Aarhus University Annual Celebration 2011

Rector Holm-Nielsen's 2011 annual celebration speech

Dear dear region and city, dear members of the Folketing and ambassadors, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen - Welcome to Aarhus University's 2011 annual celebration.

The impending parliamentary elections, the financial crisis which refuses to release its grip on us, and the tipping of the financial balance of power between the regions of the world from west to east: all of these factors remind us that Denmark is part of the world, and that the world is also a part of Denmark.

Denmark in the world - the world in Denmark.

While they remind us of the importance of independence, they also drive home the fact that that no man - or no nation - is an island.

So let me begin with a story about an extremely independent man who also placed serving mankind before his own interests.

Let me begin with the story of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. In spite of being kicked out of school and failing his exams, he became professor of physics at Würzburg University in Germany - perhaps a reassuring example for many young people and their parents.

Over the course of a few weeks in his laboratory  in 1895, he had been intrigued by what he observed when he sent electricity through a cathode tube. The first time he tried this, a nearby sheet of photosensitive material started to fluoresce. Röntgen then performed an experiment with a larger vacuum tube in a darkened room - and noticed a fain shimmering from a bench a meter away from the tube.

He went on to investigate the properties of the newly discovered rays. On 22 December 1895, he had his wife Anna Bertha hold a small block of lead in the path of the ray. While the rays did not penetrate the lead block, to his great astonishment an image of the bone's in his wife's hand holding the block became visible on what became the world's first X-ray. Even the shadow of his wife's wedding ring was visible.

'I have seen my death', exclaimed Anna Bertha when she saw her skeleton. The ghostly hand might also be seen to represent something even more significant for the world: another unforeseen scientific breakthrough. Röntgen named the rays he discovered X-rays (or X-Strahlen) simply because he had no idea what they were.

He was awarded the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901 for his discovery. Röntgen himself was somewhat hesitant to accept the award because he still wasn't quite sure what he had discovered. Only many years later, in 1912,  did one of his colleagues finally identify that the mysterious X-rays as electromagnetic waves.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen didn't know what he was looking for. And when he found it, he didn't know what it was. And maybe that's why there was a certain logic in his refusal to patent his discovery. He himself believed that mankind as a whole should benefit from its practical applications. This has made him one of the great heroes of scientific inquiry and a role model for many since - to the benefit of all of us.

Röntgen arrived at his a ground-breaking discovery through curiosity and exploration, unlike Thomas Edison, whose hunt for the incandescent bulb led him to perform over 9,000 experiments in the 1870s.. Röntgen had only the faintest notion of what he was looking for. His research stood on the shoulders  f others' discoveries. And his discovery was later explained by others.

´The creative process is characterised by the fact that you only understand the question when you have the answer':

seldom has Piet Hien's aphorism sounded more apt. We can understand Röntgen and Edison as exemplifying basic and strategic research respectively. Planned breakthroughs achieved through strategic research are often extremely expensive. Perhaps it is now time to reconsider the Danish research funding system's emphasis on this focus on applied research.

Röntgen serves to teach us that while the road to useful knowledge may be long and winding when followed by many - it is often impassable when walked alone. This is why networks - not least international ones -are important. And this is why the university is presenting honorary doctoral degrees to four representatives of the university's international research network here today.

Impressive and indispensable individual achievements in science and technology are still taking place.

We have examples close to home in the university's two Nobel laureates, Jens Christian Skou (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1997) and Dale T. Mortensen (Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, 2010). Many of the university's researchers make similarly crucial contributions to expanding the territory of our knowledge. These contributions are acknowledged in the scientific and scholarly literature, through grants and prizes, and by granting honorific titles.

On this day, we therefore have particularly good reason to express our thanks for the excellent work being performed at our departments and centres. Naturally, our thanks go not only  to the university's researchers, but also to the many AU staff members who make it possible for our researchers to focus on their research.

And we need excellent researchers. The global challenges of the future - in areas including climate, energy, security, health and economics - have causes and consequences which refuse to confine themselves to individual academic disciplines and continents

Perhaps psychologists can help explain and resolve financial crises.

