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Recycled dean: »We must keep up the fighting spirit«

Humanities — She inherited the Faculty of Humanities when her predecessor quit. With her one hand she has to restore trust within the faculty. With the other she has to cut 300 student places. What on earth does the dean Kirsten Busch Nielsen actually intend to do?

Kirsten Busch Nielsen only had to relocate her Montana shelving units a couple of hundred metres when the rector Henrik C. Wegener in the early summer of 2020 asked her to move into the dean’s office at the Faculty of Humanities.

At the time, she was professor of dogmatics and a dean for the eighth year at the Faculty of Theology, a faculty that shares the South Campus with the humanities people.

We visited Kirsten Busch Nielsen on a ‘day after’. A day after a majority in the Danish parliament had approved the government’s regionalisation plan. The plan has the University of Copenhagen cutting 625 student places and moving 304 student places out of Copenhagen.

The University of Copenhagen asked the politicians to go light on cuts to the language subjects. And even though the agreement took this into account, the Faculty of Humanities alone will have to cut 300 of the 625 study places that are to be slashed at the University of Copenhagen up to 2030.

We must keep up the fighting spirit

Dean Kirsten Busch Nielsen


»I am not the first to say this, but the regionalisation agreement was not invented by the universities. And it would be a shame,« says Kirsten Busch Nielsen, »if society only had the one perspective on universities, that they should not grow. Luckily, this is not my general impression.«

Cuts of this magnitude lead to unrest. Kirsten Busch Nielsen has a huge challenge internally in reassuring staff and students. But the question is also whether the dean also has another task ahead of her: to restore the prestige of the humanities in the outside world.

The dean accepted the University Post’s proposed interview about the public conversation surrounding the humanities.

To get to the dean’s office, we shoot a diagonal across a Karen Blixen square that is bathed in spring light. The humanities students are back on campus after the long lockdown. The books are in textile bags adorned with cool graphic statements, and the cigarettes taste better in the sun. In the smoking zones, that is. Corona has been sent off to the rubbish tip, and it as if the campus is vibrating.

The dean jogs over from another meeting down the long corridor of a bright new building with a cool vibe that »radiates a far too gentle and friendly efficiency, like all modern construction does.« The words were Kirsten Busch Nielsen’s own in the University Post in 2018 when she was still at the theology faculty.

Kirsten BUsch Nielsen

Kirsten Busch Nielsen is 60.

Professor of Dogmatics and Ecumenical Theology

Acting dean of the Faculty of Humanities for eight months until she was permanently employed in January 2021.

Employed at Faculty of Theology since 1995 as assistant professor, associate professor and then professor.

Dean at the Faculty of Theology 2013-2019.

The dean ushers me to a place on one specific side of a conference table because »the art on that wall is so dull.«

Kirsten Busch Nielsen’s predecessor at the Faculty of Humanities, Jesper Kallestrup, had a contract until 2022, but withdrew already after two years »for both personal and professional reasons,« as he put it in a succinct farewell before returning to Scotland where he came from.

His exit followed a bitter conflict with the students, who more or less shut down the faculty’s administration when a group of angry activists from the humanities’ student councils blockaded the dean’s office for 38 days in 2019.

When Kallestrup started in 2018, he was the man from the outside – from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland no less – who was to bring the Faculty of Humanities back from the brink.

The dispute centered around the dean’s core task of determining a course of action for the faculty. Management had a plan to merge courses, and set up joint broad introductory programmes to the bachelor’s degrees. The students felt that it would dilute their study programmes, and they did not feel that management took them seriously. The conflict triggered the biggest student political manifestation at the University of Copenhagen since the 1968 student risings. The dispute only ended when the dean signed a peace agreement with students’ representatives.

»Skilled and listening«

The level of conflict peaked during the blockade in 2019. But it is not the first time a humanities dean has gone without being applauded. It has been almost a routine task since 2000, when a dean at the Faculty of Humanities has been appointed, to attempt to restore trust among employees, students, and management at the faculty, which has sometimes been described as the messed-up kid of the University of Copenhagen.

