Omnibus prik

A visionary man - with a selective hearing

Omnibus has asked a number of academic staff, students and technical/administrative staff to give us their personal assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen during his eight years as the rector of Aarhus University.

[Translate to English:] Visionær. De siger det alle. At det har været Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsens største styrke som rektor. Illustration: Morten Voigt

Visionary. That’s what they all say. This has been Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen’s greatest strength as rector. Or rather, that’s what most of them say. Aase Pedersen, who is the joint union representative for the technical and administrative staff, uses another word:

“Lauritz is incredibly courageous.”

She might agree in many respects with the other respondents, but she is the only one who says:

“Lauritz can listen. And he takes action when action is needed. He has generally been receptive to the problems of the technical and administrative staff.”

Most of the other respondents agree about his greatest weakness: Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen is not a good listener when it comes to the attitudes and perceptions of the university staff and students regarding the academic development process.

The staff and students aren’t the only ones we asked about Holm-Nielsen’s strengths and weaknesses. We also asked the rector himself, and his own views are stated at the end of the article.

A lack of trust

Rune Stubager is one of the people who have mentioned the university management’s lack of responsiveness to the Aarhus University staff. He is an associate professor at the Department of Political Science, and on an debate site last March he said that the management had lost the trust of the staff. Among other things, he wrote that:

“The management communicate with the staff in management newspeak using impressive slogans (“Can anthropology solve the mystery of cancer?”) printed on glossy paper, instead of presenting evidence (and this does not include specially ordered “consultant reports”) to show why their chosen solutions are the answer to the challenges of the future.”

A meeting with the rector

“So he invited me up for a meeting. He wanted to explain the reasons for the decisions the management had made. I listened, nodded, and listened again. But I had also decided that I was going to insist that he listened to a couple of things that were on my mind, as well. And he did listen – although I also got the impression that he couldn’t or wouldn’t make any changes to solve the problems that I and lots of other people had pointed out.”

Even though a lot of people would be surprised to find Rune Stubager asking Holm-Nielsen for a signed photo at his retirement reception, he is not blind to the rector’s strengths:

“Lauritz’s strength is that he is highly visionary. I don’t agree with all the analyses I’ve seen, and I don’t think he has laid down the right course for the development of the university. But I do acknowledge that he hasn’t just made a load of ad hoc reforms. They are radical reforms because they are based on a single unifying idea.”

Forgotten students

Per Dalbjerg is a student of Economics and chair of the Student Council. When he is asked about Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen’s greatest strength, he says:

“There’s no doubt that he’s helped to create a strong university. Lauritz is visionary. He has a lot of visions regarding Danish education policy, for instance in relation to the role of our universities in the future.”

Dalbjerg also knows what it feels like when the rector doesn’t listen to what you’re saying:

“There was no mention of the students in connection with the academic development process. And the management refused to listen to our criticism until we went to the press.”

But it is Holm-Nielsen’s impatience that Dalbjerg regards as his greatest weakness:

“The rector has been in far too much of a hurry. He should have taken his foot off the accelerator so the rest of the organisation could keep up. Instead of bringing in consultants to get everything done at once. That’s not the way to carry out reforms.”

International vision

Benjamin Bilde Boelsmand is a student of History as well as representing the students on the University Board, and he makes much the same point about Holm-Nielsen’s greatest weakness:

“He hasn’t managed to explain to the staff and students why the academic development process is necessary. I don’t care whether it’s because of the arguments or the goal of the development process, or whether the staff and students are just a bunch of conservative stick-in-the-muds refusing to budge an inch. But it is a fact that Lauritz hasn’t managed to convince us of why his ideas are right.”

Boelsmand explains Holm-Nielsen’s greatest strength as follows:

“Lauritz’s strength is his international vision. He’s been completely aware of the major challenges facing the universities. And when he spots a problem he manages to solve it. He invariably focuses on how to turn Aarhus University into a world-class organisation.”

Enthusiastic, full of ideas and totally committed

Michael Böss, an associate professor at the Department of Aesthetics and Communication, has met Holm-Nielsen in connection with the MatchPoints seminars, and it takes a good deal of persuasion before he can find any weaknesses in the rector:

“I think Lauritz’s enthusiasm, ideas and commitment are his great strengths. He wants to change things for the better. But you have to be well prepared for a meeting with Lauritz. Otherwise he sets a different agenda, because he’s always getting new ideas. You need to keep him on track because otherwise he suddenly gallops off in another direction entirely.”

Raised eyebrows

Birgit Svenningsen at the Rector’s Office has been Holm-Nielsen’s secretary for all the years he has been rector, and she agrees completely with Michael Böss:

“Lauritz has a huge commitment to the university. When he spots a problem he has to solve it. When he gets an idea it has to be launched. AU is in his thoughts at all times. And he does have the ability to focus completely on whatever he’s doing. I can’t help but admire him for this – after all, he has to focus his attention on one meeting after the other all day long.” 

Svenningsen is in no doubt about his weaknesses:

“He’s got quite a temperament, and sometimes he seems to think we can take action almost before he’s finished speaking. He also has a particular way of raising his eyebrows and looking at you over the top of his glasses – when he finds out that we didn’t respond immediately – with a particular expression in his eyes that makes you think you’d better change your priorities and just get things done straightaway.”

Can’t take negative criticism

Aase Pedersen has been the joint union representative for the technical and administrative staff during the reorganisation process. So she has been kept pretty busy. But even so she has the following comment:

“I think it’s great to work at a place like Aarhus University where there’s so much going on all the time.”

However, she also adds:

“His weakness is that he finds it hard to tolerate weakness. He can’t really accept it, and he’s no good at handling negative criticism either. What’s more, he can’t hide it. He demonstrates it in his entire body language. And this is a problem because top managers should be able to take criticism – even criticism that they think is unreasonable.”

More sensitive as he grows older

So much for the staff and students. Now it’s the rector’s turn to respond to some of the comments that have been made about him. What does HE think are his greatest strengths and weaknesses?

Does he find it hard to handle criticism and hide his displeasure?

“I’ve probably grown more sensitive over the years, so I actually think that’s right. And I probably do show my feelings even though this is not appropriate for a top manager, as Aase says. On the other hand, I don’t think that showing your feelings is necessarily a bad thing.”

And he definitely has strong emotions: “I think I am too emotional. Some people might say it’s because I’m so committed to the cause. But perhaps I’m a bit TOO committed? I should probably keep my cool a bit more. But then again, I’m not a cool person – I’m probably a bit too temperamental.”

Only the future will tell

So he does agree to some extent. But Hell will freeze over before Holm-Nielsen has any doubts about the academic development process – or about the speed with which the reorganisation process has been carried out at the university:

“I think my greatest strength is my knowledge of and deep insight into the sector, and perhaps into global development as a whole. That’s why I don’t find it difficult to identify a goal and fix a firm course.”

“And about listening to people … I think I listen enough to know where we are. And there’s no doubt that the reforms in the university sector are global. You can choose to ignore it if you like, but you’ll find the same challenges all over Europe and the US: We need far more people to get an education; and the quality of our education must be improved – in terms of both academic quality and adaptation to the labour market around us. In all modesty, I do believe that Aarhus University is better equipped to deal with the challenges than any other university in Denmark. All I can do is believe in the dream. Only the future will tell.”


Come along to say goodbye to rector Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen

Aarhus University is holding a retirement reception on Friday 21 June at 2-4 pm in the Main Hall, Ndr. Ringgade, Aarhus C. You can register for the event at