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Top scientist: »The University of Copenhagen can become the world’s best university with only a few, simple, tweaks«

Portrait — The science adventurer Eske Willerslev went to Cambridge as a high-profile, yet browbeaten Copenhagener. Now he returns with a clarion call: We should bring the pride back to UCPH. And it starts with ceremonies, rituals and gilded diplomas.

»I think it is the shit with all these masonic lodge-style rituals,« says Eske Willerslev.

When he became a professor at the University of Cambridge in 2015, he was, as a Dane, sceptical about the pomp surrounding the venerable British university.

»I was opposed to all these reactionary traditions when I was younger. I did not put on a [Danish traditional] student cap [on graduating from secondary school], for example. But I have completely changed my attitude to this,« says Eske Willerslev.

In Cambridge, he became a conservative within the space of two hours.

When you have landed a professorship, you need to find a suitable college. Colleges are private, and have their own buildings and management, and it does matter where you are admitted. A colleague put in a good word for Willerslev, so he was presented to the head of a wealthy college, who would be able to promote his research. In his new book It is a goddamned adventure! Eske Willerslev explains how he, a couple of hours before the interview met up with a colleague who looked at the Dane with dismay:

»Are you crazy, man! You can’t show up like this. And your hair. No, no, no, you have to do something. You need a suit. You have to go to the hairdresser!«

Eske Willerslev was in his well-worn Danish outdoor clothing and had to meet the man with the funds two hours later. He managed, of course, to rush in a sharp haircut and a suit, adapted with needles by a tailor, before the interview with the grandee.

Willerslev was admitted. As it happened, the Dumbledore-type didn’t actually care about his appearance. When Willerslev relates this anecdote, it is to emphasize his point that you make an extra effort when you put on a layer of solemnity. Both in clothing, and in the use of symbols. And this is the most natural thing in the world in Cambridge when something is at stake.

»The University of Copenhagen could learn so much from Cambridge where they are really good at branding on all parameters, sometimes perhaps even overselling themselves,« says Eske Willerslev. And then he claims the University of Copenhagen can get everything they offer in Cambridge with only a few simple changes. It already offers a lot of stuff Cambridge doesn’t have:

»We have a country that everybody wants to live in, when they have first found out that it exists. We have so much to offer in Copenhagen, but we are really bad at making people aware of all the stuff we are.«

Copenhagen is, of course, easy to brand as a university city after the triumphs of recent years in terms of tourism and in the experience economy. But Eske Willerslev points to the entire Danish model with free study programmes and a government that invests in research. Issues that other countries have, are taken care of in Denmark, according to Eske Willerslev.

»We are talking about a few, simple changes that need to be made to go all the way up and rank next to Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard,« he says, and points to four managerial tasks that, in his view, can elevate the University of Copenhagen into the world’s elite:

A well-oiled administration. A management that listens to staff and students. Budget plans that stick, and the reintroduction of scrapped ceremonies and rituals, so that ceremony yet again becomes a natural part of daily life at the University of Copenhagen.

He also has a suggestion for how. We will get back to this in a minute.

A proud UCPH community

Willerslev went to Cambridge for two reasons: He needed money for his research, and a greater influence over his university.

Willerslev’s research is really expensive, and in 2019 his research group lacked funding after a series of rejections from foundations. He was also, personally, feeling exhausted after a long boxing match with the University of Copenhagen management, which he felt was excluding his researchers in its decision making.

That’s why he decided to put more of his energy into Cambridge, and since then his whole family has moved to England.

Today, it is a more conciliatory Eske Willerslev that is at the Centre for GeoGenetics saying that he has »really learned a lot« from the UK. He has been out getting inspired for a few years, and now he is here claiming that the University of Copenhagen, with a few changes, could outcompete all of the world’s universities.

If the University of Copenhagen is to join the elite, management needs to give its employees better security, influence and freedom, says Eske Willerslev. Because then, he thinks, people will repay it with their joy, and their pride. They will let everyone know about it, and this is the kind of advertising that can’t be bought for money.

