Swedish alarm over ministry-ordered security experts on boards

Halving board members’ terms to allow influx of security experts risks ‘dangerous’ infringement on university autonomy, sector warns

May 8, 2023
Source: iStock

A last-minute decision by Sweden’s education ministry to speed the appointment of security experts to university boards has caused an outcry among rectors, but is justified by ministers with claims that universities are being infiltrated by hostile foreign powers.

All 38 of Sweden’s rectors and principals put their names to a joint letter condemning the change, which they said “risks posing a threat to the independence” of universities.

By law, each Swedish university is overseen by a 15-member board, led by a rector. Boards usually include eight external members, typically business leaders, senior civil servants or former university heads.

These external members are chosen by a two-person search committee and approved by the ministry in what the rectors describe as a “delicate balance” between academic autonomy and oversight of universities, which are effectively government agencies.

In late April, days before the current crop of appointees were due to begin their three-year terms on 1 May, nomination committees received a telephone call from the ministry telling them their external board members would serve only 17-month terms.

Justifying the move to local media, education minister Mats Persson cited a recent security service report that warned universities were being infiltrated and having their patents stolen by agents of China, Iran and Russia.

“They called us up in the nomination committees and said ‘We want you to call all the nominated people and tell them their mandate will be reduced’,” said Pam Fredman, who served on the committee for Luleå University of Technology. “My fear, and [for] many others, is that this is the first step in taking more control over the boards,” said Professor Fredman, who previously led the University of Gothenburg and the International Association of Universities.

“In all likelihood this is a demand from the Sweden Democrats,” said Bo Rothstein, an emeritus chair in political science at the University of Gothenburg, referring to the right-wing populist party that came second in Sweden’s September 2022 general election, but is not formally part of the government.

He said the party was seeking to gain more control over universities through its network of political aides within the liberal-conservative-led coalition, a minority government that has a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Sweden Democrats in parliament.

A spokeswoman for Dr Persson reiterated his public statements that the Sweden Democrats had played no role in the decision.

Responding to the rectors’ criticisms, state secretary Maria Nilsson told THE that shortening members’ terms was “an extraordinary decision, which was not taken lightly”. She said terms would return to three years after the next wave of appointments, which would include security experts.

Rather than exerting more political control, the minister’s aim was “to strengthen academic freedom in a context where our democracy and our universities are under threat”, she added.

Hans Adolfsson, rector of Umeå University and chair of the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions, the rectors’ conference, said the move to increase control over boards was unprecedented and brought Sweden closer to Hungary’s system, which has seen government ministers serving on university boards and also brought international condemnation.

“The government wants to enforce larger control over how the university operates. I would say it’s going in that direction,” he said, referring to Hungary. “Right now it’s security issues. What could be the next step? You could think of anything coming up where they want to have other persons with certain skills going into university boards.”

Professors Fredman, Adolfsson and Rothstein all questioned whether having security experts on oversight boards, which meet a few times a year and are not involved in staff recruitment, individual partnerships or student vetting, would help universities to manage international risks.

“If there is a threat, the last thing you would do is to change the composition of the academic board. What should we do, have military officers there? People from the security service? This is just bananas,” said Professor Rothstein.


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