office. Just before her meet up with the University Post, she stopped by at an academic’s office to set up a free evaluation of their course. They quickly took care of it.

»They have not experienced how it works in real life,« says Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard. She is referring both to the external consultants from BCG who originally drew up the report with the administrative reform proposal, and the university’s own programme steering committee.

Substandard work, and deceit

It is one thing what it will mean for Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard and her colleagues if they have to work far from their known local setting and instead work in what-was-previously-called service centres. It is another thing what it will mean when, as a part of the administration reform, the number of technical and administrative full-time equivalent staff also have to be cut down.

Here the experiences from Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard’s old workplace at Aalborg University are cause for her concern. At Aalborg University, it was not only the working environment that suffered as a result of the administration squeeze.

There were also payments for expensive study trips which were criticized. Most recently, two managers at Aalborg University Business School were put on leave while its own finance unit looked into their own activities and dispositions. The two bosses had a total of DKK 750,000 in travel expenses in under three years.

»When people are too busy, they can’t go into detail about what it is that is being signed off. Things happen too quickly,« says Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard, who was not employed during the period the managers in question did their criticized travelling. But it is these kinds of cases that will hit UCPH if the administration is weakened.

»They may think they can get rid of us all through cuts. But this will cost them dearly in the end. That’s my big concern,« she says.

She points out that she does not just worry about deliberate cheating. She reckons that the risk of blunders will increase if the result of the administration reform is that academic staff and students are forced to handle more work themselves via self-service solutions. This will reduce the number of people involved in each individual case – be it exam and project submissions, settling of outlays and expenses, and the administration in connection with study start.

»The point of there being several checks on things is not to bother people,« she says. »The practice is to make sure that things are delivered correctly. We check and double-check so that fewer mistakes are made in the first place.«

»Everyone mattered«

Although Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard looks to the upcoming administration reform with concern, she still hopes that she herself has a job after the reform.

»I’ll stay as long as I can, because I’ve probably never had as good a group of colleagues as I have now. I really appreciate my colleagues, and we have an incredibly good working relationship. We are good at giving each other feedback,« she explains.

I have always felt that in UCPH you were able to participate and to speak your mind

Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard

And then there are also her academic staff colleagues.

»I’m happy working here. I am really interested in the research they are doing. This is a part of the joy of it. To be able to help those who are doing research on something that is exciting and valuable for nature, for biodiversity, for the climate and for society in general.«

At the time of this interview, there are only a few days left until the administration reform is passed by the the Board. But Charlotte Zoey Søndergaard still has hopes that management will change course and acknowledge that what is proposed in the current draft will not function optimally. This is, she says, the »best« outcome. And she rounds off the conversation:

»I’ve been to other educational institutions, and I’ve always wanted to go back to UCPH. Partly because there is a flatter hierarchy. I have always felt that you were able to participate and to speak your mind at UCPH. You got the feeling that everyone mattered. But now it feels like all of this is gone.«