Government agency issues sharp critique of Aarhus University: Withheld documents and submitted a false explanation

The Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science has issued a strong rebuke of AU’s ‘highly objectionable’ actions in connection with a newspaper’s requests for information. Not only did AU withhold documents from the newspaper Information, which is against the law. The university also tried to conceal the decision to do so from the agency – twice. Now the university’s chief legal counsel has resigned, and three senior academic officers have been formally reprimanded.

[Translate to English:] Rektoratet ved Aarhus Universitet. Foto: Søren Kjeldgaard. Grafik: Omnibus

Aarhus University’s credibility has taken a serious beating as a consequence of a freedom of information scandal. It has come to light that the university intentionally and illegally withheld documents from the newspaper Information in connection with the paper’s critical coverage of the ‘beef report’ story back in 2019.

Aarhus University delayed responding to the paper’s five freedom of information requests until after the university’s own account of the circumstances surrounding the beef report had been made public. 

This is a breach of the Danish Environmental Information Act, which states that freedom of information requests must be processed without delay, and within two months at the latest. 

Complaints to the ombudsman

Subsequently, Information lodged multiple complaints about AU’s handling of its requests with the ombudsman, which resulted in the involvement of the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science as supervisory authority. But AU attempted to conceal its decision to withhold the documents Information had requested from the agency – twice. Aarhus University only admitted the deception to the agency after the ombudsman intervened and requested additional documentation, including internal email correspondence.

In a statement dated May 3 2021 from the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science to which Omnibus has been granted access, the agency expressed forceful criticism of AU’s decision, as well as the attempt to conceal it.

Withheld documents from Information

In the first place, the agency condemns AU’s illegal decision to intentionally postpone responding to five freedom of information requests until after November 4 2019, when the university’s own account of the facts of the beef report case was made public, rather than processing the requests promptly in the order in which they were received. 

Withheld information from the agency

In the second place, the agency criticizes AU’s failure to inform the agency about the decision to postpone responding to the newspaper’s requests on two separate occasions. 

“On the contrary, in statements to the agency on January 15 2020 and March 31 2020, the university claimed the opposite: that no such decision had been made, but that the date of the press release and briefings on the review of the DCA reports had merely been postponed until after the date on which the processing of the freedom of information requests was expected to be completed,” the statement reads.

The agency concludes that in both cases, Aarhus University acted in a ‘highly objectionably’ manner, and stresses in no uncertain terms what ought to be a matter of course: 

“That in future, Aarhus University must provide the agency with accurate information in its statements to the agency in connection with supervisory investigations. In order to perform its role as a supervisory authority, it is crucial that the agency can have confidence at all times that the information the university presents to the agency i connection with specific investigations is correct and accurate.”

Minister for Higher Education and Science ane Halsboe-Jørgensen (Social Democrats) has described AU’s actions as unacceptable and has stated in no uncertain terms that she expects that nothing like this will ever happen again. 

Rector agrees with the agency’s assessment

Omnibus has been unable to get an interview with Rector Brian Bech Nielsen about the affair. We would have like to ask the rector to comment on the breach of trust Aarhus University has committed, both in relation to the agency as supervisory authority and in relation to the general public, including the university’s staff and students.  

In an article on the AU website, the rector states that he agrees with the agency’s assessment of AU’s actions.

“We have not complied with the rules, and this is not acceptable. Integrity is something we value very highly at Aarhus University, and so I take this criticism extremely seriously.”

Three senior academic officers reprimanded

The rector also states:

“In response to the most recent developments in this unfortunate case, I have contacted the managers involved, and regardless of the fact that this was not their understanding of the matter, a decision was made that was not legal, according to an internal document from the faculty. This means that the leadership team responsible for this decision at the former Faculty of Science and Technology failed to live up to its responsibilities, and was involved in making a highly condemnable decision.”

The leadership team the rector is referring to here includes Professor Lars Henrik Andersen, who in 2019 was acting dean of the former Faculty of Science and Technology, which has since been split into the Faculty of Technical Sciences and the Faculty of Natural Sciences. It also includes Vice-dean Kurt Nielsen and the director of DCA (Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture), Niels Halberg. All three have been reprimanded.

