Connie Hedegaard: The situation is really serious now”

Connie Hedegaard, chair of the AU Board, stresses that Aarhus University has to put an end to the current spate of scandals, which in addition to the request for information scandal in the headlines right now also includes the Nature case and the beef report case. This will require that everyone in the organization understands that everything you do at a university is public, she says. Hedegaard also stresses that the board still has faith in Rector Brian Bech Nielsen’s ability to lead AU through the current crisis.

[Translate to English:] Bestyrelsesformand for Aarhus Universitet, Connie Hedegaard. Foto: Lars Kruse

The board still has confidence in Rector Brian Bech Nielsen. Despite the fact that he admitted last week that in 2019, he was involved in an illegal decision to postpone responding to a series of requests for access to documents in connection with the beef report case until the university’s own report was finished. The rector has stressed that he was not aware that the decision was a violation of the law. Subsequently, the university covered up the unlawful decision on two separate occasions in statements to the supervisory authority, the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science. The agency has since issued a sharp critique of the university’s handling of the matter. And as a consequence of the scandal, the rector offered to resign last week. But at an emergency meeting on Thursday, a unanimous board voted to continue to stand by Brian Bech Nielsen as rector, a decision seconded by the other members of the senior management team. 

The board justified this decision with reference to the rector’s statement that he had not been aware that the decision was unlawful. Connie Hedegaard, chair of the Aarhus University Board, explains:

“As the university board, we have to consider two aspects of this ongoing case: Was the rector involved in making an unlawful decision, well knowing that it was unlawful? No, we don’t think so. In Brian Bech Nielsen, does Aarhus University have the right rector for a situation like this? Yes, we think so.”

Hedegaard elaborates: “ You have to remember that this is a matter that was originally dealt with at faculty level, but which in October 2019 was brought up for decision at a meeting in which the rector participated. And it’s clear that I have asked whether the meeting documents indicated that approving the decision would be at odds with law. But the warning lights weren’t blinking. The rector didn’t know that the proposal on the table was unlawful.” She adds:

“Another issue is that when you know Brian Bech Nielsen well, as I do, you know – and in fact, you don’t actually have to know him all that well to know this – he’s not the type who does things on a wing and a prayer.  If anyone had told him that this decision crossed the line, would he have done it anyway? I don’t believe so.”

In connection with your review of the facts of the case, have you had the opportunity to read minutes or documents from the meeting where the decision was made? 

“No, and I don’t think that kind of procedural review is the board’s role.  What’s central for us is that the case wasn’t presented to the rector in a way that informs him that the decision is unlawful,” Hedegaard says. 

“This is serious for AU”

But even though the board still has confidence in the rector, that doesn’t diminish the gravity of the situation, Hedegaard stresses. 

“This is serious for AU. We can’t endure having scandals time and again and again that give our society an impression that what we do as a university isn’t on the straight and narrow,” she says, with reference to the ‘beef report case’, which the request for information scandal emerged out of. In that case, the university had to admit that the arm’s length principle that should have governed its relationship with the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, which had commissioned the report in question, had not been respected, and that the involved researchers’ freedom of research had not been safeguarded by a contract. But Hedegaard is also referring to the retraction of an article in Nature – a saga which is still ongoing. This complex case also involves the arm’s length principle: in this case in relation to a powerful chair of a research foundation.

Everything has to be able to withstand public scrutiny

Hedegaard thinks that there’s a need for greater focus at AU on the importance of ensuring that everything that goes on at a public-sector institution must be able to withstand public scrutiny.

“You have to expect that everything you write is in the public domain. That scandals don’t just go away, but that they will be investigated. So we have to communicate about it if something goes wrong or if we make mistakes. Everything has to be done according to the law and by the book. There can’t be any doubt in anyone’s minds about that.”

But why do you believe that Aarhus University is having such trouble shutting down these kinds of cases, so they keep on for years? After all, as you yourself mention, this is just one among many cases of this kind?

“The cases are different – in this case, it’s a question of handling a matter in a way that’s not in compliance with the law, and that’s not acceptable. But once again, I believe that everyone at AU needs to be aware that the public can read everything you write.”

Hedegaard: AU needs to work on its culture

In this respect, Hedegaard believes, AU needs to work on its culture. Both in relation to handling academic criticism and controversy, as in the Nature scandal, and in relation to dealing with mistakes. And according to the chair of the board, it’s important not to try to cover up your mistakes.

“If mistakes have been made, bring it them up and get them dealt with. It’s annoying to make mistakes. But it’s really stupid not to admit your mistakes. To have a culture in which people say: We’re sorry, we made a mistake, is much better. Once you’ve started getting negative publicity, as Aarhus University is, the probability that a scandal will just go away is very small,” Hedegaard says.

The rector is responsible for the culture that prevails in an organization, and you yourself just pointed out that there’s been an unfortunate culture around dealing with mistakes and critical issues. But nonetheless you and the rest of the board still support him?

“Yes, the rector has a high degree of responsibility for the culture of the organization. And in this regard, we’ve noted that there’s already an process in motion aimed at changing that culture. This includes workshops for researcher and leaders on best practice, among other initiatives, both in relation to freedom of research and policy support. But as I said: The board is confident that the rector had no foundation for knowing that what was going on in this particular case was unlawful. And that’s the crux of the matter.”

We can’t tolerate having cases like this over and over

When asked what she thinks the current case about unlawful administrative processes and misleading a supervisory authority means for Aarhus University, Hedegaard replies:  

“It’s a serious matter, the reprimand that Aarhus University’s been given; it would be serious for any public sector institution. And the fact that there have been a number of cases which have given us negative publicity over the past few years doesn’t improve matters. Large organisations get bad publicity once in awhile – that’s how things are. But we’re getting to the point where everyone who wishes Aarhus University well has to understand that we can’t tolerate having cases like this over and over.” 

It would be serious for any institution, you said. But isn’t this particularly true for a university, which lives on its credibility?

“Yes, precisely. This has to be put to right. And for this to happen, the entire organisation has to understand that this is really serious now. We have to look at our culture and our organisation. Aarhus University has to do everything in its power to redress these problems so that we can put an end to this spate of scandals. And it’s just not acceptable that things are being done that are against the law.” 

What can AU do?

As I said, there are already initiatives in progress. And in this connection, the board has noted that they’re continuing despite the pandemic. Which is very important, because we can’t give the public the impression that we’re sitting on our hands.”

Translated by Lenore Messick