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Top staff representative: This university is managed as if it was a margarine factory

Interview — Cooperation, flexibility, and mutual respect. They have been replaced by top-down management, arrogance, and protocol at the University of Copenhagen. And the bad atmosphere between management and staff is approaching boiling point. According to the staff representative for the HK group Ingrid Kryhlmand, the corona crisis’ home workplaces have given many staff a much-needed breather.

Ingrid Kryhlmand is a lady that you notice at the University of Copenhagen, and this is not only due to her fashionable spectacles and high-heeled sneakers. She is (and these are her own words) not a person who holds herself back, and this is the zest that has brought her from the outskirts of Denmark to a central office in Nørregade street at the University of Copenhagen.

Here she now sits at the end of the table for meetings in the university’s General Collaboration Committee after being appointed by employees. The rector of the university sits at the other end of the table. He is the chairman and she is the vice-chairman of the 24-member committee, which is to ensure cooperation between the university’s management and its employees.

Unfortunately, the metaphorical distance from one end of the table to the other has gotten longer and longer in recent years, according to Ingrid Kryhlmand. We will get back to this in a minute.

Ingrid Kryhlmand was hired as medical secretary at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences 33 years ago. She wanted to experience the city after an upbringing in southern Jutland and a working stay in Greenland. When she talks, you can still clearly hear her Southern Jutland dialect, even though it has been a long time since she left her home region.

Today, she is staff representative for a couple of thousand employees under the HK (clerical staff) agreement at the University of Copenhagen. She says that her father, who worked as a driver, made a point out of teaching his three daughters that they needed to be a member of a trade union. And she has been preoccupied with union work in all her workplaces.

From secretary to manager

When Ingrid Kryhlmand had been employed at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences for two years in 1989, the position of deputy head of department came up. She managed the secretariat for a department of hereditary diseases with a clinic that got outside patients.

She had been away on maternity leave for five months. Still, her colleagues encouraged her to go for the management position. It was called the ‘department head’ at the time, staff elected their own managers, and technical/administrative staff could also be elected for the job.

»In fact, the academic staff at the department encouraged me to run for election, because they wanted to have someone from the technical and administrative staff on that post.«

Ingrid Kryhlmand was elected. To the question of how she could demonstrate leadership potential in such a relatively short period of time, her answer is:

»It’s my nature that I don’t hold myself back. People at the department knew me, and everybody knew what I am about. The academic staff are not known to be generous. So when they thought that this was something for me, it was probably because they could feel that this was something I could do. I had also taken on the position as staff representative for the local HK chapter.«

In 1993, new Danish university legislation was passed. It started a showdown with employees’ and students’ — at the time extensive — democratic influence at Danish universities that had been in place since a 1960s youth rebellion against what they called professorial rule.

»When the [1993] legislation passed, I could no longer have a managerial position. Then it was only for academic staff,« says Ingrid Kryhlmand.

She was ready to take on the responsibility that came with this power, she explains. Even the tough parts of this responsibility. Like when she was in charge of a round of layoffs due to financial problems while second-in-command at the department, because the manager was doing research in Australia.

However, as the technical and administrative staff could no longer be selected as managers, they had to gain influence elsewhere, according to Ingrid Kryhlmand:

»On top of the new governing act, we decided that we needed collaboration committees at both departments and faculties. It was some other people that did all the work of getting the attention of politicians back then, but I started getting more and more involved with union work.«

Confidential negotiations

In 1997 Ingrid Kryhlmand was elected as representative for all of the so-called HK-organised administrative staff. And she has been re-elected every year since then, so she enjoys a lot of support. But the post is not highly sought-after. You have to thrive on this level of conflict, she says:

»People say they don’t want all the fighting. They don’t want to lose friendships. And I don’t want to do that either. But I do not want anyone to make decisions on behalf of me and other professional groups. And this is perhaps, what I am good at. I am not afraid of speaking out and saying. This is not good enough.«

An example: In 2010, Ingrid Kryhlmand, who was then a representative for technical and administrative staff on the Board of the University of Copenhagen, would not approve the budget before a scheme was set up for the employees who had been fired due to cutbacks. The agreement passed.

