University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


The dean's baptism by fire

Portrait — Three months the Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities - now Jesper Kallestrup has to be front man for a new round of cutbacks at an already hard-hit faculty.

A friendly and energetic 47-year-old professor in philosophy with an international career behind him is to drag the largest faculty at UCPH into the future.

The Faculty of Humanities has been characterised by unrest for a number of years. Kirsten Refsing chose to step down as dean in 2011 after prolonged criticism from staff and students. Opinions were also divided over her successor, Ulf Hedetoft, whose management style resulted in a critical report from the Danish working environment authority.

Jesper Kallestrup knows very well that he has put himself in the hot seat when he left his job as department head at the University of Edinburgh in favour of his office on South Campus 1st August:

Clearly the situation makes for uncertainty about the future. The working environment is suffering as a consequence

Jesper Kallestrup on the announced DKK 25 million cuts to the Faculty of Humanities

“Right. Of course, I’m well aware of this. But I feel that I am coming with something new. I read the UCPH strategy before I applied for the job, and I think it is in line with many of the ideas that I have, so I wanted to come home and make a positive difference,” says the dean, who offers coffee in his office that in addition to a few large indoor plants and a half-filled bookshelf, must be the whitest and most spacious on South Campus. Just walls, no personal items.

The dean says that he for a few years has wanted to go home to Denmark with his family. His British wife works part-time as an art historian, while they look for international schools in Copenhagen for the couple’s three children. And he’s busy finding his feet in academic Denmark, which he mostly has only seen from afar in the 20 years or so that he has been abroad. In his opinion, the appointment committee took a chance, when they chose him:

“You could say it is a bit of a gamble in that I do not know UCPH very well, but they have balanced things out and selected a candidate who can take a fresh perspective on things from the outside.”

In a press release on the appointment, Rector Henrik Wegener accentuated Jesper Kallestrup’s long international career.

Welcome to the cutback agenda

“I have had to jump in at the deep end. I am learning all the time and taking it all in. I have gone to great lengths to making sure the students give me a guided tour, and to visit all the departments and have a close contact with employees at all levels. It is important for me to listen and get a sense of what is going on and involve employees and students in the things that are about to happen.”

And Jesper Kallestrup has already had to make tough decisions. One quarter had not even passed before he had to write a ‘very difficult’ letter to all the faculty’s employees. In addition to his office, he has inherited an untenable budget. It is DKK 37 million in the red.

“This round of cutbacks was already announced back in 2016. We have found DKK 12 million in savings, primarily on buildings. Up and above this, we have to find DKK 25 million in salaries. We have decided to release what the budget framework is, and we hope to get far with natural wastage and voluntary agreements. But we can probably not avoid dismissals.”

Jesper Kallestrup calls the decision on dismissals ‘the toughest one a manager can make’ – partly because it has large personal costs, partly because it sets off general unrest, he says:

“Clearly, the situation makes for uncertainty about the future. The working environment suffers as a consequence. The students are worried about the quality of their degree programmes, and the researchers are beginning to think about whether they should apply elsewhere. All of our employees are super dedicated, and the dilemma is, that these are the people we need so that we can reverse the trend and set up the new study programmes we dream about, increase the revenues and attract more external funding.”

It has really surprised me how much the ministry and the Danish government micro-manages us

In therapeutic dialogue you often talk about turning points. Jesper Kallestrup will first look back when a turning point is in sight, he says:

“I see the pattern: 11-16-19, three rounds of cuts in one decade. We need to stop it here, and we need to quickly reach a point where the finances are coherent. Things have to change by 2022 at the latest.”

This year is no coincidence. 2022 looks like it will be the last with the annual two per cent cuts to universities. And this is a topic that Jesper Kallestrup likes to keep on returning to – the role that the politicians have in developing Danish universities. Because this is one of the first things that springs to mind, when he is asked to compare the University of Copenhagen to the University of Edinburgh.

