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AU’s incoming board chair: “I know academia from the inside out – and from the outside in”

Birgitte Nauntofte worked at the University of Copenhagen for 27 years, both as a researcher and in management. And for 12 years, she was the director of the Novo Nordisk Foundation, one of Denmark’s most prominent commercial foundations. She divides her time between Denmark and the United States – and now she’ll need to factor Aarhus into her travel plans. Because starting in December, she’ll take a seat at the the head of the table in AU’s board room.

Birgitte Nauntofte is the incoming chair of the Aarhus University board. She will join the board as chair on 1 December, when she will replace Connie Hedegaard. Photo: Novo Nordisk Fonden

About Birgitte Nauntofte

  • Birgitte Nauntofte has a degree in odontology and is a professor of clinical oral physiology. She worked at the University of Copenhagen for 27 years in a number of positions, including vice-dean at the Faculty of Health Sciences. 
  • She was director of the Novo Nordisk Foundation from 2009 to 2021. 
  • Birgitte Nauntofte is a member of a number of boards, including the LIFE Foundation, BioInnovation Institute, DHI A/S and the Danish Cultural Institute.
  • She and her husband, the researcher Steen Dissing, have two adult daughters. They have four grandchildren and a fifth on the way. They live north of Copenhagen and have a holiday home in La Jolla, California.
  • Birgitte Nauntofte’s main interests are research, innovation and education. In her free time, she likes to go for walks with her dogs, and she enjoys reading fiction.

How AU board chairs are appointed

The University Act lays down the framework for the appointment of the chairs of Danish universities.

Following an open call for applications, a nomination committee selects a candidate to nominate. The candidate must then be approved by a selection committee. Finally, the candidate must be approved by the minister for higher education and science. 

The nomination committee is comprised of both students and employee board members. In this case, the chair of the nomination committee was Steen Riisgaard, former Novozymes CEO and former AU board member. 

The chair of the selection committee was Pernille Blach Hansen, director of Central Denmark Region.

University board chairs are appointed for four-year terms with the possibility of a four-year extension, for a total maximum term of eight years.  The outgoing board chair Connie Hedegaard is stepping down because she has served the maximum term.

I spoke to Birgitte Nauntofte on the phone a few hours after the announcement was made that she will be succeeding Connie Hedegaard as chair of AU’s board in December.

“I’m not going to speak about concrete new strategic initiatives or setting a course – Connie Hedegaard is the chair until December, and I respect that,” she declared at the beginning of our conversation.

But she was very eager to discuss what motivated her to apply for the job of chairperson, as well as the qualifications she brings to the table – and not least her history with Aarhus University.

Birgitte Nauntofte has been involved with academia for 40 years. She spent the first part of her career as a researcher and manager at the University of Copenhagen, as well as serving on a variety of public-sector scientific councils and committees. She went on to become director of the Novo Nordisk Foundation, which is one of Denmark’s most prominent commercial foundations; in 2020, the foundation awarded about 5.5 billion kroner to various projects, including research. Most recently, her primary career focus has been serving on boards of directors.

“I’ve held leadership positions in both the public and the private sector, and I have a large network nationally and internationally – in the words of research, foundations, industry and in ministries and government agencies, including the Ministry of Higher Education and Science. So in that sense, I know academia from the inside out – and from the outside in,” she explained.

Being a researcher is one of the world’s best jobs

Birgitte Nauntofte studied odontology at the Copenhagen School of Dentistry. She went on to take a PhD in odontology and continued her research career at the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, where she later became a professor of clinical oral physiology. She ultimate became vice-dean of the faculty.

“I really enjoyed working there. I loved working at the university – I enjoyed research as well as teaching students. I liked communicating the science of physiology. As a young woman in the 80s, I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting place to work,” Birgitte Nautofte said. She remembers being particularly stimulated by the flexibility and the international aspect of research work. 

