Distinguished alumnus 2021: Bent Hansen

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Distinguished alumnus 2021: Bent Hansen

You have to dare to think big

He describes himself as a rather atypical student. But Aarhus University changed his life. Meet Bent Hansen, Aarhus University’s 2021 distinguished alumnus: a graduate who has played a decisive role in the Danish healthcare system and has fostered close collaboration between AU and Aarhus University Hospital.

It’s 1970. History student Bent Hansen is on his way to class when he sees a flock of students demonstrating in front of Stakladen. He notices that several of them have long hair and were wearing blue coveralls. The same kind of coveralls Bent’s father wears to work on the railway in his home town, Them.

“I thought: What are they up to? They should be concentrating on their studies instead. I wasn’t at all political in my student days. That didn’t come until later,” remembered Bent Hansen, former chair of the Central Denmark Region council and this year’s Distinguished Aarhus University Alumnus.

We met the 72-year-old Bent Hansen in a classic Aarhus University yellow-brick building at the intersection of Nørrebrogade and Ringgaden – where he appeared completely at home. Not only did he study here; he’s been here many times since he graduated with a Master’s degree in history and social science in 1976. For a boy from a working class family in provincial Them, attending university wasn’t exactly in the cards. His mother, Nicoline Hansen, who managed the train station, had encouraged him to attend upper secondary school, and after he graduated, she wanted him to get an apprenticeship at the post office.

“But I’d gotten a taste of something else. I wanted to continue. And my time at Aarhus University was fantastic. My life gained a new dimension; the world opened up,” Hansen said, smiling broadly.

A life without blue coveralls
Hansen’s decision to read history at AU was motivated by a genuine interest in the subject and an inspiring history teacher. But it wasn’t until he he took a supplementary subject in social science that he found his true passion.

“The history programme was a bit laissez faire. Then I came over to social science, where we were immediately assigned to groups and given a programme. Just! like! that!” Bent Hansen punctuated his words by rapping the table so hard the coffee cups rattled.

“I liked that. I suppose I was a rather atypical student who didn’t participate so much in the parties and social life. My focus was on academics, and my goal in my studies was to move away from my father’s blue coveralls. I wanted to prove to myself and to my parents that I could do this,” Hansen explained. After graduation, he worked for a time as a teaching assistant in modern Danish history at the Department of Political Science before becoming an upper secondary teacher at Viborg Katedralskole.

Quality is more important than bricks and mortar
Hansen’s political career began in the early ‘80s. One day, there was a knock on the door of his home Kjellerup. It was Ernst, the local metalworker. He wanted to encourage the history teacher to stand for election to the county council for the Social Democrats, who needed a candidate. 33-year-old Hansen, who was chair of the local badminton club and a member of the boards of his children’s daycare institutions, took up the challenge – and was elected.

“My platform was saving the local hospital in Kjellerup. But I quickly realised that this was a short-sighted agenda. To achieve high-quality care, it was necessary to clean up,” he said. He went on to close a number of small hospitals across the region and centralise the medical specialisations at the remaining hospitals – for which he was strongly criticised.

“I believe that in the healthcare system, we have to focus on the quality of care rather than bricks and mortar. That saves lives. You have to dare to think big,” he explained.

Streamlining public health care
Thinking big has certainly paid off for Hansen, who can now look back on an illustrious political career: he served as chair of the Viborg County Council, chair of Central Denmark Region and chair of Danish Regions. He spearheaded processes aimed at streamlining public health care delivery and left his mark on modern Danish public health policy. Hansen is perhaps best known for a number of large hospital construction projects, including Aarhus University Hospital, which has been named the best university hospital in Denmark for the thirteenth time. Hansen also played an important role in bringing the first Danish centre for particle radiotherapy, an advanced form of radiation therapy for cancer, to Aarhus in 2012. Today, the National Centre for Particle Radiotherapy at Aarhus University excels in integrating research into clinical practice, in close collaboration with Aarhus University.

“The collaboration between the university and the region is unique. Aarhus University and the university hospital are closely linked, and they strengthen one another,” Hansen said.

You have to draw a line in the sand
Hansen stepped down as chair of the regional council in 2018. In addition to spending time with his large family and playing badminton at Højbjerg Badmintonklub, he is still working full-time in his capacity as member of numerous boards. He is chair of the board of the Port of Grenaa and the government’s ‘ghetto representative’ for Central Denmark Region and North Denmark Region. The former top politician is still committed to public service.

“Fundamentally, I suppose it’s about making a difference and meaning something to someone. I’ve always enjoyed leading the way. Discussing things back and forth is fine, but at some point you have to draw a line in the sand. Otherwise we’ll never get anywhere.”

All three of Bent Hansen’s children are graduates of Aarhus University. And this year, his grandchild is following in their – and his – footsteps in the yellow-brick buildings. This year’s distinguished alum is happy about that:

“Aarhus University expands your horizon and makes you a whole person.”