Copenhagen versus the UK

“It has been a steep learning curve for me these first three months, where I’ve had to get used to the Danish system. It has really surprised me, how much the ministry and the Danish government micro-manages us. They interfere in all kinds of small details. In the United Kingdom, there is far more autonomy. You can quickly set up new degree programmes; determine how, and how many you can admit; how to teach and hold examinations; and how the money should be prioritised.”

Jesper Kallestrup has many ideas on how the Faculty of Humanities can make more money, but here too there are political roadblocks to overcome:

“At the Faculty of Humanities, we are mostly education financed, and even though we have had great success with external financing, we do not have the same opportunities as at the Faculty of Science or the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, and the political micro-management affects us particularly hard. We want to generate new teaching income from continuing and further education programmes and e-learning programmes, and I really want to attract more international students, particularly at the master’s level.”

The latter is a pet subject for Jesper Kallestrup:

I would like to admit far more students from outside the country, as otherwise the level of our research will also fall behind

“This is where you also have another big difference. At my old philosophy department, we were 35 employees, and only three of them were Scots! I’m not saying that we need to go this far at UCPH, and our research is at an excellent international level today, but there is a major mismatch between teaching and research. I would like to admit far more students from outside the country, as otherwise the level of our research will also fall behind. It makes so much good sense, both academically and financially – also for our domestic students. Education is an export product for many of our international competitors, and unfortunately we are lagging behind. But the Danish government has also downsized the number of international students, even those that pay themselves are included.”

And if Jesper Kallestrup got five minutes with the minister Tommy Ahlers, he knows what he would say to him:

“The humanities makes a decisive contribution to the creation of value in society, and I would appeal to the entrepreneur in him. I would like to be an entrepreneur at the university, but it requires that you give us some unobstructed space to create new educational initiatives without cumbersome accreditation and interference in admission criteria, methods of evaluation, etc.”

Academic career as a sprint

As an academic entrepreneur Jesper Kallestrup is one hundred per cent self-made. As a secondary school pupil from a non-academic family in Viborg he admired the judges and lawyers strolling in and out of the city’s High Court. He wanted to be a part of it, and he was admitted to the law programme after upper secondary school. He kept it up for a year, but there was too much rote learning, he thought.

“I don’t know where my ambitions came from, but they were very large, and things went well in the upper secondary school with grades and stuff like that. In 1992, I started studying philosophy in Aarhus, and I was totally absorbed right from the outset. And in the third year I had the opportunity to be an exchange student at St Andrews in Scotland in one of the best philosophical departments in the United Kingdom.”

The half-year exchange became a whole year, followed by a master’s thesis at home in Aarhus, since then a PhD and a postdoc in Scotland until Jesper Kallestrup got tenure in Edinburgh in 2005. As a professor he researched, published and taught, but the management tasks started to take up more of his time.

“I found it exciting to help develop the framework, so I became head of the philosophy section, then head of the PhD school and finally the department.”

To follow the students closely

Jesper Kallestrup has had many thoughts on the students and on how the university should take a greater responsibility for them. Fewer of them should be hit hard by life, he says, or drop out during the first year:

“We need to get better at following the students closely, by effectively and systematically supporting them and taking action if there are signs of them not thriving. They should not have to go without help for so long.”

How is this to take place in practice?

“There is a lot we could do at an earlier stage. We have a lot of data, for example, that we can follow. Are they reading the syllabus, are they turning up in class? It should not be big brother surveillance, but we need to be able to intervene earlier to help them.”

Jesper Kallestrup knows that they will need resources to make these efforts, but he is convinced that it is an investment that will pay off for all, both for students and for the university:

“You often hear students say that their courses turned out to be something completely different from what they imagined. We need to become better at reconciling the expectations they have of us, and the expectations we have of them. It is here that the contact with upper secondary schools is important, so that the students can make the right choices the first time.”

Dreams of broader study programmes

And when it comes to the actual design of the study programmes, the new dean has also taken something with him. It involves new programmes that cut across departments and faculties:

“We are constantly have new ideas about our study programmes. I would like to see that we can create study programmes with wider profiles, so that you instead of only following only one subject, can acquire skills and insights across different subjects from a wider range. I think that this is possible without compromising the core academic expertise.”