»You can hang up all kinds of banners on the gables of the universities, but this is nothing compared to employees and students, in their own settings, saying: This is the best place to work, and I’m so proud to be here,« says Eske Willerslev.

»I can’t understand why they do not tap into this mindset.«

Perhaps the UCPH prorector Kristian C. Lauta might even be able to achieve the goals he set for himself on being hired recently: that students will attend a reunion at their old secondary school with a UCPH logo T-shirt, because they are actually proud to be a part of the UCPH community.

The most spectacular thing that Eske Willerslev recommends to management is to max out on its rituals and symbols. In Cambridge, he experienced the power inherent in the historical rituals, the conservative etiquette, and all the bling.

It is, of course, great to be appreciated by the outside, Eske Willerslev says, and he is used to the fact that taxi drivers are overwhelmed with admiration when they transport him to his college. But his point is that it is less about the outside perspective, and more about how individuals perceive themselves and each other at the university:

»You up your game when you put on your academic gown or put an award on your lapel. And you look at your colleagues with admiration, because you are proud to be part of a community where people work hard and achieve fabulous results. Academics don’t enjoy a unique status in Denmark. But we should celebrate those that go the extra mile«

Three professorships and a bad conscience

The University Post has courted Professor Eske Willerslev for an interview ever since we learned that he had quit his seat on the University of Copenhagen’s Board a year ago. He had been elected by his colleagues on the key issue of more influence for researchers. But Eske Willerslev is a busy man, and it is difficult to set up a time with him.

When his book was published, there was suddenly an opening. It is Willerslev’s executive assistant who welcomes you to the Centre for GeoGenetics — a small offshoot of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in central Copenhagen. Eske Willerslev is eagerly gesticulating behind a glass partition with a small group of people, and the assistant has to knock several times before he manages to tear himself away.

In the meantime, she is trying to find a quiet spot for the interview. We can’t be at Willerslev’s office, because it’s occupied by two other guys. In the meeting room, a long-haired dude is writing on a computer. Everyone is speaking English. We finally find a cosy office with a sofa group, library and some knick-knacks, the owner of which is on summer holiday. It’s hot, and it smells a bit off. Eske Willerslev whisks in through the door and lets himself slump into a deep reclining chair with a ‘sorry’.

We know Eske Willerslev as the scientist who was on his first trip in the wilderness (with his twin brother Rane) at the age of 13. As the scientist who looked for adventure as a trapper in Siberia and then among indigenous people in North America, Australia, and thousands of other more outlandish locations. And who studied biology, wrote a PhD, and in time brought his finds from the wilderness into the science laboratory.

From the Centre for GeoGenetics, Eske Willerslev has revolutionized science with the sequencing of ancient DNA. Something that few people thought possible, but which has meant that large parts of human genetic history have had to be re-written.

If you are to match Eske Willerslevs own tone of voice, you would say that he has screwed up our whole worldview with his pipette and his Petri dish. And he has done this by working hard, he says, as he could not write, do maths, or read when he left primary school. But he has – in his father’s words, which he has made his own – compensated for low intelligence with hard work.

Eske Willerslev feels guilty when he does not work, he says. He has three professorships and manages research groups in Cambridge, Copenhagen and Bremen.

»It’s a bit like an international company with offices in three different countries, and I have to make sure that it all works. It is, of course, a challenge for me personally because everyone wants more. But there are also huge advantages from a purely scientific perspective. In Cambridge, they are less capable in terms of setting up pipelines and producing data. On the other hand, in terms of ideas, theory and things like that: Here they are much stronger than we are in Copenhagen,« says Eske Willerslev.

He has commuted between Copenhagen and Cambridge since 2015. His agreement with the two universities was that he divided his working hours fairly between them. In practice, however, he was in Copenhagen most of the time.

Until 2021 that is, when Eske Willerslev announced that he, from that point on, would use 80 per cent of his energy in Cambridge. Since then, the University of Copenhagen has only got a measly 20 per cent out of him. But this might change again, because in the summer of 2022 Willerslev was invited to negotiate with the Danish National Research Foundation for a large grant for a research centre, a Center of Excellence based in Copenhagen.

