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What may I say about my workplace?

In a personnel case involving Musicology at the Department of Aesthetics and Communication, a staff member and a number of media have questioned whether or not freedom of expression really exists for the Aarhus University staff. We asked the rector.

2012.02.21 | Kristian Serge Skov-Larsen

Rector Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen.

According to the Danish newspaper Information, a professor of musicology at Aarhus University has received a ‘proposed warning’ from her department at Arts, where the newspaper says one of the demands is that she must not ‘breach confidentiality’, but enter into professional dialogue in ‘an urbane tone’.
The ‘proposed warning’ is just the preliminary last step in a case that has led to numerous feature articles and letters to the editor, as well as considerable criticism in the media because the university – according to the music professor herself – is suppressing her freedom of expression. Her departmental management, on the other hand, says that the case is rather about the working climate and cooperation.
To know what it is really all about, one would need to have seen the case file or been a fly on the wall at the many meetings and attempts at mediation. However, the case raises an important question for all members of staff throughout the university – and we put this question to Rector Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen.

Can I criticise the management or the academic level at Aarhus University without running a risk?
“I’d like to emphasise that I’m speaking purely in principle and I won’t go into the specific case, which is about something quite different from the freedom to express oneself. All members of staff can freely express whatever they like, of course. Freedom of expression is a prerequisite for a university, and no members of staff should be in doubt that they are at liberty to make use of it and are expected to do so. To my knowledge during the period I’ve been rector, there haven’t been any examples of active participation in public debate having a negative influence on a person’s career.”

Is there any difference between criticising the management or my colleagues?
“Not really, but when you criticise colleagues, it’s important that the criticism is expressed with respect for the individual, for academic diversity and for collegial solidarity. This is so crucial, because good and constructively critical collegial solidarity is essential for development at the university. You don’t need to take the same consideration when you criticise the management. As a manager, you need to be less concerned about yourself in this context, and help ensure that everyone can freely express themselves, and that the constitutional rights of both the university and the staff are undisputed.
I’d like to make two general points about criticism. Firstly, you must foresee that the criticism is expected – especially from the university employees – to be based on factually correct information and that the conclusions of the criticism can be debated. Secondly, you must naturally be prepared – whether you are criticising management or colleagues – to listen to their answers.
I also believe it’s sometimes overlooked that the considerable degree of freedom we have at the universities also carries a certain responsibility. Responsibility for ourselves as individuals and responsibility for our profession and the many resources bestowed on us by society. All in all, however, I think the individual member of staff has unrestricted freedom.”

The subject of discussion in a number of media has been that the staff experience a ‘culture of silence’ at Aarhus University, where they do not dare to express their criticism. What is your comment to that?
“I’ve certainly noticed that, but I don’t think it’s warranted. On numerous occasions, I’ve encouraged open and critical debate, and I’m happy to take part in it myself. Throughout the years, I’ve clearly and precisely said in a number of leading articles in the former university paper Campus and in AUgustus – as well as the daily papers – that I regard it as my prime duty to defend the constitutional rights of the individual. As recently as in my Christmas speech, I defended the right of members of staff to criticise me – and I haven’t experienced any staff or students holding back. And the Christmas speech also resulted in a really interesting discussion with the new staff representatives on the Board, where they didn’t mince their words.
I also feel that I see the staff and students in both in-house and external media expressing themselves about different things or, for that matter, criticising the management. I’m happy to repeat that this is the way it should be at a university.”

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