Danish academics fear for freedom after MPs condemn ‘activism’

Parliamentary resolution seen as culmination of a campaign against gender, race and migration scholarship

June 11, 2021
Denmark parliament
Source: iStock

Danish universities have accused lawmakers of a “political campaign against certain areas of research” after the country’s parliament passed a resolution against what it claims is “excessive activism” in certain fields.

Academics see the resolution, passed last week, as the latest salvo by politicians seeking to silence scholars in fields such as gender and migration studies.

The Danish parliament voted 72 to 24 in favour of a statement condemning “excessive activism in certain research environments”. It was backed by the ruling Social Democratic Party.

Lawmakers resolved that university managers must “continuously ensure that the self-regulation of scientific practice works”.

They called on universities to make sure that “politics is not disguised as science”. The statement says self-regulation is key to academic freedom, and that lawmakers should not control what is researched, but declares that the parliament is within its rights to “express views on research results”.

While the statement does not name any disciplines specifically, two of the MPs sponsoring the motion have attacked race, migration, gender and post-colonial studies as “pseudoscience” that is displacing more worthy work.

Shocked Danish academics have reacted with anger and expressed concern that talking points normally associated with the far right have now received parliamentary blessing.

“The criticism from the Danish parliament of a lack of diversity in political viewpoints in Danish university research is bizarre,” said Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark. “On the one hand, the parliament recognises the ability of the scientific system to regulate itself. On the other hand, they want to remind the universities of that responsibility. It doesn’t make sense.

“Danish universities are concerned about what appears to be a political campaign against certain areas of research,” he continued. “The consequence is that some researchers will withdraw from the public debate, and that is not good either for democracy or for freedom of research.”

More than 3,000 researchers have signed an open letter that warns that the parliamentary statement is the “culmination of an intensive lobbying process and political campaign” against certain disciplines, particularly “race-, gender-, migration-, and post-colonial studies”.

“The parliamentary position can be used to advance further attacks and limitations of academic freedom,” the letter says. “This could result in more researchers, particularly those in precarious positions, withdrawing from public debate, effectively leading to self-censorship.”

Meanwhile, at the end of May, the Danish government unveiled plans to redistribute student places out of large cities, which Universities Denmark fears will mean a cut of 10 per cent in places over five years in the country’s biggest urban areas.

The government argues that this should better balance educational opportunity across the country. But universities worry that the move will make competition to study in big cities even fiercer, depriving some youngsters of their preferred places.

“I think many of us see this as populism, trying to appeal to voters from rural, small-town Denmark, who dislike the migration of young people into the big cities and who see academics as a spoiled elite,” said Hanne Tange, associate professor in English and global studies at Aalborg University.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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