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»We hate it when politicians go in and micromanage the university«

Farewell interview — The University of Copenhagen was more complicated and far more time-consuming to manage than the Chairman of the Board Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen had ever imagined. It is the arm wrestling with the politicians that has been the most demanding, he says in this retrospective.

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen was well-prepared at his first Board meeting at the University of Copenhagen in 2012, because he had tried it before when he was eight years in the the Board for DTU, the Technical University of Denmark.

He brought with him the self-confidence that comes from 20 years of management experience from Novo Nordisk, the most valuable company in the Nordic region, where he was – and is – head of research and development.

You would think that his cognac-hued briefcase would be packed with the right tools. But Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen says that the meeting with the University of Copenhagen shocked him nevertheless.

»I thought. Wow. I have never been somewhere where I had to spend so much time trying to understand how things worked. Just all the acronyms for the various councils, boards and committees!«

When I started here, words like ‘societal relevance’ were taboo.

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen

It was overwhelming. The University of Copenhagen has six faculties, each with various problems and local cultures, and the reality that appeared when Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen chewed through stacks of reading material, looked like nothing else he had seen from others boards or from the business world:

»The University of Copenhagen is a very complicated place. It is the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) multiplied by six. I thought, Good Lord, it is difficult to manage a university that is so diverse.«

From Novo Nordisk, he was used to all employees sharing the same work culture and being proud to be a part of the company’s community of values, he says.

At the University of Copenhagen, employees also have a sense of ownership, but it is a pride that takes on many shapes. And this is one of the things that keeps the rectorate and the Board working hard. We’ll get back to that.

There was another thing that surprised Krogsgaard Thomsen. That the university’s relationship with the surrounding community was topsy-turvy:

When I started here, words like ‘societal relevance’ were taboo in some circles. But if we are to have legitimacy towards politicians, and those that allocate us funding, we need to show our relevance. Not least by turning out graduates that society needs.«

If the welfare state is to be preserved, research needs to be strengthened, and it is a task for the chairman of the university to set this message in stone, according to Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen. The politicians seem to ignore this:

»I find it frustrating to experience an election campaign, where nobody spoke about the need for research and research-based education.«

Rector Henrik Wegener toured the country before the election with a shameful number: 0.04 per cent. This is the proportion of Danes who reckoned that research was among the four most important themes in the election.

»It concerns me that politicians are not acting in accordance with the immense significance of research in Denmark staying competitive,« says Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen and gives an example:

»The most important drug I have ever helped create in my time at Novo Nordisk was developed in collaboration with a researcher from the University of Copenhagen. We must stress the relevance to society.«

The collaboration was basic research that ended up benefiting patients and resulted in a Danish financial blockbuster: In 1986, Professor Jens Juul Holst discovered the hormone GLP-1 in connection with gastric ulcer surgery. Since then, Novo Nordisk has had a huge success using GLP-1 in the development of drugs for diabetes and obesity.

Political lobbying

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen has warned the politicians. He has criticised the government’s cuts to research and education in several featured comments over the years. He has even suggested that the billion kroner cuts will have consequences for the future of companies like Novo Nordisk in Denmark.

MADS KROGSGAARD THOMSEN

Born 1960

Trained veterinarian. PhD and Doctorate from the Veterinary and Agricultural University, which is today a part of the University of Copenhagen.

Affiliated professor of pharmacology at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

Pharmacologist at LEO Pharma 1988-1991

Management positions at Novo Nordisk 1991-2000, from 1994 as director for research

Head of Research and Development at Novo Nordisk since 2000.

Member of the Board for the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) 2000-2008

Member of the University of Copenhagen Board 2012-2019, since 2017 as chairman.

In 2019, external research funding exceeds government funding for the first time. It is historic that this threshold has now been passed. But it is not a good thing, according to Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, that politicians seem to think that private players can just take over and start funding research:

»Politicians need to understand that every time they give a krone to the University of Copenhagen, it multiplies and is more than doubled by funding and private investment that comes on top. A chairman of the Board needs to join the fray and speak to the relevant political institutions.«

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen blasts the years of austerity which the Danish parliament has deliberately imposed on the universities. And then there is the whole debacle over the university’s rent payments. The university does not own its buildings, but rents them, at a high cost, from the Danish government. And the negotiations about the size of the rent are one long tug of war between the university and the cashiers in the Ministry of Finance.

This is one of the things that exasperates Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, and it has embittered several successive rectors.

Although several ministers for education have agreed that the University of Copenhagen (which the law allows) should own and dispose of its own buildings, the Ministry of Finance has always tripped them up. It has been a hopeless struggle so far, but if it is up to Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, this struggle is not over:

»We warned the politicians of this waste of money in good time. If only we had been allowed to build these new buildings ourselves. The Buildings and Property Agency (which builds on campus for the state, ed.) has not been able to manage it. They have not kept their schedules, they have not stuck to their budgets, and they have not upheld quality – this has frustrated me.«

I can see now that we – including myself in the Board – can be criticized for being too reactive.
Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen

The University Post helped to uncover how the high rent was, on top of all this, deducted from the pool of funding that the politicians had congratulated themselves on allotting to research and education. Is the current scheme a cash cow for government?