For eight months, Kirsten Busch Nielsen was appointed as replacement. But after being acting dean, she applied for, and was awarded the dean position. On her appointment in 2021, rector Henrik C. Wegener said:

For a number of years, Kirsten has succeeded in getting people together and achieving good, and durable, solutions in diverse university settings.

Rector Henrik C. Wegener

»For a number of years, Kirsten has succeeded in getting people together and achieving good, and durable, solutions in diverse university settings. Since June, she has – despite the challenges of corona and lockdowns – turned out to be a very competent and listening manager at the Faculty of Humanities.«

Of course, she had long management experience from the tiny, and more homogenous sister, the theology faculty. But Kirsten Busch Nielsen had passed her crash test as a unifying figure, who is able to negotiate and unite across the divides. In 2019, as chair of the personnel policy committee, she headed the work in formulating the University of Copenhagen’s guidelines on offensive behaviour at a time when the university’s internal discussion about harassment had evolved into a public culture war.

It is not just the media who are interested in what goes on inside the University of Copenhagen. The politicians are interested too, and their interventions have hurt, not least at the Faculty of Humanities.

Jesper Kallestrup had only been dean for a few months, when he said that the politicians leave only a narrow space in which university’s managers can make any decisions at all:

»It really surprised me how much the ministry and the Danish government micro-manages us. They interfere with all kinds of little details. In the United Kingdom there is far more autonomy. You can quickly set up new degree programmes; determine how, and how many students you can admit; how to teach and hold examinations; and how to prioritise financing,« he said to the University Post.

In recent years, in addition to the general Danish cuts to higher education, the humanities have been subjected to successive governments’ demands to scale down their programmes so that they would match a political analysis of what the labour market needs.

The gloomy summary is that jobs have been slashed, researchers have been fired, programmes have been shut down, while others have merged. This was why students protested and even took over the rostrum at the university’s annual celebration in 2019.

Relationship work

Kirsten Busch Nielsen says that she did not have any reservations when she agreed with rector that she would leave theology behind in favour of the humanities, which is more than ten times bigger.

»No I had none. It was an important, and therefore tempting assignment, so it was not difficult for me to make the decision. I am a theologian, and I was very, very happy to be dean at Theology, but I think the Faculty of Humanities has so much to offer. I see the faculty’s different academic professions as an ocean of exciting opportunities.«

An ocean maybe, and a stormy one when she took over. About the working environment at the faculty after the abrupt exit of her predecessor, Kirsten Busch Nielsen says that one of the first tasks was to make the temporary cooperation agreement, that helped stop the dispute, a permanent one.

»This was discussed in the autumn of 2020,« she says, and makes it all seem smooth sailing. And she praises the faculty’s employees and students for their commitment to this collaboration.

This is a permanent assignment, the dean emphasises. She is still dealing with inherited disputes concerning the involvement and communication with students and staff, especially about the difficult things. She says for example that »the blockade must not become a trauma, or a taboo, in the history of the faculty.«

I was just chucked in here as a recycled dean.
Dean Kirsten Busch Nielsen

She has less direct contact with students and staff than she had at the Faculty of Theology, she admits. But she considers the various co-operative bodies, councils and committees across the entire faculty as »very well-organised«.

»In this way, it’s been less different than I thought it would be. And then you also have to do things proactively, to go places where you meet people, and to have the opportunity to talk to them. It is my job to be curious, and to understand as much as I can about what is going on in the different departments.«

Kirsten Busch Nielsen says that she »jumped in and took on the tasks that were in front of me«.

Apart from the obvious ones – the work in developing the study programmes and the research – Kirsten Busch Nielsen says that she is also working to ensure that the Faculty of Humanities contributes to keeping the university together as an organisation. What does that mean?

»We need to take our share of responsibilities at the University of Copenhagen. I have sometimes noticed that here at the faculty we have a tendency to say ‘the people downtown’ – and with the people downtown we mean the university management on Frue Plads. But if we say that about them, I wonder what they say about us ‘out here’.«

To cut 300 student places

Humanities staff and students had just managed to breathe a sigh of relief. Danish politicians had decided to halt the annual 2 per cent funding cuts, and to boost the government funding per graduated student. But then the government launched the plan to relocate ten per cent of the student places to revitalise the regions outside the four big university cities.

