At a university you have an obligation to get involved

In this article, former dean Svend Hylleberg addresses the obligation to get involved, openness in management, an administrative disaster and a merger that ended well after all.

2015.07.01 | Helge Hollesen

In 1998, Svend Hylleberg was appointed head of the former Department of Economics, and all at once his position as one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of econometrics was challenged. And it required careful consideration before he decided to take on the job of leading the department.

“I had to give up the close contact with a number of my colleagues from around the world who I was really fond of. But the overall welfare of the department has always been at the top of my mind. When making such a decision, the question is always whether the time is right to take the leap. I had just turned 55 and thought I lived up to my own expectations of what makes a good head of department – with a solid academic background and a reasonable amount of respect in the environment,” says Svend Hylleberg stating the reason for his decision to venture into the field of university management.

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A fairly good department

Today he feels pretty satisfied when he looks back on a development process where he helped push the department from being “a mediocre to a fairly good department”. And he is happy with the internationalisation process that began when the department gained access to the American labour market, which the economists brought along.

“The goal was to attract more people from abroad – PhD students and senior researchers alike – and to get our own people out into the international labour market. Today, a lot of former graduates and employees from the department hold positions at some of the best universities around the world,” explains Svend Hylleberg.

Svend Hylleberg was head of department for eight years, before he decided to apply for the position as dean following repeated requests from his colleagues.

“I did consider taking up research again, but after having been outside the research field for a number of years, it is difficult to return to the same level as before,” he explains.

Prefers elected heads of departments

Svend Hylleberg believes that in many ways the work done by the head of department is more important than the work of the dean.

“The dean’s domain is to manage the big picture, but as head of department you can really make a difference – even today,” says Svend Hylleberg. And he is not at all an advocate of the practice of appointing managers.

“Managers who are elected in one way or the other have more legitimacy. Previously, there was a tendency to appoint weak managers who wouldn’t destroy the informal power structure. To avoid this, we could follow a model which stipulates that a manager must be approved by an upper level manager,” says Svend Hylleberg and points to the Department of Political Science as a prime example.

“Here the employees actually have an elected head of department. They agreed on who was right for the position, and then that person was the only one who applied – and of course I appointed him.”

More employees need to get involved

Svend Hylleberg would like for the employees at the university to get more opportunities to become involved in the debates and for a higher degree of openness surrounding the decisions of the senior management team. But the employees must also want this co-determination and work to achieve it. Sitting back and letting the managers make all the decisions will get us nowhere.

The co-determination and involvement of the employees was specified in the new by-laws of Aarhus University in 2012, which Svend Hylleberg helped establish. But even before these by-laws were implemented, the employees had the opportunity to make their opinions known, he believes.

“The management have always paid attention to what the academic councils have to say, and they still function as advisory committees. But if we are able to make sure that the debates in these councils stay current and remain focused on the long-term perspective, it may actually have an influence on the deans and their line of thinking as well. After all, this is a university, and employees are somehow obligated to participate in the current debates,” says Svend Hylleberg and proceeds:

“I am concerned, however, about the fact that people refrain from engaging in discussions, because they think others will handle it, or because they believe that their arguments won’t matter. I don’t quite understand how such an attitude can thrive in a research community. Part of our jobs is to enter into discussions with others, because our own arguments or results rarely represent the whole truth – and only through discussion is it possible to move forward,” underlines Svend Hylleberg.

More openness from the management

The former dean would like to see more people included in the decision-making processes at the university.

“A formulation like ‘the senior management team have decided’ is the work of the devil. Of course a senior management team need to make certain decisions in certain situations. But they ought to make debates at the departments a part of the process before making decisions – to make sure that the points have been heard and to give people a chance to have a say in the matter,” says Svend Hylleberg.

He also dislikes the practice when a management team retires to a private room to discuss and decide things and then announce to the public that they wholly agree on a given topic.

“There’s too little openness. I believe that it is possible for the management to have open discussions. And then they must yield to the majority and proceed on the basis of what has been decided,” says the former dean.

He established his own dean’s blog, which he then tried to develop into the senior management team’s blog, giving the deans and other members the opportunity to write entries. But there was not enough support of the project among the other members of the senior management team.

Too little time to follow up on the merger

Svend Hylleberg sees the absence of a written proposal as one of the reasons why the discussions in 2010-2011 did not yield the desired results.

These discussions were meant to conclude the merger that was launched in 2007, but they took place before 9 March 2011, which was when the management proposed the new AU structure with four main academic areas and nine pillars in the administration.

“It had to be done very quickly, and so there was not enough time to discuss. We weren’t fully clear on what we were discussing, and the proposal was presented based on a debate that no one really knew what was about,” says Svend Hylleberg.

According to him, the management should have presented the proposal which, he believes, the rector at the time, Lauritz Holm-Nielsen, was already planning.

“It would have been very difficult and might have prevented the implementation of certain points. But it would have been much better to take the necessary time to discuss things through and foster a sense of co-ownership. And I think that Lauritz’ visionary ideas could have come through nevertheless,” says the former dean.

Vision based on a catastrophic model

Even though Svend Hylleberg was sceptical about the merger in 2007, he has come to the conclusion today that both the merger and the ensuing reorganisation, in which nine faculties were cut down to four, were ‘fantastically visionary’ ventures thought of by Lauritz Holm-Nielsen.

“The greatest mistake was the administrative model. It was a catastrophic move, and changing it has been one of the greatest challenges that I’ve had to deal with throughout my last term as dean. It was also taking it a step too far when we tried to brand everything as ‘Aarhus University’ in spite of the fact that the four faculties are so diverse – but establishing one joint university was the right thing to do,” explains Svend Hylleberg.

“There’s a great difference between a faculty with two-thirds external funding and relatively few students and a faculty with lots of students and less external funding – and there had to be consequences of merging these two. But now we’re on the right track, and the faculties are able to have and communicate their own distinctive profiles,” says Svend Hylleberg.

Process with feelings and battles

Svend Hylleberg’s lack of enthusiasm for the mergers in 2007 was due to the inevitable problems that arose between the former Faculty of Social Sciences and Aarhus School of Business.

“It’s always been my opinion that once a decision has been made, you have to work from there. So you could say that I turned on a dime, but to a lot of people’s surprise I managed to establish an excellent cooperation with Børge Obel from ASB in getting the merger up and running,” explains Svend Hylleberg.

It was upon request that Svend Hylleberg in 2011 decided to continue on as dean of the faculty that had been renamed School of Business and Social Sciences and was recently relaunched as Aarhus BSS. But he also took up the position in order to follow the merger and the reorganisation of AU through to completion.

“It’s going to take a long time, because there are so many feelings involved in the process. But I think things are improving on several points here at Aarhus BSS. It took a lot of battles to secure the necessary accreditations, and there are still problems that need to be dealt with. But I’m convinced that they will be solved in four or five years, and then our position will be stronger than ever,” concludes Svend Hylleberg.

Aarhus BSS