We do not want to limit ourselves to correcting the commas in the already finalised plan of management.

Ingrid Kryhlmand

Staff representative colleagues that the University Post has spoken to, say that Ingrid Kryhlmand is determined, good at holding her own, and negotiating at all levels. So how does she do that?

»I’m into relationships, and I give managers a chance. I can enter into a zone of confidentiality with any kind of manager and say: Why don’t we just settle this matter, because nobody gains from it all coming out into the open,« she says. She then draws a parallel to a recent public squabble in the Danish centrist Social Liberal Party after their political leader exited dishonourably:

»I don’t like seeing people lose face. You can only cheat your opponent once. And if you do that, you’ll never gain their confidence again.«

And at the University of Copenhagen there has been a long and happy tradition for employees and management showing mutual respect and avoiding major disputes, according to Ingrid Kryhlmand. She emphasises her very close collaboration in the General Collaboration Committee with the former rector, Ralf Hemmingsen (2005-2017), the predecessor of the current rector Henrik C. Wegener.

READ ALSO: The University Post’s farewell interview with Ralf Hemmingsen

»We could speak confidentially about things and negotiate solutions that everyone could buy into. And when you can solve these cases without a hassle, you gain credit that you can use in other contexts. Then you can say: We fixed it in this case, why don’t we fix it in this case?«

»Ah, that was good, now it is coffee time,« says Ingrid. Her husband Jørgen, a retired optician, serves it.

Management is arrogant

Ingrid Kryhlmand takes a deep breath:

»I would say that it is becoming more and more difficult. Management style has become completely different with the new rector. And feel free to go ahead and write that. There is no longer a decent collaboration atmosphere, where management accepts criticism and a dialogue with different viewpoints with the aim of reaching consensus,« she says. And then the zinger:

»The way we are managed these days, we could just as well be a margarine factory as we could be a university. Management forgets that it is the staff, not the bricks and mortar, that make up the University of Copenhagen. Especially the academic staff, because without them there would be no university at all. But they still do not listen to the people who actually run things. What are their objections or wishes?«

Ingrid Kryhlmand points out that university legislation states that staff and students need to be involved, and to have influence upon important decisions.

»The rector claims that the employees actually do have influence. At the most recent board meeting, he said that there are 340 forums at the university where employees are involved. But he talks about formal involvement, not real involvement.«

When management presents its decisions to employees, they have already actually been taken, according to Ingrid Kryhlmand.

»They say: We will spend this week considering whether your comments can have any effect whatsoever. And then the decision will be implemented the following week. It is just the trappings of influence.«

She no longer enjoys the confidence of the rector:

»He is cheerful and nice, but I have only had a one-on-one talk with him very few times, because he is always surrounded by functionaries.«

Outcry from staff

It is part of the same trend that it has now become more difficult to understand who it is exactly that is making the different decisions, according to Ingrid Kryhlmand:

»It is no longer the rector or the university director that is running the process, as an entourage of deputy directors have appeared. The deans have also slipped into the background. Top management still might come up with some ideas. But nowadays there is an intermediate layer of academics sitting in their offices writing long epistles about how this and that should be done. The staff was supposed to have been involved before all the academic scribes got put to work, but we are not. We do not want to limit ourselves to correcting the commas in their already finalised plan.«

Last October, the Danish sister site of the University Post had an article, where Ingrid Kryhlmand was supported in her criticism of top management by two professor colleagues from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

The story was about the so-called master plan, which included a reduction of the total University of Copenhagen floor space, because the rent payments due to the Danish state had skyrocketed after a series of construction scandals. Local committees on each campus are now to assess how this can be done in practice.

Ingrid Kryhlmand told the University Post that »there was an outcry« in the Academic Council and collaboration committee of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences when management presented the moving of thousands of students, researchers and employees from the inner city to the more outerly south campus in the Amager district. And she condemns the way the proposal was communicated:

»It was published as a news update on KUnet (intranet for students and staff, ed.) – no employees had heard anything about this before the publication,« says Ingrid Kryhlmand.