»Yes, for the state it is a clear source of income, and the university is drained of funding for research and education. We pay more than a billion (1.2) kroner in rent, and they count it as research, so that they, in their calculations fulfil Barcelona targets (the international declaration proposing that the public sector should use one per cent of GDP on research and development, ed.).

Another thing that has cooled the relationship between the university’s Frue Plads headquarters and the politicians in parliament on Slotsholmen is the zig-zag course of politics:

»We have seen this ‘yo-yo’ policy, where politicians one year say that 25 per cent of a youth cohort is to get university level training. Two years later, they suddenly speak out and say that we do not need all of these academics, so we need to admit fewer students.«

Even though Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen and other big players from the world of business criticised the year-on-year cuts to public sector funding and argued for new investments, this has not had any particular effect. As political micro-management continues, the University of Copenhagen itself might be doing something wrong, according to Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen:

»We hate it when politicians go in and micromanage the university. But I can see now that we – including myself on the Board – can be criticized for having been too reactive. Now we have been asked to downsize and to admit fewer students to the Faculty of Humanities, but the Danish universities should probably have taken more responsibility themselves and seen the market conditions change, so that politicians need not have come along and intervened.«

»This is not a small part-time hobby«

A nomination committee is currently working on finding a new Chairman of the Board for the turn of the year, and we look back at Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen’s eight years at the University of Copenhagen, the last two of them at the end of the table.

The university has been governed from the Board’s meeting room since 1563, perhaps from even earlier. Ludvig Holberg, H.C. Ørsted and Adam Oehlenschläger have been here. Hans Wegner has designed the hardwood meeting table before which internal and external board members are seated in a circle.

The 58-year-old businessman is out of place in the University’s central square: The shirt is whiter, the wristwatch is heavier, a posture from many years of tennis. He is accustomed to speaking, his expression is friendly, his eye movements fast.

He has lately called up graduates who have the right qualifications to go for one of the vacant board positions at the end of the year when several members’ terms end.

I have promised myself to take a timeout and not throw myself into a new board. I am still executive vice president at Novo Nordisk.

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen

»I am surprised that I can call anybody, and people find it really exciting, and from the nomination committee I can say that many people are applying.«

Apart from talking to ministers, lobbying for the university, and being politically proactive, his successor must be prepared to devote time to the task, he says:

»If you have a job like mine, this means that many evening and weekend hours will be spent next to your job, so this is not a small part-time hobby«

It is not the remuneration that is the incentive. As Chairman of the Board, he has received approximately DKK 250,000 a year. And even though this is good money, it is a fraction of the two-digit millions that Krogsgaard Thomsen earns at Novo Nordisk according to the annual report. The next chairman will probably also earn more elsewhere.

»You have to be genuinely interested in education and research, or it will exhaust you. And you have to want to immerse yourself. I have, for example, used a great deal of energy trying to understand the university’s budget processes, which we are about to change, so you have to find the time to get into ‘boring’ things like economic models.«

Elite and mass university: Two sides of the same coin

Genuinely interested in education, Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen fits the bill.

40 per cent of the academics at Novo Nordisk are graduates from the University of Copenhagen, and the company is the largest private workplace for PhD graduates in Denmark. For this reason, he is interested in the quality that comes out at the end of university:

»The goal is that anyone who calls themselves a graduate from here meets a high minimum requirement and is suitable for a job in the private or public sector or out in the wider world.«

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen knows, he says, that not everyone here agrees with him that the elites should be promoted at the University of Copenhagen. But for him, there is no conflict between nurturing the elite and being a mass university at the same time. The top researchers are to mingle with the students, and this improves the overall quality of the study programmes.

He is a big fan of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of academic staff – right up to the absolute elite – being directly involved with students. Top scientist Charles Marcus, who is employed at the Niels Bohr Institute, has told him how professors personally have to take care of 5-10 students in the US, where he comes from. Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen resorts to English-language phrases as we talk about his personal hobbyhorse:

»The academic staff need more time for ‘tutorials’, ‘supervision’, and ‘mentorship’. I really believe in this. The students need more direct interaction with young researchers, because it is extremely motivating when they see an open door, have direct meetings with academic staff, and are challenged and receive feedback on their ideas.«

For the same reason, he says he finds it important for the entire process, that the University of Copenhagen has elite research environments at all faculties, that can attract young talent from both Denmark and abroad:

It should never be the case that you can say, ‘I’m an elite researcher, I don’t have time to teach’

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen

»There is nothing like seeing people with bright eyes speaking about their frontline research. It is stimulating, also for those who are not part of the elite. So you should never be able to say, ‘I am an elite researcher, I do not have the time to teach’,« says Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, as he claps his hands three times to emphasise his point.

