Speech at Aarhus University’s annual celebration on 12 september 2008

Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen, Rector, Aarhus University

Your Majesty.
Your Royal Highness.
Dear Minister.
Honoured guests.

Welcome to Aarhus University’s annual celebration for 2008. An 80th anniversary seems like a good opportunity to underline a few points in the university’s history. And I’d like to say a few words about the time when some people said ironically that our university might be able to persuade a few young girls from the nearby towns to come and study here! Things have changed a great deal – these days we are a large university of considerable scope.

There are more than 17,000 universities in the world, and in the Top 100 of these Aarhus University is the youngest European university and the fifth youngest university in the world. We are celebrating the university’s 80th anniversary proud of what all the many people involved in our history have managed to achieve in the past 80 years – which is not very long for a university.

When Aarhus University was founded Denmark only had a single university – in Copenhagen. But in the early 1920s Århus was a very confident city, perhaps because the national exhibition here in 1909 had gone so well. Trade, industry and the port were all expanding, and Jutland had grown larger following reunification with Southern Jutland in 1920. Århus wanted its own university. And it’s important to underline that the university was the result of an initiative taken by local citizens. It wasn’t the Danish State that decided to found a university here. It was a decision made by the local people alone. And the University and City Liaison Committee put this decision into effect. This committee was founded in 1921 with the aim of campaigning for a university in Århus and collecting funds so the dream could be turned into reality. And the committee is still working – a traditional link between the university and the city.

When Southern Jutland rejoined Denmark in 1920 there was plenty of good reason for local patriotism. And Victor Albeck, a senior physician who was one of those who worked hardest to establish a university in Århus, explained why a new university was needed as follows: “It’s as if Denmark will grow larger if it gets another university.”

In Kolding they wanted one, and Sønderborg wanted one too – as well as Viborg. So Århus was not the only Danish town interested in starting a university, and the location of Denmark’s second university was the subject of heated debate for a while. They might have had different agendas, but one thing Viborg, Kolding and Sønderborg did agree about was that students needed protection from the big city life in Århus with all its many temptations!

Viborg based its case on a number of environmental arguments – a quiet location and plenty of clean air. But this didn’t help much. The author Johannes V. Jensen defended Viborg’s natural qualifications to be a university city. But this didn’t help either – on Tuesday 11 September 1928 an independent institution that was initially called University Teaching in Jutland started its activities in Århus with the right to examine students in the philosophy of science. The teaching took place in humble surroundings and rented premises in a Technical College building in Nørre Allé. Kort K. Kortsen was appointed to the position of professor of philosophy, and the following senior associate professors were also appointed: Peter Skautrup in Danish language, Andreas Blinkenberg in French language and literature, Christen Møller in German language and literature, and Torsten Dahl in English language and literature. The salaries of these five professors came in the form of gifts from local citizens. Despite the excellence of the teachers, the supporters of a university in Kolding continued to object to Århus becoming a university city. They called the teaching in Århus a parody of an imitation university, and one teacher in Kolding predicted that “They might be able to persuade a few young girls from the nearby towns to come and study in Århus. But I do not believe that Århus will ever be able to attract genuine students.”

Unfortunately, we know little about the first lectures given by the five academic musketeers of Århus. But Professor Kortsen definitely underlined in his first lecture that Kierkegaard came from Jutland, adding that he hoped that some of Kierkegaard’s spirit would bless the modest university that had just been born. Even though Kortsen was very interested in spiritism and spirits, Kierkegaard always attached great importance to the individual. So if his spirit did ever rest on Aarhus University, it must surely have been a blessing to each individual teacher and each of the 64 students who had enrolled at the start of the semester.

Four years later, on 30 August 1932 and in the baking heat of summer, the foundation stone was laid for the university’s own buildings. King Christian X laid the first stone, and on 11 September the following year the new buildings were finished. The architect was C.F. Møller, the inspiration came from the functional Bauhaus style, and the buildings were made of yellow brick. The university was opened by Christian X with the following words: “With the wish that the academic research carried out here will take place in an atmosphere of intellect and truth, I hereby open Aarhus University!” And with the king’s own words what had been called University Teaching in Jutland became Aarhus University.