In her mid-30s, she joined the Danish Health Research Council, which gave her insight into other aspects of research and different research fields. It’s at this point in her career that she became interested in Aarhus University.

“Because of course I often couldn’t consider applications from the University of Copenhagen, I read a lot of applications from researchers at Aarhus University. What set it apart from the University of Copenhagen was that it was a younger university – and I got the impression that the university was particularly supportive of its junior talents, and that there was dynamism and the ability to change. There was a lightness about it, an energy and a practically oriented approach,” she remembered.

AU has a unique status in Aarhus

Birgitte Nauntofte also remarked on the unique status AU enjoys in Aarhus.

“I’ve always noticed how marked the student presence is in town, and that there’s a strong campus environment around the university. Whenever I’ve visited Aarhus University Hospital in Skejby, I’ve noticed that everyone feels like they’re part of the university, even on the hospital corridors. The university is a very prominent feature in the cityscape – and other organisations as well as the local population are highly aware of it. The university spreads its rings in the city.”

What would society get out of giving us more money? 

Birgitte Nauntofte also said that she had been reflecting on the rector’s recent statements

about the importance of renewing the university’s contract with society and of making the university’s contribution to society visible. She agreed completely:

“It’s important that our society understands why citizens’ taxes go to pay for the universities, including paying for research. Because of course, there’s a need for funding across the board – for example in the military, in healthcare and elder care. So what exactly would society get out of giving the universities and research more money? We have to be able to answer that. And we have to ensure that our politicians are able to answer the hard questions about what return for the Denmark of the future investment in the university will produce – because after all, they’re the ones who have to justify to the population how their taxes are spent.”

“It’s not enough to say: We want more money. We have to be able to say: If we don’t invest in the university, what is it that we as a society will lose out on, both in the short term and the long term. And that isn’t always so easy, because in the university sector, the consequences of cutbacks often take a long time to become apparent, because you’re working with such long time frames,” she said, and added that there’s a need for the development of new methods of rendering the university’s contribution to society visible.

A well-run university 

Birgitte Nauntofte was moved to apply by the combination of a university that unites substance and dynamism with her sense that she possesses relevant competencies to take Aarhus University further.

“The board appears to be highly qualified, there’s a capable and experienced rector, I like the university’s 2025 strategy – and in fact I contributed to its development, along with many others. It would be a great pleasure and privilege to participate in helping to further develop the university’s strategy, and so I applied,” she said.

Birgitte Nauntofte stressed that the fact that the university is well-run with solid finances and potential for development was also attractive to her.

“I understand that Aarhus University, like the other universities, could use more money. My response to that is that the university is not facing a threatening deficit, but has acted sensibly in relation to its current financial situation. I’ve been involved in cleanups lots of other places, but when you join an organization that’s as well-run as this one, I believe that permits a more strategic approach to the position, and that there will be plenty of opportunities on the board to rethink and innovate.”

A good relationship with the rector

When asked how the university community will be able to mark her presence at the head of the table in the boardroom, she replied:

“When it comes to the work of the board, what I prioritize is the board’s strategic role, while the rector and the other members of the senior management team are responsible for leadership and day-to-day operations and development. I respect the rector’s and the senior management team’s sphere of authority, because I’ve sat on that side of the fence for many years. As chair, I will serve as a link between the board and the rector’s day-to-day leadership, and I will put myself at their disposal to the extent that my advice, support and ability to challenge are needed. So far, I’ve had a constructive dialogue and relationship with the rector, so I’m convinced we’ll work well together.”

The United States: Interesting and inspiring

Birgitte Nauntofte lives north of Copenhagen close to Dyrehaven. But she travels to San Diego as often as she can; for the last twelve years, she and her husband Dr. Steen Dissing have owned a house close to UC San Diego, where Steen Dissing worked as a researcher many years ago.

“We spend as much time there as we can. The United States is a land of contrasts, and if you’re interested in research, innovation and education, as we are, it’s a really interesting and inspiring place to be,” she said.

Translated by Lenore Messick