There were protests, but no matter how much rectors, students and political opponents cried out, the plan was adopted by a broad majority in the Danish Parliament on 22 March. The agreement ended up with the Danish universities having to reduce admissions by 6.4 per cent.

»We have built universities with the legitimate expectation that they are some of the best drivers of societal development in health, growth, education and gender equality,« says Kirsten Busch Nielsen.

Student places to be cut and relocated

The Faculty of Humanities has to cut 300 places. The Faculty of Social Sciences has to cut 135 and relocate 25. The Faculty of Science needs to cut 110 and relocate 76, the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences has to cut 27 and relocate 203, while the Faculty of Theology has to cut 53 student places.

READ ALSO: Why is Norway shovelling money into the humanities, while Denmark cuts back?

The day after the dean seem more vigorous than paralysed.

»It is a political agreement with a broad majority of the Danish parliament behind it, and universities have no other option but to continue their work. 300 places is a big reduction for us. But I look forward to the work we have to start on the humanities degree programmes of the future.«

The faculty has not yet reached any conclusions on which study places will be abolished. Apart from the fact that it will be 180 bachelor’s and 120 master’s student places, according to the dean. The dean and the heads of department have planned a process over the next few months, run by a working committee, which will include both staff and student representatives from the study boards, and management representatives. The faculty has spent the month of March on a consultation about this process plan.

»We would prefer not to cut places where they are irreversible. Now the committee needs the peace to think carefully about, and describe, scenarios on how we can ensure a broad and cohesive educational landscape of the future. It is a very important resource that there are employees and students who want to put their time and commitment into it.«

Financially, the Faculty of Humanities is making a recurrent loss at the moment. Kirsten Busch Nielsen says that in 2021 it was calculated to be DKK 13 million, and that the plan is to reduce the losses through saved funds over the next few years, so there will be a »smoothing out process«.

Prove your value, humanities

But how the hell did we end up here, with the Faculty of Humanities having to cut student places, even before the five year cohorts from previous reductions have hit the labour market? Kirsten Busch Nielsen points to the fact that up to 40 per cent fewer students are admitted today compared to the year cohorts from which the unemployment figures are measured. Unemployment is the argument you hear in connection with cuts.

Why can’t the politicians keep their hands away from the humanities? Do they find it difficult to find the relevance and societal benefit of the humanities?

»If anyone has a problem finding it, it may be because we hide ourselves a bit,« says Kirsten Busch Nielsen. But she does not, apart from this, buy into the premise that the humanities have lost prestige, and that both politicians and taxpayers seem to find it difficult to spot humanities graduates’ positive contribution to society.

Is the agenda of the annual cuts an expression of how the humanities have moved to a place outside the economic consensus?

»I experience a positive and factual curiosity towards humanities knowledge. A specific example is the foreign language field, which was given a temporary winter-time DKK 40 million boost for bachelor’s degree programmes in German and French at universities and vocational programmes. It was a minor thing, but still a recognition that foreign languages are absolutely necessary for a society like the Danish one.«

»Another example is all the research that is ongoing and is increasingly going to take place in connection with the green transition. This is an important societal task that we cannot do with only scientific or technical knowledge. The transition needs knowledge about man in history, nature and society.«

The philosopher Morten Ebbe Juul Nielsen has said in the University Post that the humanities are not useful in the same way as, for example, medical science, which develops medications so we can cure diseases and make money. But where the health and medical sciences provide evidence and instructions for action, it will need humanities people to enable the necessary behavioural changes in the general public. They are the ones who know how people live, and what the values and circumstances are that they are immersed in. Humanities people, in other words, can improve public health.

READ ALSO: Chin up, Humanities

»Yes!« says Kirsten Busch Nielsen. » And theologians, I might add. Of course! Health requires that people reflect about themselves, so this is a good example. The humanities contribute with knowledge about man. Not about biology, but about consciousness and about how we relate to the world, to nature and to history.«

I have heard you quoted as saying that the humanities are society’s respiratory system.