It had been agreed that if Århus paid for the buildings the Danish State would cover the running costs. This meant that a collection had to be organised locally. A Danish brickworks donated one million bricks. A company called Phønix in Vejen supplied the roofing felt. The tiles came from the island of Bornholm. Washbasins were supplied by the Royal Copenhagen pottery. And so it went on. Believe it or not, we are actually still paying the state rent for the bricks that the Danish brickworks originally donated to us!

In 1937 the physiology and biochemistry institutes were opened, after which the university was entitled to examine students in the first part of the study of medicine. The two institutes were of course called “Fy” and “Bi” for short! (Fy and Bi were famous Danish comedians, the Danish equivalents of Laurel and Hardy.)

But it wasn’t all mirth and jollity – the university still needed a main building containing offices, lecture theatres and subject libraries. It was not possible to collect the DKK 2.5 million or so that a building like that cost in the 1930s, so an application had to be made to the state for a subsidy.

Denmark was occupied by Germany on 9 April 1940, and the Occupation had an unexpected impact on the building project because the state cancelled its plans to build a new barracks in Århus. This project was actually intended to provide work for the unemployed, so it was decided to build a main building for the university instead. And that’s exactly what happened.

In 1943 the Gestapo started to use the halls of residence in the university park as its Jutland headquarters. Members of the Danish Resistance were subjected to brutal interrogation here, and this is where the Germans kept their records of the Danish Resistance movement. This use of the halls of residence was a dark chapter in the history of the Occupation and the Resistance movement in Århus and the rest of Jutland.

On 31 October 1944 the Royal Air Force bombed halls of residence numbers 4 and 5, turning them into smoking ruins. Unfortunately the main building was hit as well, and ten labourers were killed. C.F. Møller himself was buried under blocks of stone – but his hand could be seen sticking out of the rubble and he was dug out by a bricklayer, a student of economics and an extremely strong caretaker. The caretaker removed a piece of concrete while the other two poured water all over Møller so he didn’t catch fire.

The university was rebuilt, and is now a wonderful tribute to the use of bricks as a building material. In combination with landscape architect Carl Th. Sørensen’s unique university park, the buildings constitute one of Denmark’s most beautiful and famous architectural achievements. But Aarhus University is more than just an aesthetic experience. The visionary men who started the whole project recognised the value of keeping the university departments close together in the heart of the city. Today Aarhus University is famous for achieving unique research results involving many different subject areas, and this is partly thanks to the intimate environment that has been created here.

Aarhus University grew steadily as industrialisation and welfare spread in Denmark during the 1950s and 1960s. The degree programmes were reformed, and a state grant system was introduced to make it possible for young people from all levels of society to study at university. In 1968 the student revolution began, although the first major confrontations in Århus didn’t happen until the spring of 1971.

By this time the university was no longer an independent institution, and new statutes had been introduced. Ballots were lost in connection with an election to the position of rector, and even the Danish language was affected by the confrontation. People couldn’t decide whether the administration building had been “liberated” or “occupied”. The motto of those times was “Research for the people – not for the profit.”

In the 1970s in particular the number of students at the university exploded – from 2,000 in 1958 to more than 15,000 in 1977. In twenty years the student population increased by 750 per cent! And during the same period state financing did not follow suit – the result being a great increase in the number of students per teacher. There was an education explosion in Århus, and we were sometimes referred to somewhat negatively as a “mass university”. There were about 27 students per professor in 1954, and about 120 in 1978. But there wasn’t only a shortage of teachers. There was also a shortage of teaching rooms and library study facilities, as well as too little student accommodation in the city. The people who rented out flats were able to increase the prices they charged, but student grants stayed at the same level. The consequence was that it took students longer to graduate, with a higher drop-out rate along the way.

So it’s not true to say that students were privileged and spoiled back then. On the other hand, nobody would claim that the student revolution was due to a shortage of inexpensive accommodation in the city, either! The universities were no longer reserved for the education of the elite – they belonged to everyone. And the revolution assumed many different forms – marches all over Denmark protesting against the use of nuclear power and the Vietnam War, and resistance to the kind of antiquated norms and traditions applying inside the walls of the university itself.