A breach of trust and a downright outstanding dean

Eske Willerslev was appointed professor at the Faculty of Science as a 33-year-old in 2005. This is from where his thousands of expeditions took off. Until 2018, when something went wrong.

In the autumn of 2018, the incumbent dean of the faculty announced that he would merge the two departments the Natural History Museum of Denmark (SNM) and the Department of Biology. It was a cost-cutting exercise, and the dean announced at the same time a round of layoffs at the department which included Eske Willerslevs research group.

Eske Willerslev and four other research group leaders from SNM were furious. And after a long and bitter struggle, the merger was actually called off. But all trust between the researchers and the faculty management was gone:

»This conflict was very devastating for me in many ways,« says Eske Willerslev. »And at that time, I had my professorship in Cambridge, so it felt natural for me to decide to spread my wings there for a while.«

A management that doesn’t listen to its researchers and students is a poor management, according to Eske Willerslev. And a management that doesn’t listen to its employees who have worked like crazy to create a unique success story is worthless:

»SNM was an exceptional place. We had turned it into the best, science-producing natural history museum in the world. There was a huge investment on the part of the five research groups in lifting the museum to what it was. We did it together, and it was quite unique because the groups had very different backgrounds, study programmes and focus. It was a genuine inter-disciplinary success story. But management wanted to tear it apart. It made no sense.«

The rescue came in the form of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, that gave the research directors the opportunity to stay together in a newly established department, the Globe Institute. And the shift from the Faculty of Science to the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences was an eye-opener for Eske Willerslev:

»The Faculty of Health and Medical Science is an extremely well-run faculty, and Ulla Wewer was downright outstanding as a dean (she was dean 2006-2022, ed.) for researchers like us, because she appreciated high profile science, and she and her administration supported people who wanted to do something and could do something.«

It is not only the experience of Cambridge, in other words, that Eske Willerslev, is delivering his ‘shoutout’ to, as he calls it. It is all addressed to the management at the University of Copenhagen. Every time you leave your familiar environment, it widens your perspective, and Eske Willerslev says that it was valuable for him to change faculty and find out how faculty management also can work:

»I’ve never seen such a well-functioning administration, not even in Cambridge. It is always healthy to move through new places. Even at the age of 51.«

A flashy car and a sad sandwich

It was not just the battle over the cancelled merger that sent Willerslev off to Cambridge.

From the media coverage, you get the impression that Willerslev is not just a world leader in DNA research, but that he is also world champion in obtaining funding for it. It is not that simple, he says.

Even though Eske Willerslev had two professorships, has just been knighted with the Danish Order of the Dannebrog and had, in 2018, ten articles in the coolest scientific journals, namely Nature and Science, he suddenly found himself with no funding for his research.

»The university gives you your salary and your desk – everything else you have get yourself,« he says, and calls the hunt for research funding a real roller coaster.

»Because we were getting a lot of publicity, everyone had the perception that things were going really well for us, and that we had what we needed and more. The foundations decided to support others instead. And when there’s no new money, you have nothing to do, and you suddenly have to sack people. They are then, of course, gone, if you suddenly pass through the eye of the needle and get a grant six months later.«

For this reason, Willerslev tells everyone who seeks media training advice from him that press coverage does not necessarily promote research – sometimes quite the contrary.

»All this media nonsense can be a double-edged sword. If I were to do it all again, I would only focus on international media. It is the tall poppy syndrome. If you get too much attention, then things are going too well. And some of the funding in Denmark is run a bit like a social welfare office. They fund people who need the money, rather than supporting those that are doing well.«

But in 2020, the tide turned. Eske Willerslev’s research group found plague and hepatitis in Bronze Age skeletons from 3,000 years before what was previously assumed possible. Now he could suddenly apply for funding to conduct research into the genetic development of diseases over time. Suddenly pharmaceutical foundations were queuing up to fund him and they have the money. A lot of money.

