New university director has made a career at AU: “When I left the university in 2001, I didn’t imagine I’d be back”
On 1 February, Kristian Thorn will take up the position of university director at AU. He has a long history at the university, which started in the 90s as a political science student. Now he will use his experience to lead AU through a difficult financial period while focusing on strengthening collaboration across the university.
Five quickfire questions for Kristian Thorn
The last time something really got my goat was when...
This doesn’t happen to me very often. It’s not really me – I’m quite a calm person. But the last time I got close was when I read the objectives listed on the government platform. I had a sinking feeling. I wouldn’t say I got annoyed or angry, but I definitely had a knot in my stomach.
Very few people know that I...
…love hiking in the mountains. There is something about being almost alone in a magnificent landscape and feeling the enormity of nature. I have walked in Jotunheimen in Norway, I have hiked on Mont Blanc, and recently trekked along the Lys Valley up to Monte Rosa in Italy.
My favourite app is...
Outlook. Well, it’s definitely the app I use the most.
I can’t imagine anything better than when I...
...succeed as part of a team. Especially if we manage to achieve something that some people thought was impossible – if we encounter opposition but we success together in spite of this.
My favourite place at AU is...
…the courtyard behind the political science building in the University Park, where you can look down over the lake – in summer. Without a doubt. That’s a fantastic spot and definitely my favourite. It’s the beauty of the Bauhaus style, where you can really see how the buildings help to highlight the moraine landscape and the height differences in the landscape. Combined with the very simple buildings and the green ivy, which is of course part of our architecture.
“I can remember the amazing feeling of being part of an academic environment and just being able to immerse myself in it.”
47-year-old Kristian Thorn talks to Omnibus about his time at AU. We start in the main entrance to the political science building, where he looks back on his time as student inside the department’s yellow walls during the 90s.
“I thought it was exciting to delve into every corner of political science and explore all the details. I was studying with lots of other young people who were interested in the same thing I was. I have so many good memories from that time, and I made a number of life-long friends,” says Kristian Thorn.
As a young political science student, he never imagined that most of his career would take place here at the university, as turned out to be the case. After five years studying political science, he went abroad to take up a position at the World Bank before working in various ministries. But, in 2009, he returned to AU as head of the international office. And he has stayed at the university ever since.
On 1 February, Kristian Thorn will take on the most senior role he has held at the university, when he moves from being head of staff at the Rector’s Office to being the university director. He will replace Arnold Boon, who left his position in October last year to take up the position of university director at Copenhagen Business School. But Kristian Thorn is not completely new to the position. He has been part of the team acting on behalf of the university director since Arnold Boon left last year.
No place like home...
We move to the courtyard behind the political science building in the University Park. When Kristian Thorn stood here as a student, it was not a future at the university he envisaged most clearly. Instead, like many other political science students, he dreamt of working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. As part of his Master’s degree, he completed a work placement at the ministry’s Permanent Mission of Denmark to the UN in New York, and, after graduating from AU, he began his career as an administrative officer at the Danish Ministry of Finance in 2001.
“When I left the university in 2001, I didn’t imagine I’d be back. I knew I’d had some really good years at the university, but I didn’t imagine I’d be back working in the administration,” he says.
After almost two years at the Ministry of Finance, where he got to see what a state budget and a state economic model look like and how a finance act comes into being, his career led him to the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Here he worked in the areas of education and research, which after four years led him quite naturally – one might say – to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science as a senior consultant.
“In my view there has always been a common thread running through everything I’ve done. What I did at the World Bank is largely what I do today: create good frameworks for research and education. What I draw on most today is my time in the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, which gave me a network and an insight into the ministry’s role as a supervisory authority,” says Kristian Thorn.
The common thread was not planned
After two years in the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, he again felt the pull of AU, and he returned to the university as head of the international office. Two years later, he became the director of the then AU Research and Talent. He then worked as deputy director at AU Student Administration and Services for seven years before becoming head of staff in 2021. A position he is now leaving to take up the role of university director. It’s difficult to find a better place to work that at AU, explains Kristian Thorn.
“When I got the opportunity to lead the international office in 2009, I thought it was an exciting task that I could try my hand at for a few years. But I stayed at the university”
“When I got the opportunity to lead the international office in 2009, I thought it was an exciting task that I could try my hand at for a few years. But I stayed at the university. I am enormously fond of this place, and I value the professional relationships I have here and the fact that the university is always developing. It is incredibly meaningful to help talented young people on their way out into the world, and it’s rewarding to be part of an organisation that really helps to set and propel the major research agenda,” says Kristian Thorn.
But even though research and education have been a common thread throughout Kristian Thorn’s career, it is not the case that he carefully planned his way up the career ladder at the university.
