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On 1 July, Lene Espersen will step down as Chair of the Board of AAU. Photo: Lars Horn

Lene Espersen: AAU is a university that can no longer be ignored

On 1 July, Lene Espersen will step down as Chair of the Board of AAU. She leaves behind – in her own words – a more robust AAU that performs better in the rankings and is actively involved in solving the major challenges facing society. She has no regrets about her time in office, but is saddened by the critical voices on a lack of openness and involvement in key decision-making processes.

By Lea Laursen Pasgaard, AAU Communication. Translated by LeeAnn Iovanni, AAU Communication

Six eventful years with difficult strategic priorities as well as significant results. This is what Lene Espersen can look back on when she ends her service as Chair of the Board of Aalborg University (AAU) at the end of June. She has served two terms in the position and thus cannot be reappointed.

- When I started in 2016, the university had been through a tough financial period so there was significant focus on getting finances under control. The university was considered beacon in Northern Jutland, but we needed to increase our presence on the national stage, including showing the business community and the political system that we can compete with the old universities, says Lene Espersen and continues:

- Today I would say that AAU is a completely different place. We have a really good handle on our finances, and what pleases me the most is that we have made the university robust. We've made smart changes in education. At the same time, our focus on excellent research has paid off as we place really high on several rankings, says Lene Espersen.

Here she is particularly referring to AAU repeatedly being recognized as Europe's best engineering university and its ranking as one of the world's best on the UN's Sustainable Development Goal on education.

Lene Espersen sees the central task of the University Board over the past six years as having had to take care of the money while also fulfilling some rather high ambitions. She believes that the board has succeeded in setting a strategic framework for the university, which has enabled AAU to achieve a wide range of results.

Unequal distribution of basic research funds

However, there is one goal that Lene Espersen did not manage to achieve in her time as chair. This relates to the clash over the unequal distribution of basic research funds among the Danish universities. 

- This is one of the fights that the rector and I have tried to have with successive ministers and spokespersons in parliament. AAU is disadvantaged in the basic research funding system along with the University of Southern Denmark and Copenhagen Business School. The Technical University of Denmark gets almost four times as much money per student as we do, explains Lene Espersen.

As part of the budget negotiations, last year AAU succeeded in obtaining a permanent additional annual appropriation of DKK 25 million. The goal, however, is a permanent change to the way the distribution model is structured. Thus Lene Espersen is passing this lobbying task on to her successor, IT entrepreneur and businessman André Rogaczewski. He has served on AAU’s board as an external member since 2019 and takes over as chair on 1 July.

- It will be important to keep the pot boiling – and it must be done wisely such that the people we want to engage with don't get tired of listening to us. Rather, they need be made aware of the injustice of the current distribution where universities on very different budgets have to compete, she adds.

Lene Espersen emphasizes that she did not expect that politicians would easily make fundamental changes to the distribution model. Danish education policy is typically created with broad majorities, and it takes time to change the conditions, she explains.

- I think it's hard for politicians to change the system if extra money isn't put into it at the same time. Without extra funds, they have to take the money from one university and give it to another. If, on the other hand, there’s a funding boost, then it’s easier for them to give proportionately more money to the universities that have historically received less, says Lene Espersen.

Difficult economic conditions

Over the past six years, the board has had to make some tough strategic choices. In 2011, it was a stated political goal of the SRSF government [Social Democrat Party, Social Liberal Party, Socialist People’s Party] that Denmark should be a knowledge nation. The target was that 25 percent of a youth cohort had to have a long-cycle higher education, and the universities therefore opened more, new programmes and admitted more students. When Lene Espersen became University Board chair, the message from Christiansborg was different.

- Politicians are starting to see that universities have problems with graduate unemployment and this is only increasing. So they are reversing course. After creating a lot of new degree programmes, we are suddenly told that we need to start closing degree programmes, says Lene Espersen.