Perhaps anthropologists already possess part of the answer to the mystery of cancer.

Perhaps a physicist's insight into the universal laws of matter might contribute a new understanding of human dilemmas and conflicts to philosophy.

When we find the answers, we will understand the questions.

In an increasingly complex world, the ability to think, research and work across intellectual and disciplinary boundaries is crucial to that search.

This is precisely why we have implemented the most comprehensive organisational transformation in the university's history this year.

From nine independent faculties and schools to four. From fifty-five departments to twenty-six.

We have concentrated our energies and resources into a single university with a coherent structure, management and administration.

Fewer organisational divisions means fewer borders.

Fewer borders mean lower costs and more opportunities.

Our goal is to maintain our international reputation for excellence in all four of the university's core activities:

research, talent development, knowledge exchange and education.

But at the same time, we must create a university which unifies deep expertise in the core disciplines with interdisciplinary cooperation in close and flexible interplay with the world around us'

In order to sustain our focus on these goals, we are establishing between six and ten innovative new interdisciplinary research centres. The new centres will work outside the box and across barriers to find the answers to some of the questions we either don't yet understand or which we haven't yet had the courage to ask. We already have two successful models for this type of centre, the iNANO Center and MINDlab.

The six new centres will engage with a diverse range of research areas, including food science, nutrition, global changes, gene technology, health economics and climate change.

Despite their differences, all of these interdisciplinary centres will have something in common.

Each of them will be headed by an exceptional researcher who is also an acknowledged leader in his or her field. These centres will be given a considerable freedom to set their own course - and will be expected to perform at the highest possible international level. This will also enable them to attract significant external funding, and - if all goes well after the first five years - they will become natural points of strength in the university's research profile, which will be reflected in the university's budget.

Our ambition is to create open intellectual and professional communities for Danish and international researchers where the individual is free to pursue wild -and as in Röntgen's case - fortuitous ideas -

communities which work together to find new answers to the questions we hadn't even known we had.

We do this by being ourselves - by cultivating our independence. But not alone - not by cultivating isolation and self-interest.

With the new interdisciplinary centres, we are at last close to finalising the framework for the new Aarhus University. The process which has brought us to where we stand today was set in motion last summer. The development process has been comprehensive and open, and staff, students and external experts have contributed constructively. The entire process has been documented, and this material is on the university's website.

I am deeply grateful to everyone. I am also grateful to the committed, knowledgeable staff member who have expressed doubt and concern during the process.

For we share a common passion for knowledge and this university, and an enthusiasm for all of AU's fantastic qualities. We share a respect for traditions and the victories we have won. We share an urgent desire to build our university rests on a solid foundation - while at the same time ensuring coming generations the freedom to follow their intuition and curiosity as far as their talent will take them.

We must also ceaselessly work together to ensure that our decisions and actions are the right ones.

For this reason, a committee is presently working to develop a proposal for involving staff directly in the development of the university: a new advisory structure, in which bad habits, insularity and laziness will be continually challenged by participants from AU and the outside world.

We must establish a system of academic councils with the authority and institutional clout to ensure that the university's senior management always receives the most critical and constructive advisory support and recommendations possible - The kinds of recommendations on academic matters which were virtually abolished by the University Act of 1993. - and which we will be able to reintroduce as a consequence of this year's amendments to the Act. This is the binding commitment we are making to each other in these months.

We must establish employer panels which harmonise with the university's new structure, where visionary representatives from the public and private sector will assist us in maintaining the necessary connections linking the lecture hall, the laboratory and the world around us. We will ensure that government, organisations and businesses have direct access to the academic insight and knowledge they require - and we will learn from the world we are a part of.

And we must also establish advisory boards at each main academic area with academic administrators and researchers from analogous faculties and schools from around the world.

I wish to emphasise that these initiatives to establish advisory boards, employer panels and academic councils are not merely hot air.

They should be taken absolutely seriously. A large, modern university in a complex world must have strong leadership and a profoundly professional administration. But this can't function  without equally strong structures to provide the best possible counsel and guidance and a good system of checks and balances.