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen admits that it sounds expensive, and that the University of Copenhagen has far more students per professor than the higher-ranked universities that he points to as inspiration. But he says that the digitalisation that the Board will promote at the university with its strategy, will release some energy for this:

»The more digital the university becomes, the more time academic staff have in surplus. If some of the teaching can take place as e-learning, there is more time for direct interaction between lecturers and students.«

The last debacle

We are talking about the new budget model, which the Rector’s Office and the Board are collaborating on, and Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen says that »of course this does not happen without people taking many different positions on it.«

There are many interests that are debated and given voice to. This is a fundamental condition of being at a university, where »everything is challenged,« and Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen has seen this again and again.

In June this year, things blew up when 193 employees at the Department of Biology addressed a letter to the Board. They criticised their management for not having involved them adequately during the process of the cancelled merger between the Department of Biology and the Natural History Museum of Denmark. The merger plans resulted in five of the museum’s top scientists leaving the Faculty of Science and joining a new for-the-purpose, set up department at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, the Globe Institute.

The Board admitted that employees should have been more involved in the process. As to the Board’s role in the debacle, Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen responds:

»In the beginning, it was not a Board issue, because if something goes on out in the faculties, we as a board should not interfere with it. The reason why the Board ended up talking quite a lot about this issue, also with management, is that it ended up being a very contentious issue. And when it could end up damaging the university’s image, it becomes a Board matter.«

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen explains that the Board imparted to management, that if something like this turns up on the horizon in the future, they must ensure that all affected staff groups are involved and heard to a greater extent before management is ready to make a decision.

It was not just about finances, it turned into a personal mudslinging match.

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen

After the process, many researchers have claimed that you only have influence if you are a top researcher with a very large amount of funding and good contacts in the media. What does Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen say to those who believe that there were five people who came out of this process victorious, while the rest were driven out onto the sidelines?

»Some may see it as five people coming out of this victorious, yes. But it is really important that management now ensures that neither the Faculty of Science nor the Department of Biology suffer from it. Financially, some of the Globe Institute’s circles have been strengthened. They are funding magnets and so I hope that they can help generate even more external funding,« says Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen.

»But it is an important point, as you say, that in the future you must make sure to involve everyone equally.«

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen is annoyed with the fact that the case came as far as it did:

»This case should have been settled as soon as possible, and it ended up taking time.«

The merger should have been a financial life raft for the Natural History Museum of Denmark. How do you explain to the outside world that the University of Copenhagen, with a DKK 9 billion turnover, is not able to handle a double-digit million kroner loss without it becoming a media scandal?

»It was not just about finances, it turned into a personal mudslinging match. And unfortunately it is in the nature of a university that things escalate. In a private company, it is easier to put something like this behind you,« says Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen.

A university in good shape

In the future, weekends for him will not be spent studying six faculties with widely differing issues:

The strategy

In Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen’s time, the work has been on the University of Copenhagen’s strategy ‘Talent and Collaboration’ which has just been completed. Management presents the strategy as »a historically good platform for the future«. The replacement can start here:

Here is where we are strong

Research beacons with world-class scientific staff

Success in taking home prestigious grants

Modern, attractive, and international learning environments and research infrastructure

Large number of applicants to the study programmes

Competent staff

This is where the potential is

Continuing to develop an excellent, international work and study environment in order to attract and retain the best academic staff

Fostering closer ties between education and both research and the job market

Leveraging the university’s academic breadth more effectively through collaboration to help resolve societal challenges

Developing a digital organisation and strengthening the digital skills of staff and students

Working towards a common goal and promoting a profile, which better positions the university internationally

»I have promised myself to take a timeout and not throw myself into a new board. I am still executive vice president at Novo Nordisk,« says Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, who is looking forward to being able to spend more time with the family in his farmhouse near Græsted and on his mountain bike in Gribskov forest.

He leaves a university in better shape, he reckons, that is easier to manage, partly because his successor will have the strategy to support them.

»The co-operation between management and the Board has been really good,« says Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen and highlights the work on the strategy paper Talent and Collaboration 2023.

»I am one of the people who believe that it is an advantage to have a strategy. It should not be bureaucratic, and it should not fill out 100 pages, but all employees and students can benefit from getting away from this silo mentality. We can benefit from each others’ skills and from cooperating more closely across the whole university.«

For the executive vice president, it has personally been one of the most inspiring things to sit on the Board of the University of Copenhagen. And to his replacement, he says:

»The chairman needs to be able to get internal and external members with different backgrounds and different interests, like scientific staff, administrative staff and students to work together. I have spent quite a lot of time getting all of the different special interests working as a team.«

He has not always been equally popular with everyone, he says, but most decisions were taken with a reasonable consensus:

»It’s not easy to get this team to play together as it would be in a private sector board, where you yourself get to choose the members at a general assembly. The trick is to find the common ground. In the Board, everyone agrees that the University of Copenhagen must be the leading Danish university because of its size, history and appeal.«

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