Academics hit back over interference in university boards

A media row has broken out in Sweden over government proposals to shorten the terms of university board members from 3.5 years to 17 months in a move seen by universities, higher education stakeholders and opposition parties to threaten the academic freedom of universities.

The decision, which will affect 238 board members at 30 higher education institutions, came less than a week after University World Newsreported on Swedish initiatives to have academic freedom written into the constitution.

In a televised interview Minister of Higher Education and Research Mats Persson said the decision was taken due to a new procedure for vetting of board members in response to the international security situation. Persson said the threat from China, in particular, necessitated new security measures not only at universities but at all levels of Swedish government and beyond.

In a later article in Svenska Dagbladet, Persson said “the security situation demands that more extensive background checks of the board members of Swedish universities have to be undertaken before selection and the ministry is working on establishing new criteria and procedures”.

Open letter

In an open letter on 28 April, 37 rectors of Swedish higher education institutions wrote that the government’s decision can only be understood as “mistrust” of the competence of boards and the process to select their members.

“As a consequence of this decision there is a threat to the authority of the higher education institutions and furthermore to the opportunity to critically search for new knowledge and hence a threat against academic freedom.

“Our main critique is directed towards the problematic situation of political governance over who shall be entrusted to sit on the universities’ governing boards.”

The letter finishes with an appeal to retract the decision: “A free academy, independent lawyers, free arts and a free press are the cornerstones for sustaining a democratic system and to safeguard human rights, and these are the basic values of our society that the security policy has to protect. Instead of mistrust we all need to cooperate to defend these values even in times of great distress. We are calling for the government to think twice!”

Astrid Söderbergh Widding, rector of Stockholm University, wrote on her blog page that the government’s hasty decision showed “disrespect for all involved”: for the people nominating the board members, the chairs of the boards and the board members who will have their periods of service halved; and the vice-chancellors and higher education institutions that are in need of stability and long-term predictability in their work.

Media storm

The government’s decision on 27 April led to an immediate storm in social and mainstream media, with the government facing accusations of threatening academic freedom and allowing politicians to meddle in academic affairs.

The intensity of the debates prompted former Minister of Higher Education Anna Ekström to write via social media: “I have experienced many storms in the academic world. All ministers of higher education are exposed to criticism. But during my 40 years in the higher education world, I have never experienced such an upset and hard criticism.”

On social media the government was accused of having given in to pressure from the Sweden Democrats to remove left-wing political elements from university boards.

Major Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published three articles by top academic professors Bo Rothstein and Sverker Sörlin, warning that Sweden was sliding towards autocratic regime practices like those observed in Hungary and Poland.

In Dagens Nyheter on 7 May, opposition leader and former PM Magdalena Andersson wrote and op-ed article with the headline, “The regime of the SD [Sweden Democrats] is threatening the foundation of our democracy” in which she said developments in Sweden are “on track with how authoritarian right-wing regimes are functioning around the world – where opposition, media and the academy are silenced”.

She said the SD have gained power with the help of those parties that historically have fought for freedom.

“Now the same parties are contributing to reducing freedom. The soul of our country is at stake,” Andersson said.

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