Due to right-sizing requirements, AAU had to significantly cut the number of student places. This had financial consequences as did the re-prioritisation contribution that forced universities to save two per cent of the total budgets.[LI2] 

The most difficult challenges that Lene Espersen faced during her time as chair was when the board had to close a large number of degree programmes this year. This happened earlier this year as a consequence of the government's relocation plan. And especially when the university went through a major round of dismissals due to cutbacks.

Lene Espersens greets Pro-rector Anne Marie Kanstrup at AAU Annual Party 2022. Photo: Lars Horn

A question of timing

- In this regard, the board and the chairmanship have spent an incredible amount of time discussing things like timing. How do we do this? And what’s the smartest way? We know it's the very worst message you can get when you feel like you've put your life and soul into a workplace and there's suddenly no room for you anymore, says Lene Espersen.

Commenting on the programme closures, she adds:

- We've actually gone harder strategically in some places than we needed to. We did this so that the university still had money for strategic initiatives in selected areas that we would like to strengthen. The great danger would have been to use the green harvest method and make cutbacks in all areas. Then we might risk becoming a bad version of ourselves. So we spent some time investigating whether there were any areas where we could already see that we were challenged. We judged that it was better to throw in the towel there and maintain the quality elsewhere, she adds.

Is there anything you regret during your time as chair of the board?

- No, I wouldn’t say that. Though I was a bit troubled that there were discussions about whether we've been open enough about our decisions. So you could say that we might have been even better at communicating more in terms of the process of how we do things, says Lene Espersen.

She emphasizes that it was never the board’s desire to make decisions in secret. Key players such as staff representatives in the consultation committees were involved in the processes. However, the board did not want all staff to be involved in all interim activities.

- A process with complete openness would create an incredible amount of uncertainty and nervousness – perhaps also in places where it is not relevant at all. There's no reason for that, she explains.

Staff must lead missions

When Lene Espersen began her time as board chair, AAU's strategy was called Knowledge for the World. She is delighted that the university achieved its goal and is even building on it with Knowledge for the World 2022-2026. With the new strategy, AAU proposes to be a mission-oriented university that contributes actively to the wider world and is involved solving the major societal challenges.

If AAU is to succeed in being a mission-oriented university, Lene Espersen believes it is important that AAU's management defines which overall missions are relevant for the university. This could, for example, be solutions for the climate crisis and the whole question of how we should use artificial intelligence in the digitalisation of society. After that, it must be up to the academic environments themselves to propose how they can collaborate on missions. In this context, it will be the management's task to focus on making sure that the academic environments find each other across the main scientific areas.

- We’ve experimented with interdisciplinary research projects where we reserved a pool of money that the researchers could share in by joining forces. This showed that interdisciplinary projects can succeed, but I don't think money should be the only motivator. I think it’s important that the environments themselves come together and agree on which way they want to go to solve a specific problem, she says.

Next-level PBL

She highlights the merger of the faculties of humanities and social sciences as one of the strategic initiatives she is particularly proud of. The same applies to the decision that the university should integrate SSH into STEM and STEM into SSH to a greater extent. According to Lene Espersen, the PBL model provides completely new layers that give students the opportunity to check out other disciplines than their own.

In Lene Espersen's view, the PBL model is one of AAU's greatest strengths, and the university must remember to protect it, she believes.

- The rest of the university community has found that the PBL model works in terms of making students more ‘plug and play’ for the labour market. So it’s also important that we don’t become self-satisfied and sit back. With our new Institute for Advanced Study in PBL (IAS PBL), we must continue to develop the PBL model so that we’re always at least one or two steps ahead, she says.

It is not only the PBL model that the university should focus on nurturing and developing in Lene Espersen's eyes. This also applies to the research areas where AAU is a leader and places high on various rankings.

- It is important that we maintain our positions of strength while helping more of our researchers advance. In the past, we may have been written off a bit because we were "one of the young universities". But one of the things that matters in academia is where you are in these rankings. The fact that AAU ranks so high means that we are now taken seriously. We are not considered a provincial university. We are seen as a competitive university that cannot be ignored," she says.