»Yes, this is an image, also of how things change, and how the humanities has a task as a conveyor of knowledge – I see it like breathing.«

It is poetic …

»I don’t know whether it has any impact to use poetic images. But I can’t imagine a good and vibrant society if there is no art and culture, and no attention to our own narratives, our own fissures, and our own confrontations with history. And all of this is maintained and conveyed, also scientifically.«

Does humanities bashing really take place?

»Of course there are cycles within a society. But I feel a positive curiosity towards the humanities, which we need to respond to. The humanities help us tackle the societal problems that are on the agenda right now. We have talked about sustainability and public health. We could also talk about digitisation. And the sad recent weeks since the outbreak of war in Ukraine indicate how important it is for Denmark to have a linguistic, but also knowledge-based global response. With people who are able to analyse, understand, interpret, present, and explain what is happening in the world’s regions, even when they clash.«

»The humanities area is not just a custodian of cultural heritage,« three humanities professors, Dan Zahavi, Marie Louise Nosch Bech and Vincent Hendricks wrote in a piece that defended the humanities in the Danish newspaper Politiken in November 2021 (needs login). Kirsten Busch Nielsen takes up the thread from here:

»Tradition is not about dusting something off, and then leaving it untouched. It consists of passing on inheritance and knowledge to other generations. I don’t think I educate custodians, but innovators, administrators and change makers,« she says, and reminds me that one third of humanities graduates become teachers, many in upper secondary school. But not only this:

»This is a huge influence on society. Our biggest research impact is done through our master’s graduates, and one third of them work as teachers,« she says:

»And so we have to step up and talk about the research results we have. About our study programmes, and about what our graduates are capable of. And I think that this is a task that we must take upon ourselves. Of course we should defend ourselves. All sciences have to. That is why we are here. There is a competition between us. There can be competition all the way down to the different academic subject settings on theories and resources. In this way, we must keep up the spirit of battle.«

Nonsense courses and pseudoscience

When humanities research finds its way on to the political agenda, it is rarely to celebrate it. Danish politicians like Henrik Dahl, Morten Messerschmidt and Rasmus Jarlov have labelled entire research fields like migration studies, gender research and post-colonial studies as pseudoscience and non-scientific.

READ ALSO: »We need to do everything we can to fight this totalitarian identity politics movement«

The rhetoric peaked when Henrik Dahl from the rostrum of the Danish parliament in June 2021 said the University of Copenhagen researcher on Islam Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen was »well-known as prejudiced«.

Kirsten Busch Nielsen and Prorector for Research David Dreyer Lassen would not accept it, and responded in the newspaper Politiken:

Politicians should not make spurious accusations against named individual researchers.

Kirsten Busch Nielsen and Prorector David Dreyer Lassen

»No researcher at the University of Copenhagen has a problem with criticism directed at the substance of their research. But politicians should refrain from directing specious accusations against named individual researchers or research fields, and mocking individual researchers because they stumble upon a statement they disapprove of.«

»It was a slur on the research world in general,« says Kirsten Busch Nielsen, »but it was the humanities and social sciences that were targeted specifically by it.« And she adds that gender studies and migration research simply investigate areas that are the focus of political and social attention. It is therefore natural that many of us relate to it.

»It is paradoxically, a sign of curiosity. It is mixed with scepticism here, and in this debate things have been said that we found unreasonable. Just like our researchers should ground their statements with documentation, politicians should relate their statements to reality. But at the same time, the criticism may be a side effect of our research become more outgoing.«

READ ALSO: »My students can read that their instructor is totalitarian and pseudoscientific«

Hundreds of researchers have subsequently spoken out against the statement by Henrik Dahl and about the debate in general. This includes 262 researchers from the subject areas that were attacked. They reported in an open letter to the Minister for Higher Education and science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen (Social Democrat) that they were affected by harassment, intimidation and self-censorship.

A large political majority nevertheless supported a statement from the ministry that rebuked university managements: They needed to ensure that there is no homogenization, or politics disguised as science in any academic environments.