Ingrid Kryhlmand says this is a sad trend. And it sounds like a desperate plea when she says:

»We need to get a grip on this, otherwise things will spin out of control. Management is obligated to loyally enter into a discussion with employees, just as it is a basic clause in the staff representative agreement that we are obligated to keep the peace in the workplace. But we can’t do this if management does not involve employees. Then it just becomes a struggle between us and them.«

Culture of silence

The days pass quickly from a home workplace at a heavy oak table in her house apartment in the Copenhagen suburbs. Ingrid Kryhlmand likes to work from home, even though she misses all the bike trips from meeting to meeting which kept her fit before the corona crisis. So fit that she regularly did the 110 kilometre annual Tøserunden womens bike race.

A large part of the day is at Zoom meetings.

»To the people who want to talk, I always say: I’m available if you can find a time you can book in my calendar.«

She says that there are many people who get in touch with her to say: You are the only one who can say something. People are afraid of being fired if they are stand up:

There is no longer a decent collaboration atmosphere.

Ingrid Kryhlmand

»It is becoming more and more difficult to get people to stand up. I haven’t been able to find anyone who could comment on sexism, for example. People just don’t want their names out there.«

The culture of silence and the fear of getting dismissed are not new, according to Ingrid Kryhlmand. She does, however, think that among university staff there is a group that has a special responsibility:

»It is the professors and associate professors who have to step up and speak. Because the many people on temporary and precarious appointments at the university cannot do it. I urge the academic staff to take the lead, because they are just as stuck as I am.«

Ingrid Kryhlmand attempts to, in the general collaboration committee HSU, show the academic (VIP) and the technical/administrative (TAP) staff that their interests are basically aligned:

»Researchers eyes may glaze over when we talk about something that does not concern their area. But then I say: You are supporting this, because there will soon probably be a case where you would benefit from our support. This one angle is just as important as the other angle if we are to get this university to function.«

Intolerable nitpicking

Our time is up with Ingrid Kryhlmand. She is soon to go to a meeting at the Panum building, but she works patiently with the photographer. Her husband Jørgen is an avid amateur photographer himself, so he looks on from the sidelines.

She just manages to touch on the unfortunate consequences of the University of Copenhagen’s centralisation.

»Some of my people, who used to be out at work in the different departments, have now been moved together to the large secretariats at the faculties. They now no longer have any direct contact with the academic environment. And then, I think, you might as well be working in a margarine factory.«

Your job satisfaction goes down the drain as soon as this micromanagement increases, according to Ingrid Kryhlmand. Administrative staff used to be familiar with the researchers and be flexible towards their different specific needs. But all this is over.

»Nowadays there are many staff who are not in touch with the departments’ environment, and I find this setup incredibly dull. And employees are not allowed to do anything that is not a part of their task description without talking to their manager about it.«

She mentions a colleague who, at her own expense, donated sweets to the students when they submitted a large assignment at the counter. Then her manager stepped in and put a stop to it. This affects well-being.

»It is crazy. One year ago, we wanted to convene a lunch meeting about the new Danish holiday law and applied for permission to do so, just like we should. But we weren’t allowed to do the meeting during working hours, because people could just read about it on KUnet. We’ve never seen this kind of thing before.«

»Of course we have to comply with legislation, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying that something comes in through the front door that we have to follow. But we can still take a talk about it, downstairs, and ask how we can carry it out in the best way possible.«

The corona crisis has, in this way, been a blessing in disguise, unexpectedly setting employees free. Because when you’re working from home, you don’t have everyone’s eyes staring at you:

»Now the tyranny of the clock, and the supervision of all the managers who need to justify their jobs, has disappeared. Now people do what makes the most sense.«

On Ingrid Kryhlman’s desk at home is a sign she got from her son. It says MY DESK, MY RULES.

The Rector’s Office at the University of Copenhagen has been presented with her criticism, but does not wish to comment.

Translated by Mike Young

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