Ready for future challenges

Aarhus University has a new strategy and structure to support its vision of being a leading European university.

2011.03.09 | Aarhus University

Rector Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen

The rumour has preceded us.

The week before last, the University of Lund came visiting to hear more about what is happening in Aarhus. Last week, Rector Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen had to catch an early-morning flight to Vienna to give a talk. And now, Dutch, German and English universities are lining up for a presentation of the model for Tomorrow’s Aarhus University, which has just been announced by the university management.
Exactly one year ago, it was but a sketchy outline of a vision which was presented at a staff meeting held on 8 March 2010. But since then, the so-called academic development process has taken off, and now a model has emerged which the management, employees and students have all had a say in.
According to Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen, what is so unique about the Aarhus University model is that the strategy rests on four equally important columns, i.e. research, talent development, knowledge exchange and education – and that these four columns are underpinned by the whole university structure.
– I have not heard of anybody who has done this before. In the past, university strategies have been based on two columns: research and education. Leading the way and incorporating both talent development and knowledge exchange as equally important areas of activity gives Aarhus University a considerable advantage. The challenges facing the world today are huge, and the universities have a key role to play in developing, gathering and sharing knowledge, in this way helping to address these challenges, says Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen.

Freedom and knowledge
Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen points, among other things, to climate change, food shortages and the growing world population as some of the critical issues to which today’s universities must take a scientific approach. This is also the light in which people should understand the interdisciplinary approach to knowledge for which Tomorrow’s Aarhus University has decided to create a strong framework.
– Interdisciplinarity calls for both discipline and knowledge. In other words, the in-depth expertise must be in place first. However, I am convinced that interdisciplinary thinking will produce new knowledge, and this is what we would like to stimulate. Among other things, by establishing a number of new interdisciplinary research centres, explains Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen.
The Rector emphasises, however, that not everything is going to be interdisciplinary in future. Individual researchers will, of course, always be employed by a particular department and thus have a clear affiliation with this department, but hopefully the new structure will provide the individual researchers with the freedom to pursue their interests and greater scope for participating in different interdisciplinary environments.
– In reality, the whole change process is all about allowing researchers and students as much freedom as possible. This has been achieved by looking at the barriers which we ourselves have erected. These may be structural in nature or other types of barriers which have grown over time, which is almost invariably the case in large organisations, says the Rector.

Cultural change respecting cultural heritage
According to Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen, it is perfectly possible to say that Tomorrow’s Aarhus University marks a cultural change to the way in which many people view a university. He is well aware that all the talk about interdisciplinarity and knowledge exchange may leave some researchers with the feeling that basic research in the classical sense is no more and that, in future, all research will be targeted and driven by society’s demands.
– We must certainly safeguard our in-depth core academic knowledge, also the knowledge which may be completely incomprehensible to all but a small handful of people. The eagerness and ability to immerse ourselves in such matters is exactly what has made our culture what it is today. And while some universities are talking about doing away with Greek and Latin, this will never happen here. Conducting research into the roots of one’s culture will always be important, even though the programmes may not attract very many students and others might therefore think about abolishing them.

Uncertainty understandable
So now there is a master plan. And while everybody is probably busy trying to grasp all the changes and decisions which will determine what Aarhus University will look like in future, it is very important for Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen to express his recognition of all the employees and students who have taken an active part in the academic development process. Even those who have been quite critical.
­– After all, one of the aims is to develop the freedom which is so crucial for the university. We must have freedom to immerse ourselves in our research projects, and we must have freedom to criticise the management and state our views in no uncertain terms. I hope that an even better framework has now been established for this to happen. And I also hope that people will soon agree with this, says the Rector.
He realises that there may well be a sense of uncertainty in the organisation, until the new structure falls into place completely.
And the criteria for success? Well, perhaps it can be taken as a sign of success that many of the large European universities have already expressed an interest in Tomorrow’s Aarhus University.
– Of course, the new model will give rise to questions along the way, but we will find the answers as we go along. What we do have is a very strong foundation from which to work. And who knows? Perhaps Aarhus University will serve as a role model for the modern European university, says Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen, who can already envision what this will mean for the number of international researchers and research communities that will be interested in Aarhus.

Tomorrow's Aarhus University, Staff, Frontpage