No man is an island.

Especially not the senior management of a university.

But in the eyes of some, the island is starting to get a bit crowded. In any case, every available square meter of the university is filled to bursting these days, which just serves to emphasise the timeliness of the many construction plans on the drawing board. But it also emphasises the challenges facing the modern university. Some of the critical voices in the public sphere which express concern for the classical university are completely right. When they studied at gymnasium, they shared this privilege with under ten per cent of their peers - and only a third of these chosen few went on to university. Compare this with our current situation: the Minister of Science recently proposed that twenty-five per cent of a year group should receive a university education. Society's demands and conditions have changed, fundamentally and irrevocably. The university is no longer just for the elite; it is for society as a whole.

The modern university is a mass university, and our society expects us to make an even greater contribution to educating the country's young people in the future, in addition to producing world-class knowledge and research on all aspects of society. The model for a modern European university which is now being implemented here has been developed in response to this challenge.

We we are well on the way to combining the 200-year-old Humboldtian university tradition with the university tradition which emerged in Western countries after World War II. Our with our emphasis on talent development and doctoral education (with 3,000 doctoral students and junior researchers), we are demonstrating that it is possible to combine the mass university and the elite university on the foundation of research breadth and depth.

In the eyes of some, there are already enough of us at the university, where this year alone around 12,000-13,000 people have left us after finishing their studies, returned to their home countries, or switched degree programmes, and where almost 15,000 new students have just started their studies here -  people who weren't here before the summer holiday. Take a moment to consider this enormous mobility of brainpower coming into and leaving the university as a significant source of the knowledge energy driving our society.

Aarhus University is a society within society, with over 38,000 students, over 11,000 employees and a budget of almost 6 billion kroner.

And fortunately, our numbers will soon increase, when the merger with the Engineering College of Aarhus becomes a reality in the course of the autumn. Increasing in size is not a goal in itself. Rather, the Engineering College of Aarhus' 2,600 engineering students, our future colleagues, and the knowledge they generate are a natural part of a modern university which wishes to offer society the entire range of the knowledge and degree programmes it needs to meet tomorrow's challenges.

The Aarhus University of today has the size and scope to enable us to play a significant role - also in international higher education. The long list of rankings which place AU among Europe's best universities attests to this. While our teaching, research and publications achieve high levels of excellence, we shouldn't deceive ourselves:

there are limits to how much we can achieve on our own.

We must be ourselves, preserve our unique identity - but what is the use, if we're alone in the world?

The challenges society faces demand major political decisions, which may mean that politicians will have less time to make minor decisions - and we can certainly live with that.

It might even be what's known as a win-win situation - even in Danish.

As the rector of a large university, my dreams would be fulfilled if the University Act consisted of a single sentence: ´There are a few universities in Denmark, and Aarhus University is one of them.'

Nothing else is really required. But we can certainly live with the new University Act which was adopted this year. The new act will do. But - dear politicians - let the pendulum swing the other way in coming years and give us more freedom  - a freedom which comes with responsibility.

Less micromanagement, fewer government circulars, fewer limits, more possibilities - and of course the necessary investments.

While we are on the subject of investments, allow me to thank the Danish government and the many public and private foundations for their support. Not least, the support you provide our approximately 6,000 individual research projects is completely indispensable.

I vow that we will do our utmost to be worthy of the confidence you place in us - and to fulfil the promises we make.

Many thanks for your great support.

Winning new territory for human knowledge is hard work, and sometimes - like Röntgen - we find ourselves in a kind of no man's land. Some may confuse finding precisely that which one does not seek with luck. But the world is not that generous. Or, as Ben Hogan, one of the 20th century's greatest golf players, once said:

'Golf is a game of luck. The more I practice, the luckier I get.'

It takes a lot of hard work to get lucky.

At Aarhus University, we feel that we have been incredibly lucky.

We are ourselves - we cultivate our independence. But we are not alone.

Put another way, we contribute to Denmark in the world - the world in Denmark.

Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Aarhus University's 83rd birthday.