Nordic nadir for nepotism

August 15, 1997

A BOOK published in Denmark earlier this year, The World's Best Educational System (Verdens bedste uddanelsessytem: Copenhagen: Fremad, 1997), takes aim at the Danes' long-held belief in the superiority of their educational system.

The Danish system, argue the authors, Maj Cecilie Nielsen and Niels Chr. Nielsen, is not even second-rate when compared with the systems in most other developed countries, but at best "third-rate".

What is striking about the book (which sold out within a month of the first printing), however, is not this candour, but the fact that it fails to address the real problems in higher education in Denmark. "It is not particular individuals who are at fault," argue the authors. "There are many brilliantly talented individuals in administrative positions, but the sum of all this brilliantly talented leadership is that the system, somehow despite this, lacks leadership."

But the picture that has been emerging from the press is precisely that the main problems with higher education in Denmark lie with individuals in positions of power. Problems with Danish higher education have filled newspaper pages since a prominent Swedish academic published an article criticising Danish scholarship in a Danish newspaper in 1993.

The article, "Kafkaesque Danish Scholarship" ("Kafkask dansk forskning", Information, June 10 1993) charged that while scholars in the rest of western Europe and North America were concerned with publishing articles and cultivating international reputations, Danish scholars were concerned with making their working environment as congenial as possible. Academic appointments, the article continued, were made on the basis of the appointees' ability to contribute to this environment, rather than on their potential to make significant contributions to their field of research. There was no better way to ensure this than to hire candidates from one's own department or institute.

Nepotism is perhaps the worst problem affecting higher education in Denmark. Positions at Danish universities are seldom advertised in international publications and searches are often cursory. The appointment of the internal candidate is frequently a foregone conclusion. This helps to explain the fact that better-qualified candidates are often passed over in favour of less well-qualified ones, as was the case with a recent appointment to a humanities department, when a scholar of international reputation was passed over in favour of an internal candidate whose work was little known even in Denmark.

Nepotism is so firmly established a tradition in the faculty concerned a foreign student who had been studying there for several years and who had expressed interest in applying for a position as a teaching assistant was dissuaded by one of the faculty. This person explained that an informal choice had already been made and that the position had been advertised only because this was required by law.

The caller, who was at the time a lektor (lecturer) was promoted to the position of professor (the highest position attainable for a Danish academic) this year, before he had defended his dissertation, which raised a few eyebrows even among those who had come to accept nepotism as a fact of academic life.

This is not the only faculty affected by nepotism, however, judging from the numerous articles on this topic that have appeared in the Danish press since 1993. Nor is the university involved the only Danish institution at which nepotism is a problem. Charges of nepotism have been directed even at departments in the natural sciences, where standards of scholarship and research are more objective than in the humanities and where it ought to be less of a problem.

There have been a number of cases of videnskabelig uredelighed (scholarly or scientific misconduct) reported in the newspapers in the past few years. Some concern plagiarism while others deal with the manipulation of experimental data. Even the rector of the University of Copenhagen, Kjeld Millgaard, has been tainted with accusations of scientific misconduct in connection with an article he wrote while he was a research fellow at the University of California at Berkeley in 1971. Despite repeated attempts by Berkeley scientists, no one has been able to reproduce the dramatic results of his research into the neural networks of rats that were published in the International Journal of Neuroscience.

Professor Millgaard was also charged by one Berkeley professor with refusing to cooperate with attempts to reproduce these results - a charge Professor Millgaard (who insists he has reproduced them) denies.

Whether or not Professor Millgaard was guilty of scientific misconduct in 1971, a natural reluctance to have the issue paraded through the press could make him vulnerable to pressure from those academics against whom similar charges have been made.

The proliferation of individual cases of nepotism and scholarly and scientific misconduct has had a pernicious effect on the general quality of higher education in Denmark. Students in the psychology department at the University of Copenhagen had been protesting about the poor quality of their instruction long before an international panel of experts said in 1996 that the department was marked by "weak and inessential research" and in need of substantial restructuring, which they concluded could not be undertaken without outside help.

Students, as well as younger faculty (the two groups often fade into each other), have been among the most vehement critics of Danish academic life. "Nil research" and "drawer research" (work that has been begun but is not worth completing) are expressions coined by disgruntled students and younger academics which, along with the more general "world famous in Denmark", they use to apply to the scholarly activity, or lack thereof, of much of the tenured faculty at Danish universities.

There are many talented, even "brilliantly talented" Danish academics. The problems that affect higher education in Denmark are, however, so pervasive and of such a serious nature that it is doubtful reform can come from inside academe.

One outsider, the previous education minister, Bertel Haarder, tried to effect reform, but to no avail. The problems that affected higher education under his administration continue unabated and the present education minister, Ole Vig Jensen, seems less willing to take on what is known colloquially as the lektorvOlde, which translates roughly as "the might of the consolidated mass of tenured faculty".

The need for reform has been made all too evident in recent years. What remains to be done is the reform itself and it is doubtful that books such as The World's Best Educational System, which are unwilling to identify the real source of the problems with higher education, will help start to the process.

M.G. Piety works with Denmark's Intenational Study Programme at the University of Copenhagen.

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