It is not only coming students who – if the politicians will allow it – will see a greater interdisciplinarity in the programmes offered. Even the academic staff need to get used to more flexibility, says the dean:

“It is important that we use our academic staff in the best possible way. But they need also to be aware that it is necessary to include them in broader teaching teams than just in their own narrow field of research. I think we will see in the future that the instructors have also become more flexible in the way they provide the teaching.”


Jesper Kallestrup

Professor in phliosophy 47 years old.

Master’s degree in philosophy from Aarhus University 1997.

PhD from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, 1997-2001.

In 2005-18 employed at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, most recently as department head.

Dean of the Faculty of Humanities since 1st August 2018 for a five year period.

Research-integrated teaching

Here, Jesper Kallestrup introduces the concept of research-integrated teaching:

“It is crucial that the teaching is research-based, if not research-integrated. This is a new concept that we have started to use, which means that the students become a part of the actual research. Today, it is typically the case that staff members do research a certain number of hours before they can teach. The way I see it, you can simply do both at the same time, so that the students are active participants in the research projects instead of research and teaching being two different things. Our own Saxo Institute has had some exciting ideas in this area.”

If it is up to the dean, the students should not only be integrated into research, they also need to get used to new ways of teaching, where they are “in coinstant learning” rather than the model that most people know today, where there are scheduled classes, for example, on Tuesday and Thursday. 9-12:

“Everything will be more on the go in the future. The students will be using their digital tools to a higher degree. There will still be lectures, this is completely certain. But the teaching will be more flexible, so that they have some small bites of 10-15 minutes, then a break, and then learn a little bit more. The students don’t always get enough learnng out of one hour’s one-way communication with an instructor.”

Three rounds of cutbacks in one decade. We need to stop this, and we need to quickly reach a point where the finances are coherent. Things have to change by 2022 at the latest

Jesper Kallestrup can see that the University Post has lost its bearings when he talks with concepts like blended learning, flipped classrooms, and e-learning tools. So he elaborates on this part of his strategy with some experiences from Edinburgh:

“All the lectures I held in my previous position as philosophy professor were recorded and uploaded to the students. This gave them the opportunity to revise and go back and look at what took place the previous week. And they used it as an extra resource in connection with the exam. At the beginning, we were afraid it would mean that they skipped the lectures, and that the clips would end up on YouTube, but none of these things happened.”

Try and google ‘research’

Another new task for management that Jesper Kallestrup is about to take on, is about the status of the humanities. The Faculty deserve a far better brand. And the bad press of recent years is not fair, says the dean, as the graduates are getting jobs.

“We are constantly ensuring that our study programmes are of high quality and that our students are ready for the labour market. But we still sometimes end up only playing a minor role. If you google ‘research’, for example, a lot of pictures pop up of people in white lab coats.”

I am currently working a lot and can only find the time to watch a crime series every now and then

Yes, here the contribution of the humanities may be a little more fuzzy. It’s not the humanities researchers that solve the riddles of cancer.

“No, but the new black in medicine, for example, is the combination of big health data and gene therapy to develop precision medicine and individualised treatments. And here the humanities have a lot to offer. I think that it is across the sciences, the humanities, the natural sciences, computer science that we will see real movement in research in the coming years. And the humanities contributes with normative, value-related and cultural aspects, and with communication, language and history. Things that may not immediately be quantifiable, but which are crucial to the understanding of the human role in tomorrow’s society with the huge challenges that we face.”

Jesper Kallestrup looks a bit disoriented when the University Post wants to dwell on the cultural aspects – is there art, he would recommend? A book? A film? And even further out: a restaurant?

“At the moment I am currently working a lot and can only find the time to watch a crime series every now and then. My day starts with meetings at 9, and they continue typically back-to-back until 5pm. In addition, there is the constant e-mails and a lot of reading material in the evening. I can only manage a run in the Frederiksberg gardens every now and then. I can only hope it will get better in the long term, when I know the routines and schedules. As the days are long for me at the moment.”