AU’s chief legal counsel has resigned

The scandal has had even more serious consequences for AU’s chief legal counsel, who has resigned in the wake of the agency’s critique.  The reason for this, the rector has explained, is that the Rector’s Office was not informed that the decision that had been made was unlawful. And that the university subsequently submitted statements to the agency that misrepresented the facts of the case. 

The chief legal counsel is not the only AU employee to lose a job in the wake of the beef report affair. Back in 2019, the then head of the Department of Agroecology, Erik Steen Kristensen, was forced to step down, because he as head of department had the ultimate responsibility for the legitimacy of the research project that produced the beef report, and which failed to live up to fundamental principles of scientific impartiality. Among other defects, there was no contract governing the collaboration between AU and the client, the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, which would have safeguarded the independence of the researchers involved. At the same time, the involved employees of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council and Danish Crown were allowed to write and edit parts of the report without clear attribution of authorship. 

As a result, Centre Director Niels Halberg was also reprimanded by the dean of the faculty for his failure to ensure adequate quality assurance on the report, which had not been peer reviewed at that time. 

However, a research paper based on the beef report was subsequently published in a peer-reviewed journal. 

The beef report affair in brief

On September 2 2019, Aarhus University retracted the so-called ‘beef report’ on the grounds that the report failed to live up to the university’s standards for independent research. The report was the work of two scientists from the Department of Agroecology and one scientist from the Technical University of Denmark, and was published by DCA at AU.  It was funded by Kvægafgiftsfonden, a beef industry special interest group, and the Danish Agriculture and Food Council was responsible for overall project management.

But before the report was retracted, the newspaper Information revealed that agriculture lobbyists had written entire sections of the report and had even changed the title and cover photo. As a result, the minister for higher education and science asked Aarhus University for an explanation.

On 3 September 2019, Rector Brian Bech Nielsen and former acting dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology, Lars Henrik Andersen, to launch a review of all of the reports published by DCA that had been written in collaboration with companies and organisations over the past five years. The objective was to uncover any problematic issues related to research conduct and freedom of research. On the same day, department head Erik Steen Kristensen resigned.

Between September 3 and 5 2019, Information sent freedom of information requests to Aarhus University. AU did not send the final decision to Information until November 4 2019, the latest possible deadline for responding to a freedom of information request. On the same day, Aarhus University announced the results of its internal review of reports from DCA. AU concluded that the necessary contracts had not been concluded in connection with 19 of the research collaborations in question, and that an additional three reports contained serious errors, as well as the beef report.

Information lodged a complaint about AU’s handling of its requests with the parliamentary ombudsman, who forwarded the complaint to the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science. The agency requested a statement from AU. AU explained the lengthy response time with reference to the number of requests combined with the large amounts of material and the complexity of the case. On February 11 2020, after reviewing AU’s statement, the agency concluded that there were no grounds for criticism of AU’s handling of the requests.

In March 2020, Information lodged another complaint with the ombudsman. According to the newspaper, the agency’s treatment of AU had been too lenient; the complaint pointed out various errors and inconsistencies in AU’s statement. The agency reopened the supervisory investigation as a result, and sent a new request for a statement to AU. However, the agency still found no grounds to criticise AU in the new statement.

In September 2020, the ombudsman got involved in the case, and sent a request to AU for a variety of internal documents. In October 2020, AU sent a new statement to the agency. In this statement, the university acknowledged that “right before the beginning of October 2019, it was decided to allow some freedom of information requests to await the completion of the internal review of the DCA reports and the subsequent briefings, which had been provisionally scheduled for 4 November 2019. The same date which was the final deadline for responding to the majority of the freedom of information requests.” 

The agency reopened the case, and issued a forceful critique of AU on 3 May. The agency found it ‘highly objectionable’ that AU’s first two statements omitted the decision taken in the meeting in September to postpone responding to the freedom of information requests until the results of the university’s own investigation had been announced. On the contrary, AU had claimed that this was not the case.