THE NEW RECTOR: A lifelong fascination with knowledge

The newly appointed rector of Aarhus University, Brian Bech Nielsen, is looking forward to engaging employees in dialogue about the university that holds such a central place in his heart. He describes himself as a listening manager who prefers to get things out in the open - and he describes the recent WPA as a warning cry from dedicated employees about problems that simply must be solved.

2013.03.06 | Bjørg Tulinius

Photo: Lars Kruse / AU Communication

Here’s a detail that speaks volumes about the new rector.
Though his shirts are always impeccably pressed, he almost always has his sleeves rolled up - or is in the process of doing so.
Perhaps Brian Bech Nielsen’s sleeves reveal his many years as a Boy Scout, where he learned to live by the motto Be prepared. Or perhaps they reveal a more general character trait Danes tend to describe as “West Jutlandish”. In his own words, being “West Jutlandish” means that when he cleans house, he starts in one corner and goes at it without a break until the job is completely done.

The newly appointed rector, Dr Brian Bech Nielsen, has been a part of Aarhus University since 1977. That was the year Jimmy Carter replaced Gerald Ford as President of the United States, and the year Deng Xiaoping regained power in China.
Brian Bech Nielsen was 20 years old in 1977.  Back then, he had no idea that AU’s characteristic yellow brick buildings would come to frame his research career as a physicist. An illustrious career documented by a long CV: licentiate fellow, associate professor, professor, deputy centre director, department head and, in 2011, dean of the newly established Faculty of Science and Technology. The title of rector will now be added to the list.

Dreams of adventure in exotic climes

But as a child biking around the streets of the provincial town of Holstebro, a career in physics was the farthest thing from Brian Bech Nielsen’s mind.
‘Back then, I had not doubt at all. I was going to be a biologist, explore tropical jungles and search for interesting animals. I come from a family with a great love of adventure. Many of my parents’ siblings had left Denmark to seek their fortunes in other countries. One had moved to the Far East, another to Canada, a third to Greenland, a fourth to Sweden: and when they came home to visit and showed us pictures or 8mm films, I was completely spellbound, and I dreamed about experiencing the great world for myself,’ remembers Brian Bech Nielsen.

But his dreams changed in upper secondary school. Brian Bech Nielsen had a genial history teacher, a somewhat less inspiring biology teacher, a really good physics teacher and an absolutely fantastic maths teacher. He felt torn. Was it history he wanted study at university - a subject he’d been interested in throughout secondary school - or was it physics?
In his eyes, physics provided a fundmental insight into the world, and it also seems like a safe choice for a first-generation university student.  Astronomy was another possiblity; Brian was often to be found on the roof of his parents’ carport at night, gazing at the night sky with a telescope.

Fateful encounters

Physics won out, as we know. But history is still a central part of Brian Bech Nielsen’s life and is one of his biggest hobbies.  Adam Zamoyski’s Warsaw 1920 is the book on his nightstand right now. As he says himself: ‘Physics is about everything - but far from everything is about physics.’

After upper secondary school, Brian Bech Nielsen was off to Aarhus, the largest city in Jutland, to begin life as a young student of the sciences - among a thousand other things.
‘Moving to Aarhus was like an intoxicating form of freedom for me.  Not least living in the residence hall. I lived at the Gellerup Residence Hall - and I still see some of my friends from those days, even though it’s more than 30 years ago.’

As a student in Aarhus, Brian Bech Nielsen met several people who would make a decisive difference in his life. He spotted the most important of these at a party at his residence hall; appropriately for the times, the theme was punk. And Brian - who seldom says no to a good gimmick - did his best to dress the part. 

The woman he spotted liked what she saw as well. Today, she is his wife and the mother of his two daughters. As he puts it, smiling:
‘The most important choice in life is the choice of a spouse. And I made the right choice.’

Other decisive encounters with staff at the former Faculty of Natural Sciences have influenced Brian Bech Nielsen’s career. Brian Bech Nielsen names his PhD supervisor, Professor Jens Ulrik Andersen (Department of Physics and Astronomy) as an important influence: ‘He was a fantastic mentor, whose dazzlingly precise analyses and academic guidance were imporant factors in my decision to pursue a university career.’

 While working on his Master’s thesis, Brian Bech Nielsen also met an incredibly energetic postdoc who became a friend and associate for life. His name was Flemming Besenbacher, and he later founded the successful iNANO research centre at AU.
‘Flemming has always had incredible drive and fantastic energy. His unique pioneer spirit and his infectious enthusiasm have been a great source of inspiration to me,’ says Brian Bech Nielsen.

Open and honest leadership

The two physicists became close colleagues for a time, after Brian Bech Nielsen was asked to serve as deputy centre director at iNANO, following a period at Lund University in Sweden and a number of years as associate professor of physics at AU.
‘I think that this is when I discovered how exciting managerial work is. I discovered that management is about getting all the cards on the table, looking staff and students in the eye - and most importantly of all, listening.’ 

Brian Bech Nielsen takes the same approach to the recently published WPA report, a major topic of discussion among staff at the university right now.

‘There are many important points being made in the debate that’s going on on the homepage right now. And as a senior managers, we have to listen to these very closely - and take action in response to them. As I read the WPA, we have a staff of incredibly dedicated employees who are deeply attached to the university - but there is great frustration about the fact that a number of working procedures still aren’t functioning appropriately almost two years after the new departmental structure and administrative reorganisation were implemented. The only response to this is to listen closely, receive criticism in a spirit of openness, understand why things aren’t working, and figure out what we can do about it.  The reorganisation cannot be rolled back - nor should it be. But the 9 March report that launched it is not a bible. Changes must be made where necessary. At the same time, we must be honest and explain that there are no miracle solutions,’ says the new rector.

Brian Bech Nielsen decided to apply for the job of rector of Aarhus University to do his part in moving the organisation onwards:  to continue to build on the university’s strong foundation and contribute to making Aarhus University ‘ a leading global university’, as the invitation to apply for the rectorship puts it.

Ready for the challenges to come

‘We have a fantastic, strong university with the ability to live up to the demands society increasingly makes on us. In future, we must be geared to educate more undergraduate and postgraduate students while maintaining the high quality of our degree programmes. Research at a high international level in the core disciplines is our hallmark, and we must not slacken our efforts here. In fact, we must apply this strength to collaborating across disciplines and thereby do our part in solving some of the challenges our society faces,’ says Brian Bech Nielsen.

Students have a special place in the new rector’s world. Every year, he looks forward to welcoming new students and has had - as he puts it himself - the great privilege of teaching physics at all levels.

‘Meeting students who thirst for knowledge and sending them onwards into the world is always inspring. As a university, we must never forget that our most important task is educating bright, capable undergraduates and postgraduates who can contribute to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge to society as a whole,’ says Brian Bech Nielsen.

Brian Bech Nielsen will assume his duties as rector in August 2013. Until then, he will continue as dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology. At the same time, he will engage staff at the university’s main academic areas and departments in dialogue in the months leading up to his appointment.  It will first be possible to develop a concrete plan for what short-term and long-term changes need to be made after this.
‘I’m looking forward to open, direct dialogue with staff and to listening to their input,’ says Brian Bech Nielsen.

When asked what he looks forward to most as new rector, he answers:
‘What I’m looking forward to most is watching this succeed. To see the happiness and engagement in the eyes of our staff and hear all the fantastic stories happening at this university - stories we’re all proud of.’

Read more about the new rector at AU

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