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Top professor decries state of Danish research: »20 years we will never get back«

University legislation — If politicians do not put a stop to the »extreme top-down management« at universities, Danish research will suffer damage that it will take decades to rectify. The stark warning is from Ole Wæver and several of his colleagues who now present six proposals to reverse the downward spiral.

It is code red for Danish universities.

Scientists are being bullied in their departments, the most talented are giving up in their search for permanent positions, managers are taking ridiculous decisions, and huge initiatives are the result of political buzzwords.

If a new direction is not found, Danish research will be seriously damaged. Not in the distant future, but already in five to ten years.

This is according to the analysis of Ole Wæver, a political science professor at the University of Copenhagen and chairman of the Research Policy Committee under the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. It has just released a white paper on management and governance at Danish universities. Or as the committee writes: The »one-tier« and »extreme top-down« management of Danish universities.

In the white paper, researchers present six recommendations to counter the trend: Evaluate the (2003) university legislation, give researchers more influence and secure appointments, allow universities more autonomy, let international researchers form a majority on the boards, and give the head of department responsibility for its researchers.

If you ask Ole Wæver, the proposals are simple, pragmatic, and »extremely oriented towards realism«. The authors have deliberately refrained from describing what an ideal university should be, and have instead focussed on specific problems that, according to Wæver, can be solved without going back to an older type of staff and scientist-governed university which scares politicians.

It is absolutely crucial that politicians listen to the proposals if Danish research is to uphold its quality in the coming decades.

»Otherwise we will see a much wider understanding of the problems that we created, and that will take many years to rectify,« says Ole Wæver.

The army and the fish factory

The root of these huge problems was back in the year 2003. At the time, the Danish parliament, chaired by the Minister for Science Helge Sander, adopted a new University Act that abolished universities’ autonomy and introduced boards where a majority of members would be without links to the university.

The problem was not that there was new legislation, according to Ole Wæver, because the old system had its faults too. It could be ineffective and parochial. The problem was that the politicians yanked on all of the levers at the same time in one dramatic move.

»Denmark went very far and converted to a one-tier top-down system. Internationally speaking, we went from one end of the spectrum to the opposite in terms of staff influence and freedom of research.«

»Politicians love to say that they run the universities as if they were business corporations, but this is not right. Most private firms have more checks and balances than the universities have.«

If you feel you are being run over, there is no appeal. There are no safe places for you to present your criticism.
Ole Wæver

The management system today is akin to the military, says Ole Wæver, and he does not mean this in a positive way:

»Most knowledge-intensive companies know that the right decisions cannot be made without employee involvement. I don’t know enough about, say, fish factories. So there may be places that can be top-down managed. But the system seems misplaced at a university.«

This is a system where the Board appoints the Rector, the Rector appoints the Dean, the Dean appoints the Head of Department, and everybody looks upwards. This means that the head of department is not responsible to the community of researchers. A community that, according to Ole Wæver, is breaking up as it tries instead to please the upper parts of the hierarchy.

In the meantime, staff search in vain for the influence that the Board is supposed to give them according to the University Act. It is being browbeaten by the weight of a huge management team with communication and HR staff who have detached themselves from the rest of the university.

»From the lower ranks’ perspective, there is nowhere to go. If you feel you are being run over, there is no appeal. There are no safe places for you to present your criticism. Because the elected bodies like the academic councils are more like school pupil councils than bodies with real power.«

»The head of department is no longer part of the room, but instead the first person you meet in this huge layer of management. You look at this giant pyramid above you, and the ceiling comes down further and further towards you.«

Resignation and fear

So the researchers’ position has been weakened.

The university’s financing is increasingly dependent on grants from public and private foundations, and this means that many researchers get fixed-term positions that expire when the funding does. This is if they even want to move down a career path that is characterised by intense competition and uncertainty.

And when they finally get permanent positions, they find out that they can still be dismissed without any convincing reason. And they risk being stranded with a highly specialised expertise that is difficult to turn into value on the labour market.

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The researchers do not have ‘tenure’, or security of employment, like at top universities outside this country. The word is, according to Ole Wæver, something we just use because »we like it«.

»The word’s content, on the other hand. We don’t use this in this country,« he says.

In this reality, researchers are not only finding it difficult to exert influence on their own workplaces. They have stopped reaching out for it. If they disagree with management decisions or strategies, they do not protest, but applaud it instead.

They do this for two reasons, according to Ole Wæver: Resignation and fear. They think: Management is so omnipotent that it is pointless to protest. And they think: When I’m so close to losing my job, I’d better not stick my neck out.

Top researchers flee from Danish universities, young talents give up on their research careers, and it is difficult to recruit from abroad.
Ole Wæver

Yet there are, actually, plenty of things they should speak up about, according to Ole Wæver.

Management’s launch of »fluffy bullshit strategies« and »silly initiatives« – like a centre for climate or artificial intelligence – without involving scientists’ expertise. They allow their course to be set by shifting political priorities, while the researchers conform to safeguard their future.

