An opinion piece by Göran Rosenberg in the radio news programme God morgon världen on 12 January (in Swedish) has sparked debate, including several comments in the Uppsala newspaper UNT (in Swedish). The discussion raises important issues of social control, academic freedom, freedom of expression and equal opportunities. Here are a few reflections on questions that have been directed at Uppsala University and its management in this connection.
• Does Uppsala University defend the freedom of education?
Yes of course, and this question is important. Higher education in Sweden lies wide open to political control. While the freedom of research is protected by law, there is a complete lack of equivalent protection for education. On the contrary, the Higher Education Ordinance defines the qualitative targets for higher education. Uppsala University has repeatedly criticised this unfortunate – and dangerous – state of affairs (for example, in our response to the government inquiry on governance and resources in 2019).
• Does everyone enjoy equal freedom of expression at Uppsala University?
Yes of course, and there can scarcely be any disagreement on this point. Personal attributes must not have any bearing on the freedom to participate in academic debate, and it goes without saying that factors such as gender, age, ethnicity or belief must have no influence on who is allowed to say what in a discussion.
• Are the University’s procedures for handling complaints about harassment or discrimination over-zealous and/or has the incident in question been mismanaged?
No, we don’t think so. Bearing in mind equal opportunities, those who are responsible for an educational programme or a place of work have an unquestionable obligation to respond to information or complaints about victimisation or similar behaviour.
Göran Rosenberg’s original broadcast criticises universities for being over-hasty to launch far-reaching investigations, which in turn “has created a growing market for private consultancies specialising in investigations of perceived violations”. He wonders about the possibility of “more informal methods of investigation to begin with. A face-to-face meeting or dialogue between complainant and respondent, for example.”
As we understand it, this was precisely what happened in the case at issue, and after a meeting the matter was closed without further action, which seems both correct and reasonable.
Having said that, it is not good that the teacher concerned apparently felt called into question during the discussion that took place.
The students reacted to something they perceived as offensive in the teaching situation, as they of course have a right to do. That in itself does not mean that the teacher acted incorrectly. The use of the particular word appears relevant in this connection. Especially in historical sciences, we must be able to deal with and discuss concepts and ways of thinking that are now perceived as degrading or offensive. Naturally, a different example could conceivably have been chosen, but that does not mean that the teacher behaved in a reprehensible way.
In this connection, we would like to recall the words of our new mission statement, Uppsala University: Mission, Goals and Strategies:
“A good learning and research environment is secure, stimulating and challenging for students, teachers and researchers. It is distinguished by openness, intense scholarly discussion, a culture of quality and renewal, equal opportunities, a good work environment and respectful relations between students and members of staff.”
We all share a responsibility to uphold and live up to this approach as far as possible in all circumstances.
Eva Åkesson, Vice-Chancellor
Anders Malmberg, Deputy Vice-Chancellor
Torsten Svensson, Vice-Rector