On Collegiality, Institutional Support, and the University of Copenhagen

On Collegiality, Institutional Support, and the University of Copenhagen

The blogosphere and twitterverse are replete with horror stories about how universities treat their academic staff. And rightly so: for most academics, particularly those who are part of the ever-growing ranks of the adjunct professoriat, the rise of the neoliberal university has meant — as summarised by a recent book on the subject — little more than “de-professionalisation, worsening conditions of employment, and general precarious existence.”

This post, however, is not a horror story. On the contrary, as my 20 unexpected months in Australia draw to a close, I want to tell you about the remarkable support I have received from my new colleagues at the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Military Studies (CMS) and Department of Political Science, of which CMS is a part.

First, some backstory. I applied for my professorship in international law and security at CMS a few months before the coronavirus pandemic began, in early January 2020. In the best of times, recruitment at Nordic universities is slow and complicated. This position was even more so — first because a new university-wide policy required re-advertising the position and then because of  the pandemic, which forced all recruitment-related activities online. I gave a 20 minute presentation online. I sat through a long and challenging interview online. I wrote sample testimony for a Parliamentary committee and presented it online. And, of course, all of the various committees involved in the recruitment process had to meet online.

Long story (kind of) short: it wasn’t until June that the Director of CMS, Henrik Breitenbauch, called with the wonderful news that they were offering me the position. Not surprisingly, in the (friendly) negotiations that followed, the most difficult issue was my start date, as I was already in Australia and had no idea when I would be able to return to Europe. At that point, Qatar Air was the only international carrier still flying to and from Australia, and it was not clear how long it would be able to continue to do so. And of course the pandemic was by now in full swing. Henrik and I thus agreed that I would officially start 1 August 2020 but we would put off a decision about when I would actually move to Copenhagen until the situation in Australia (and locked-down Denmark) became clearer. The position was primarily research-based, fortunately enough, so I wouldn’t have to do any teaching online for the foreseeable future. I’d just participate in all the various meetings — with CMS, with the PoliSci department, with the Danish MoD — via Zoom.

Thus began a seemingly interminable waiting game. Literally within weeks of accepting the position, Melbourne’s airport shut down completely to international flights, trapping me in Australia, and didn’t open up again for nearly six months. And when the airport did finally re-open, it was clear that being in Australia was far safer than being in Denmark, coronavirus-wise. This was before the various vaccines became generally available, and it would be a number of months before I could get vaccinated in either country.

In late 2020, then, I faced a dilemma: extend my stay in Australia well past when I expected to get to Denmark, or fly for 27 hours to Copenhagen completely unvaccinated. I wasn’t overly worried about getting too sick if I contracted the virus, as I was pretty sure I had already had it in March 2020, when I developed very mild symptoms around the time two students I taught in a small classroom tested positive in their home countries. (Early on, you couldn’t get tested for coronavirus in the Netherlands unless you were sick enough to be hospitalised.) But I didn’t relish taking the risk, because the virus is obviously unpredictable. So the dilemma caused me quite a bit of anguish — I didn’t want to leave Australia without being vaccinated, yet I felt terrible about the prospect of being on the CMS payroll for more than a year without ever actually making an appearance on campus.

Fortunately, my concern was misplaced. The response from Henrik and from Nina Graeger, the head of the PoliSci department, was unequivocal: I should stay in Australia until it was completely safe for me to leave, even if that meant waiting a number of months for a vaccine. And both Henrik and Nina stuck to that line each time I checked in, feeling increasingly guilty about my absence, to see if they wanted me to come — even after Denmark had begun to open up and it was clear I could get vaccinated in Copenhagen almost the minute I got off the plane. “Come when it’s safe,” they said. Again and again. It was clear their primary interest was my well-being, not the needs of CMS and the department.

To be sure, as a senior academic, I was always in a privileged position. Things might well have played out differently if I had been an assistant professor or a postdoc. But I am still so incredibly grateful for the unwavering support Henrik and Nina provided me literally from the day I accepted my new position. They did not have to be so understanding. They would have had every right to insist that I come to Denmark as soon as the Melbourne airport opened up again, virus or no virus. But they didn’t — and I am quite sure that taking a harder line about my arrival never crossed their minds.

The support I’ve received from Henrik and Nina (as well as from Kristian Søby Kristensen, CMS’s Deputy Director) reflects the kind of people they are. But it’s also good management. And herein lies the lesson. Simply put: having felt so supported during a difficult time, I have spent the past year working very hard to repay Henrik and Nina’s faith in me. I’ve tried to write more, give more Zoom lectures, attend more meetings, and do more to support my younger colleagues at CMS. And that won’t end when I arrive, finally, in Copenhagen in little more than a week. On the contrary, I intend to be the best colleague I can possibly be for as long as I’m part of CMS — which I hope will be a very long time indeed.

This isn’t rocket science. Treat academics as disposable widgets to be bought and sold, they will do the absolute minimum to survive and move on as soon as something better comes along. Treat them as human beings, respect them, support them, and provide them with a modicum of financial security — and they will repay the university with loyalty and go the extra mile to help their department flourish.

FUN FACT: academics employed by Danish universities don’t negotiate their own salaries and salary increases unless they want to. Their union representative does it for them. That’s a great system.

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Europe, Legal education
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