This will deprive Denmark of major breakthroughs, according to Ole Wæver:

»The really revolutionary research that could turn Denmark into the centre of the world in one given field, is by definition something that we do not know yet. It does not appear in the slogan-y strategies. So if we increasingly set our agendas based on what management and politicians understand, you can be absolutely sure that we will fall behind.«

»Climate and artificial intelligence are of course important. But this is precisely why Danish research must contribute more, and something else, than just running after the headlines that for a long time have been on the agenda in other countries.«

It’s about expanding the space available for free research, according to Ole Wæver:

»The space to do strange things as a researcher has become smaller. And this is absolutely disastrous, as it is the strange things that may turn out to be absolutely crucial.«

Isn't this just whining?

It is an obvious question to ask: Are scientists not just whining?

Are they not just complaining because the rest of Danish society is going in to their dusty offices and demanding something in return for the annual billion-kroner investments – something that is easier to measure than »strange things«?

Or put in another way: Are the researchers not just too self-important to be the object of others’ decisions?

Ole Wæver laughs on the phone: »I understand perfectly if someone thinks so.«

This would also be right if someone had said this 25 years ago, he continues. The researchers’ self-image has changed since then, however:

»Today, researchers have a fundamental understanding that this is not our own private domain, but that we are here for society’s sake. We have to do this in the best possible way, because education and research are so important to society.«

»It is therefore legitimate to ask questions about whether we are doing things right today. And here you just have to say that this over-managing is incompatible with highly specialised front-line research, which — by its very nature — cannot be made understandable to everyone.«

The implication: Only omniscient geniuses can over-manage a university and get away with it. Omniscient geniuses that do not exist in management offices or in the Danish parliament – or anywhere.

But you and your colleagues write in the whitepaper that Danish research is excellent today, as measured by rankings and publications in top journals. In this light, the increase in management introduced by the University Act has been a success?

»I’m not saying that the 2003 law was just a mistake. We do not believe that we should reintroduce the old management system, but find a balance.«

»When we do well internationally, it is also partly because universities are also managed hopelessly in many other countries. This is not a good argument for having a sub-optimal form of management.«

Twenty lost years

Wæver’s point is also that all the negative effects have not yet appeared. The university is like a slow supertanker. When you change the entire management structure, like in 2003, the new reality only gradually kicks in over the course of years and decades.

It is only now, on the verge of the 20th anniversary of the University Act, that the real consequences are beginning to be clear to the researchers:

»You could say that we are halfway through the causal chain. We are now seeing social patterns that we know will have negative effects in the long term,« says Ole Wæver, referring to the fear and resignation in the research community.

»We have set up these research environments that have these problems. And at the same time we see examples of top researchers fleeing from Danish universities, young talents give up on their research careers, and that it has become difficult to recruit from abroad.

»You cannot see any of this in publication statistics now, because things move extremely slowly. The decisions we make today can only be noticed in ten and twenty years, but if we continue in this way, it will hurt. And then we will have lost 20 years, which we cannot get back.«

Politicians — take responsibility

The six proposals in the whitepaper should be seen as an antidote to a downward trend in Danish top research, according to the authors.

All power is in the Danish parliament in Christiansborg, and the first thing the politicians should do is listen to recommendation No. 1, according to Ole Wæver: Evaluate the University Act of 2003 Set up a committee that maps out the effects that the legislation has had.

This might result in a report that disproved Wæver and his colleagues, he admits. Or maybe the report will encourage politicians to follow the five other recommendations in a hurry.

Ole Wæver highlights two of the proposals that he believes politicians should consider even before an evaluation like this is ready. Actually, according to the professor, they can be introduced by the universities themselves within the existing legislation:

First of all, they should change the composition of the university’s boards, so that a majority of members have international research experience. This will give greater power to the boards that have turned out to be too weak, according to him. In a quote from the whitepaper it puts it like this:

»Many ordinary external board members see (with good reason) that they themselves are not competent enough to actively engage in the work of the board. The result is – like in many private companies – that a duo consisting of the chairman of the board and the rector can, to a great extent ‘run’ the university.«

Secondly, the head of department should be made accountable to the community of researchers, so that the manager does not just look upwards in the hierarchy, but also speaks out on behalf of staff. According to Wæver, this can be done by changing the election process, so that the head of department is appointed by both the Dean and the ordinary researchers.

The problem is that scientists do not need convincing themselves that there is a democratic deficit. They have already done so. University of Copenhagen academics like Peter Harder and Eske Willerslev have said so. Many candidates for election to the Board have said so.

The task is to convince politicians and the general public that there is a problem:

»This is probably the biggest hurdle. It is not because we want to draw a picture that has people feeling sorry for us researchers. That it is for our sake that we need to change this,« says Ole Wæver.

His point is, that it is for society’s sake. According to Wæver, Danes will simply get more for their taxes if we give the researchers more influence and expand the space where they can pursue their (strange) ideas.

»It will result in better research, and better teaching, if we take these things into account. And politicians ought to understand this.«

The whitepaper is here.

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