Speech at Aarhus University’s annual celebration on 11 september 2009

Jens Bigum, Chairman of the Board, Aarhus University

Dear Minister, Honoured guests.
It has become a tradition that we sing “Vi søger det frygtløst i dybet” together at this Annual Celebration. (Freely translated: Fearlessly we search the deep.) The words and melody were composed in 2003 by research fellows at Aarhus University to celebrate the university’s 75th Anniversary. The song has since been found worthy for inclusion in Højskolesangbogen, a collection of Danish musical icons. It’s an honour just short of canonisation.

The song says something important about the pursuit of recognition as a sine qua non for all mental labour. Indeed, the song finds its echo in every human life. Every one of us recognises the danger, joy, loneliness and the difficulties associated with the search for realisation, certainty and knowledge.

If I choose to take these weighty and impressive words as my point of departure, it is because we have been particularly busy this year, formulating the characteristics of a university.

In 2009, it was on ministerial initiative that the Danish universities were asked, in the light of the recent university mergers and the latest reform of the University Act, to illuminate five specific themes. Have the mergers been successful? What is the situation regarding participatory democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of research? What do we understand by a university’s freedom and independence?

These are vitally important questions which must always be the subjects of debate at any university. For it is these freedoms that are prerequisite for the pursuit of realisation that we have just lauded in song. I was therefore delighted to see that these themes were debated with great enthusiasm by all: by the Board, by managers and among research fellows, other members of staff and students alike. The debate was a solid basis on which to build Aarhus University’s assessment report.

I'm sure many of us here can recall Per Højholt’s Gitte monologues, in which Gitte, in a very broad Jutland accent, declares: "My freedom, Preben, you cannot take that away from me”.

Does the same apply to the Danish universities? Has someone taken our freedom away?

I was interested to sit on a committee, appointed by the Minister, to investigate whether the degree of freedom granted to the universities is limited by unnecessary, constricting ties.

In fact, seldom have so many reports and analyses been produced that address the question of the universities’ freedom of movement, albeit in different ways. Their titles are possibly a little boring. As it is extremely unlikely to add to the party atmosphere, I have no intention here of going into the details of a ministerial report entitled ”Autonomous institutions – management, regulation and efficiency”. Another report entitled 'Analysis of the universities' and sector research institutions' finance and organisation’ is no light relief. And some might think that ‘An assessment of the universities’ equity and liquidity’ is a pleasure reserved for epicurean tastes.

Make no mistake, however – Behind these colourless titles, the reports describe many different aspects of the universities’ capacity to make independent dispositions.

That the universities’ ownership of their own buildings is just one area where we would like to be captains of our own ship. A solid equity can also provides with the freedom to long-term, strategic action and planning.

In broad terms, the current University Act is an excellent piece of legislation – provided that we are permitted to spread our wings within the relatively generous framework within which the law allows us to act. It is here that we feel that the generous framework has been replaced by constricting ties. – Someone has taken our freedom away.

Bear in mind that freedom goes hand in glove with duties and responsibilities and that freedom does not exist in isolation. This applies too at Aarhus University: regardless of whether we are members of the Board, managers or staff members, we are responsible for administering our freedom with reason and due care. We welcome these responsibilities. In all humility, we believe the university’s results make this trust is well-deserved.

Our results are, indeed, remarkable. When I consider the mergers, I see a highly successful process. Believe me – merging very different cultures is not an easy task. Which is why the job satisfaction survey prepared by Aarhus University earlier this year made for particularly interesting reading. You'd be forgiven for fearing that such widespread changes would have a negative effect. This was not the case. Even though the survey did identify a number of areas that require further attention, the overall impression is very positive. We have very committed faculty and staff who are happy and who are willing to go through fire and water for the university.

That is why we achieve such excellent results.

This year we have a record number of new students enrolled. Never before has Aarhus University welcomed so many new students in a single year.

We enjoy good cooperative relationships with the authorities, companies and with ‘our’ ministry: The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

We are pleased to see that the public flocks to popular presentations of our researchers’ latest research.

Alpha and omega for us is that we continue to attract and hold on to talented researchers. We are successful in doing so. This university is blessed with many extremely dedicated researchers, fearlessly searching for realisation – every day... ... every hour, every minute, every nanosecond.

We have a great deal to be pleased about and sometimes we must pause to celebrate our zeal and enthusiasm. This is one of the reasons why we are here today.

It is therefore my very great pleasure to welcome you all to Aarhus University’s Annual Celebration 2009. I hope everyone will have a very enjoyable day.