»We’ve done what we could to talk to the researchers about it, and to prepare those of them who are very active in the debate and on social media. This is so they can take part in quick or sharp discussions about their research without hurting themselves,« says Kirsten Busch Nielsen.

Several researchers have told the University Post that they feel compelled to withdraw from debates on politically sensitive topics — especially on social media, because they are loaded with conflict. Do you understand them?

»The debate should not, of course, be of a nature that it scares researchers off from taking part. But I think, at the same time, that it is entirely legitimate for a researcher to direct their own time and effort as they see fit. Working hours are a finite resource also. And researchers have to teach, publish and fulfil their obligations as academics. To merit scientific positions there are six criteria. It is not possible to balance all of these criteria all the time. As a researcher, you can, of course, up-adjust and down-adjust things in both the shorter and longer term.«

A cramped study environment

Kirsten Busch Nielsen holds a — for her — unusually long break, when I ask her how she herself would like to be assessed.

»It is a very important task to ensure that in the University of Copenhagen’s contribution to society, there is a clear and strong, not necessarily unanimous, but at least coherent, humanities imprint. This is hard to assess.«

We need to remind students that they are not just customers at the education shop.

Kirsten Busch Nielsen

»And I would like to say that I am interested in ensuring students’ well-being. The study environment got cramped during the corona lockdowns. Our students have been really brave and have taken their exams. But being part of university is something different than sitting there, isolated, behind a screen. We have luckily returned to campus now. But we are aware that we should continue to support the study environment, and to get the students to see themselves as party to the conversation when it comes to discussing what the future tasks of the faculty are. We would also like to develop new, regular, informal dialogue meetings with the students, so that they are reminded that they are not just customers in an education shop, but co-creators of the university that they are a part of.«

»It’s also important that the employees continue to uphold this type of commitment. They have shown a strong wish to take part, and I think it is a management responsibility to continue to consider how we can support this commitment.«

Now for a boilerplate question that sometimes leads to some interesting answers. How would your employees describe you as a manager?

»I think you should ask them about that. That is the boilerplate answer,« she says.

The blockade must neither become a trauma, nor a taboo, in the history of the faculty.
Dean Kirsten Busch Nielsen, Humanities

She would prefer to talk about her own cultural consumption:

»I’m a big consumer of literature, I’ve always been. I read all the time. Fiction, biographies, history and debate. To me, it is a consciousness-awakening, battery-charging thing to read fiction. You go other places. You talk to people you would otherwise not have talked to. And you get a different perspective on yourself.«

Kirsten Busch Nielsen says that she has just read Marilynne Robinson’s book Jack. Robinson is known for being one of Barack Obama’s favourite authors, and Jack is a narrative from the 1950s segregated St. Louis in the US. It is about guilt, shame, love, disappointment and a meeting with poetry.

»I was very interested in this. And to mention something completely different, I will point to Luka Holmegaard’s Look, which recently made a big impression on me. The narrator connects a story about an appointment as a teacher with the history of textiles, clothing production, and a very fine description of the meaning of garments for gender and identity.«

Kirsten Busch Nielsen says that she also goes to quite a few concerts, because her husband is a music man.

»But books are my preferred cultural medium. And luckily nowadays, you can get them on your phone, and when you’re nearsighted, then you can do this … «

Do you do anything in your time off that is not related to the world of spirit? Do you knit?

»Ha! I’m fortunate to have just had a granddaughter, and my family said: You can’t knit. I had to disprove them: Yes, I can. So I’ve knitted a baby sweater. Done that.«

Then you’ll have to take an early day once a week to bring your granddaughter home from the nursery …

»Honestly, is the University Post interested in this? But no, it’s probably not going to be me.«

What has surprised you the most about the job as dean of the Faculty of Humanities?

»It has affirmed my conviction that this is a place with super-talented people, and I think my encounter with them has gone well. I owe my thanks to the faculty. They welcomed me, who was just chucked in here as a recycled dean. I was very pleased about that. I think I owe it to them.«