The 1980s were a decade of wandering in the wilderness, characterised by a sense of mistrust between society and universities. Questions were asked about the ability of the universities to administer the freedom they had been granted; access to degree programmes became more restricted; subsidies were reduced and so on. In many ways this was a period of what could be called damage limitation. It was hard to stimulate creativity, and our universities were forced to rely on their previous achievements because new progress was difficult to achieve.

The term “cohesion” has been used and misused in many different connections. But despite the student revolution, the word has always been used in Denmark to reflect the fact that Denmark is a homogeneous society with relatively minor social differences and a generally high level of education. The challenge lies in raising the level of the many without preventing the few who can be regarded as the elite from realising their full potential.

Within the past decade the contract between society and the universities has been re-established, and there is now a common understanding of the fact that strong universities are vital for the future of society as a whole.

Placing a firm focus on education means expanding the education capacity of Danish society to a considerable extent, and the politicians must decide whether Denmark is to attach greatest importance to a broad educational base or the development of a few areas of education and research. Taking the latter path alone would not be typical of Denmark – it would constitute a breach with the roots of our culture and prevent Denmark from being a competitive society in an open world.

So we need to develop a broad base, and the goal today is that at least half of each generation of young people should attend further education. Our universities are facing an enormous challenge in educating new groups of young people, because even though the social differences are relatively small in Denmark (as I said just now), the universities still need to break some elements of social inheritance and overcome the tradition in some families for avoiding long courses of education.

So the challenge is to get these new groups of young people into our education system, which will demand innovative thinking. We need to attract new students, which will demand close cooperation with upper-secondary colleges all over Denmark.

A broad base is also needed to attract young talent and develop the elite. At Aarhus University we feel particularly responsible for developing talented researchers, and we have introduced talent development as a special area of focus in line with education, research and knowledge exchange.

The Danish education system has qualities which many other countries envy. Time after time Danish students abroad – particularly PhD scholars – distinguish themselves by their great independence, curiosity, creativity and teamwork skills. And it is important that we value and develop these qualities when we interact with the rest of the world.

But we can only do this if we can cope with globalisation. And for the universities the greatest challenge is global competition regarding the degree programmes on offer. There are now plenty of public and private organisations offering degree programmes on a global market. In short, education has become a commercial product. And this development is accelerating thanks to the potential of information technology. New online and satellite-based forms of teaching are being developed, which means that easy access to teachers and a traditional education environment are losing ground as a competitive parameter.

The universities need to cope with this new situation, based on the assumption that they all now operate on the same global marketplace. Some universities might only be like small shops, while others are like huge supermarkets. But the market forces and rules of the game are the same for everyone.

At the same time international mobility has increased significantly, and institutions of education cannot expect to gain a share of this increased mobility without maintaining a high profile on the global market.

In other words, the universities need to decide how to position themselves on the international stage. And good positions in important ranking lists help to give the Danish universities a high research and education profile. This is why it is so important for us that Aarhus University is now one of the top 100 of the world’s 17,000 universities, measured in terms of a series of quantitative scores regarding the quality and scope of the research that is done here.

We believe that Aarhus University has the foundations needed to live up to the great expectations of Danish society with regard to the dividend required of the extra investments being made in the university sector at the moment.

Aarhus University has once again admitted a total of about 6,000 Bachelor and external Master students, and currently has more than 35,000 students. We have a staff of about 8,500; our buildings occupy a space covering about 600,000 square metres; and our turnover in 2008 is DKK 4.8 billion, 25% of which (DKK 1.2 billion) consists of income derived from direct competition for research funding.

I should like to take this opportunity of thanking the university staff for their great, independent research efforts, the many results achieved, and all the important publications – these are the very basis of the university’s strength. And in particular I should like to thank the research councils, state and private foundations and all the other partners with whom we have enjoyed such an excellent partnership during the past year.

Aarhus University is proud to contribute to the strengthening of Denmark’s position as a small country which has universities among the very best in the world. And we take the task of the universities in the age of globalisation extremely seriously. We are recruiting more students and researchers from abroad than ever before; and we regard an international outlook, international cooperation and international leadership as a sine qua non.

So all in all we feel that we are carrying on the baton handed to us by the people who fought so hard to establish a university in Århus 80 years ago. Or to quote Victor Albeck once again: “It’s as if Denmark will grow larger if it gets another university.”