If you want to do research, you have to follow the money, according to Eske Willerslev. He explains that he was »scared stiff« of selling his soul to industry. But the fear turned out to be unfounded, because the grant givers understand what basic research is, and they are open to research into other elements so long as he primarily conducts research into diseases.

»The money is in health science,« says Eske Willerslev, and he has a basis for comparison, as his research spans many disciplines:

»When you are invited to speak at a medical conference, you get business class to the US and are chauffeured in a large car to a luxury hotel. These are large dinners and great setups all the way. If you go to an evolutionary biology conference, you go monkey class, and stay at a school where there is a poster and a sad sandwich waiting for you. This is a good indicator of where the money is,« he says, adding:

»At the Faculty of Humanities, well there is just nothing.«

»I was really eager to change things«

However, when Cambridge keeps itself permanently among the five best universities in the world, then it is not about money. There is actually less of it than Copenhagen.

The employees at Cambridge do ground-breaking research because they have a huge influence on their university, says Eske Willerslev. He points out that it is, for example, the researchers themselves that hire new researchers in a very long and thorough process.

Academics don’t enjoy a unique status in Denmark. But we should celebrate those that go the extra mile.

Eske Willerslev

Willerslev wanted to share this recipe for success in Copenhagen. That researchers should be involved in important management decisions, was his core issue when he in 2015 first campaigned for a place on the University of Copenhagen’s Board and was elected by his colleagues. If you ask him how things went with that agenda, he replies:

»In general, I would say that things did not go very well. I was actually there for six years. And if I look over my entire period, I honestly do not think I moved things a lot. This was really disappointing, as I was really eager to change things.«

The Board consists of 11 members, six of whom are external members, five of whom are internal. Eske Willerslev has collaborated with two rectors and three different board chairpersons. He does not express himself as openly about this co-operation as he is used to:

»The Board work is a confidential space, so there are many things that I cannot, and must not, say. But I don’t think all the boards have been equally well-functioning. One thing is that the Board has not agreed on a line, and pulled in the same direction at all times. Another is that even when the members have agreed, changes were not implemented to the degree that they hoped.«

But Willerslev has »good news for the University of Copenhagen,« as he puts it:

»The board I left is virtually the same as it is today, and it is the best one that I’ve experienced during my time at UCPH. The current board and chairman are skilled, have good chemistry, and people are really working. And the representatives for scientific staff, Pia Quist and Jesper Grodal, have been more successful than I in getting results. They are working specifically, for example, on ensuring that researchers have greater influence on appointment committees.«

»At UCPH nothing happens over night, it’s like turning a goddamn supertanker. But if something has to be changed, it’s up there that things happen,« says Eske Willerslev. He reckons that his words have some weight, because he took an MBA in Cambridge during the lockdown, and he learned that culture changes need to come from above.

»At UCPH there is this consensus that culture changes emerge from the bottom up. But it is the Board and the Rector’s Office that set the course, and the culture. It is them that can decide on whether they should re-establish the ceremonies and the rituals.«

Capes, knight’s crosses and doctoral rings

When you have the a title as the Prince Philip Professor at Cambridge like Willerslev does, you are expected to be a beacon in a sea of darkness, that students can look towards with admiration and respect.

And when you’ve been given doctor status – Willerslev was unable to convert his Danish title to an English, so he had to submit a new dissertation – you advance ceremonially from a black cape to a red one. It is upon this that you can wear your own badges of honour, in Willerslev’s case this includes an Order of the Dannebrog and a doctoral ring.

»Every evening, when I go to dine at the college, I put on a tie, blazer and cape. When you are at a party, you wear a tux and the red doctor’s robes. I love it. In Denmark my knight’s cross is just collecting dust, but I actually use it in Cambridge.«

The debate section of the University Post offers testimony to how rituals and celebrations have little presence at the University of Copenhagen. Both students and employees regularly bemoan the loss of tradition. The master’s thesis defence has been scrapped in many faculties, and students even have to print their own master’s diploma via the government email system eBoks.

»I really can’t stand it,« says Eske Willerslev.

It’s like Hogwarts without the owls.