“No, that was not the driving force for me. It’s always been about the tasks and the feeling that I could help make a difference. And, of course, that’s exactly what it’s about now: being able to contribute to stable operations and development using the experience I have from a wide range of administrative tasks,” he says.
Boats, nature and city life
Kristian Thorn has lived in New York, Washington and Copenhagen, but he has put down roots in Aarhus. Because Aarhus offers everything that the new university director values, he explains. A large city with a rich cultural life that also gives you a sense of being close to nature.
“I enjoy being in nature and have a share in a sailboat in Aarhus Docklands. So I use the forest, beach and water in Aarhus as much as I can. Of course, New York is an amazing city and it was exciting to live there, but, after a while, you get a bit tired of all the noise and concrete. Aarhus has a good balance,” says Kristian Thorn.
Kristian Thorn is divorced and has two children aged nine and eleven. He takes his role as a father very seriously.
“My children mean a lot to me and are of course a large part of my daily life. When I have my children, I am not the last person to leave the office at the end of the day. I prioritise spending time with them. And sometimes, when they are in bed in the evening, I get my computer out and work a bit”
“My children mean a lot to me and are of course a large part of my daily life. When I have my children, I am not the last person to leave the office at the end of the day. I prioritise spending time with them. And sometimes, when they are in bed in the evening, I get my computer out and work a bit,” he says.
No major change of course – but challenges await
Kristian Thorn still has another 14 days before he officially starts his new position as university director. And he has not yet taken over the former director’s office. But he will soon. The fact that somebody new is moving into the office, however, will not result in a major change of course for the university from day one – this was Kristian Thorn’s response when asked in what way his directorship would make its mark at the university.
“I’m not going to start by departing significantly from the course that Arnold (Boon, ed.) set. He was a talented director and leader of the administration. But we are a university in development, so there will undoubtedly be new challenges to address. Among other things, we have a government with several plans for what should happen in our sector,” says Kristian Thorn.
We are now in his current office in the Rector’s Office corridor. Sitting in front of a circular meeting table and holding an iPad, Kristian Thorn describes the most important tasks that await him.
“There are several important tasks waiting for us, because we are in a time of tremendous change. But the main focus for a director is to ensure that the university is financially secure and that its finances are well managed. After all, our current budget situation means that money will be tight for the next few years, and it’s important to meet our financial targets. This will create the peace of mind we need to perform our core activities,” says Kristian Thorn.
In December, the AU Board approved the university’s financial report for the third quarter of 2022, which paints a gloomy picture of the university’s financial situation.
External factors such as significant losses on the financial markets, increasing energy prices, and a reduction in funding linked to educational activity are some of the main reasons that AU stands to end 2022 with an extraordinary large budget deficit of approximately DKK 350 million. The exact figure is still difficult to predict because the financial markets remain extremely volatile.
According to Kristian Thorn, there is no doubt that the university will have to operate within tight budgets over the next few years.
“We’ll find ourselves in situations in which we’ll ask ourselves: We can’t do everything – what is the most important?”
“In collaboration with administrative centre managers and directors of administration at AU, I will begin reprioritising funding within our financial frameworks. We’ll find ourselves in situations in which we’ll ask ourselves: We can’t do everything – what is the most important? And we’ll need to organise our tasks so that we use our resources in the best way possible,” he says.
AU must be a good place to work
But Kristian Thorn also emphasises that AU is not a university with structural imbalance.
“We have a tight budget, but we have a coherent budget that works. In 2022, we were hit by a number of external and unpredictable factors. The senior management team has done all it can to adapt to these uncertainties. But there are things that remain unresolved. For example, we still don’t know if the taximeter funding increase will continue – this is a political issue being debated with regard to the Finance Act for 2023. If we lose this funding, we will find ourselves in a very different situation,” he says.
The new director also underlines that AU is – and should remain – a good place to work.
“It’s very important to me that AU is a good workplace, where employees can thrive and develop their potential. There are many of us who are enormously proud to work at Aarhus University. It is important that we can work for the benefit of society while also developing our potential and enjoying good working conditions,” says Kristian Thorn.
One of his main goals for the university, he explains, is to ensure strong collaboration across administrative units and levels for the benefit of students and academic departments.
“We need to think across the administration: we are good at collaborating,” says Kristian Thorn.
Kristian Thorn’s CV
1999-2001: MSc in Political Science at AU
2000: Assistant Chargé d'Affaires, Permanent Mission of Denmark to the UN in New York, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark
2001-2002: Administrative officer, Ministry of Finance
2002-2007: Tertiary education and science & technology specialist, World Bank
2007-2009: Senior consultant, Ministry of Higher Education and Science
2009-2011: Head of the International Office, AU
2011-2014: Deputy director, AU Research and Talent
2014-2021: Deputy director, AU Student Administration and Services
2021-2023: Head of staff, AU
2023: University director, AU