»This is so wrong. »People have put a huge effort behind this, for many years of their lives, and it should be celebrated. In Cambridge, you celebrate those who have made an effort. Whether it is for a bachelor’s, a master’s, a PhD or doctorate, and we could learn so much at the University of Copenhagen. It costs nothing, and it means so much. It’s a huge thing to come in and be celebrated in the Ceremonial Hall. So why not do it? Why not just give people this joy? I just don’t get it.«

By way of comparison, Eske Willerslev recounts the ceremonial celebrations he went through to become a doctor and an MBA in Cambridge. On both occasions, he had to kneel in a cathedral-like room to the sound of praises in Latin, all of it washed down with champagne.

»It’s like Hogwarts without the owls. You celebrate academia and you celebrate each other. You are proud of the huge piece of work you have done, and it is motivating and wonderful that someone celebrates and appreciates it,« he says, and adds:

»When I got my doctorate at the University of Copenhagen, there were three thermoses and some plastic mugs on the table. That was it.«

Eske Willerslev decided to compensate for this by celebrating it himself with a doctoral ring. Anyone who has acquired a higher doctoral degree at a Danish university can buy an emblem with Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom, which is cast as a gold ring. When you wear the doctoral ring on your right index finger, it is a signal that you are betrothed to science. The tradition dates back to medieval universities, and Eske Willerslev is one of the few Danish doctoral degree holders that upholds it because he loves the symbolism.

The coolest place in the world. And number 114

Employees at the University of Copenhagen are asked to complete a workplace assessment survey every three years. There are always a series of questions about whether you would recommend your workplace to others.

»In Cambridge, the administrators themselves refer to it as God’s gift to mankind when they are outside university. And when researchers talk about their institution, they say in full seriousness that Cambridge is the coolest place in the world. The point is that this is self-reinforcing,« says Eske Willerslev and adds: »You do not find this pride at the University of Copenhagen, and this is really demoralising.«

On the leading international rankings of the world’s universities, the University of Copenhagen has been somewhere between number 79 and 114 in recent years. If UCPH give its staff job security and greater influence, it would be possible to read this directly on the university’s ranking position, according to Eske Willerslev.

»In Cambridge, you can shout and scream. You can say that the vice Chancellor is an idiot, and no one can touch me. And if two-thirds of the employees do not like the vice-chancellor, there will be a new one. You have influence, and you have freedom. No one tries to shut you up. And all this freedom of expression and freedom of research, and what the hell else we discuss in Denmark. All of this disappears like that,« he says and snaps his fingers.

Eske Willerslev’s snap of his fingers emphasises that he considers his proposals as changes that are in the category of things that can be done in an instant. And then he starts listing all the things that management should take action on, if employees are to tick off ’to a very high degree’ the next time they are asked whether they would recommend their workplace to others:

»People should be allowed to rant off when they are dissatisfied, also in the press, without being subsequently struck down. The administration should be geared towards supporting research and teaching. And then you have to ensure that your planning holds water, so staff have psychological safety.«

There is the decisive difference, the University Post interjects, that the researchers at Cambridge have tenure. Permanent contracts, in other words. The size of the temporarily contracted group is now larger at the University of Copenhagen than the group of permanently hired.

»It is a management responsibility to set out long-term plans and adjust budgets to account for the number of people recruited, so you don’t have to keep on giving people the sack and hire people on these temporary contracts,« says Eske Willerslev. He rejects the objection that Danish government interventions make it more difficult to manage a university in Copenhagen than in Cambridge.

»I’m not saying that there can’t be any other problems that need to be solved. But it is not an excuse that the politicians are interfering, because there are so many things you can do yourself. Management can draw up a budget that lasts. It can listen. It can ensure that there is a well-functioning administration. It can celebrate the victories of its employees and students. All this is up to the university itself, and these are simple things in the larger picture. This is my shoutout to the university: The solution is staring you in the face,« says Eske Willerslev, and then doubles down:

»I really can’t believe that we can’t pull our socks up and get these things fixed. We would rock, I promise you!«