Rector’s outstanding performance at Lund University

A mantra at university conferences and in policy documents, and at the heart of university reforms over the last decade in the Nordic countries, is the belief that university leadership is the most crucial factor for success.

“Like an elephant, university leadership is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it,” one conference speaker said recently.

When Professor Per Eriksson completed six years last month as rector at Lund University in southern Sweden, one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious universities, he wrote an open letter reporting its outstanding performance during his time in charge.

Over the six-year period, staffing at Lund University increased by 1,800 and its operating budget by SEK2.4 billion (US$290 million) to almost SEK8 billion last year. This was the result of increased research income that placed Lund as the top national performer in grants from the Swedish research councils and the European Union research programmes.

Lund was also selected to host a major European Union project, the world's most advanced centre for research on neutrons, European Spallation Source AB, through an allocation of SEK550 million (US$66 million), as well as hosting the national synchrotron research facility, partly financed through the university’s budget to the tune of SEK700 million over 10 years.

The magic formula

Eriksson was asked if there was a magic formula for generating research income when competition for external funding for research was so intense and his reply was: “Yes, to some extent. First, we have many excellent researchers and many strong research groups and also very good research infrastructure.

”But second, we have an overhead system that strongly supports a growing budget by taking no overhead at all for the first year of an increased budget. This gives many of the researchers who earned the externally funded projects strong incentives and muscle to both run their projects effectively and simultaneously apply for more and further funding.”

Eriksson also worked to create more student housing at Lund University and even offered to buy the buildings from the government that owned them. As a symbolic gesture to underline the importance of rooms for students, he allowed military tents to be set up at the engineering school for students to sleep in and opened his own home for one student who had not succeeded in finding a roof over his head, letting him hire his guestroom for half a year.

Creating student housing

He also managed to convince the government to change the rules so the universities could help all student groups with housing.

When students from outside Europe in 2011 had to pay tuition fees in Sweden, he mobilised staff and set aside a budget while running fund-raising campaigns. By the autumn term of 2014, Lund had 490 foreign students from outside Europe, approaching the same level as in 2010 when 550 were enrolled, with most from China, the US, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, Bangladesh, India, Uganda, Turkey and the Ukraine.

In the strategic plan for Lund University, four strategies were spelt out: collaboration across borders; international cooperation; quality development; and leadership and learning. Four developmental goals were also specified: Attractive study environments; strong research and innovation groups; infrastructure investment; and visibility and transparence.

The university also has a number of objectives and instruments for strengthening regional development.

Before coming to Lund, Eriksson was director of VINNOVA, a Swedish government agency for innovation systems. And before that he was president of Blekinge Institute of Technology. He holds a PhD in telecommunications and is a professor in signal processing, while his experience at VINNOVA was a valuable asset when he took the helm at the university.

Lund and innovation

In a recent article on Lund University and its innovation work, Eriksson said: “Lund University offers much to incentivise researchers to stay within the region with nearby facilities like Ideon Science Park, the largest and oldest of its kind in Sweden.

”Between the university’s research and Ideon’s go-to-market infrastructure, world-class companies have established themselves in Lund such as Gambro, which created the first artificial kidney, and the telecommunications giant Ericsson.

“In particular, there has been a strong success in combining expertise in engineering and medicine, such as the pioneering of ultrasound technology by Dr Inge Edler and physicist Hellmuth Hertz to diagnose diseases of the heart.”

Not all are happy

Not everybody, however, is comfortable with the way Lund University now operates. In recent months, two matters have been taken up by the media. During Eriksson’s period as rector, the budget at the disposal of the rector for stimulating interesting projects increased from SEK28 million to SEK55 million, a move that also was questioned by members of the university board.

Recently, newspaper headlines reported that Eriksson, together with 10 top officers from Swedish local private industries, had sent a letter to the government proposing that the previous head of Sony Ericsson, Bert Nordberg, be the new chair of the university board instead of Jonas Hafström, the man proposed by a committee in charge of the nomination.

Hafström is a former Swedish ambassador to the US and a former advisor to Carl Bildt, a former prime minister, as well as a former head of Lund University’s student body.

The motivation for sending the letter on 22 December was their belief that a background in business enterprises was necessary to handle the challenges in infrastructure investments. The signatories also pointed out that Stockholm, Uppsala, and KTH universities all had investors chairing the boards. In Gothenburg, officers from the Volvo company, such as Hans-Olov Olsson and Carl Bennet, had chaired Chalmers and Gothenburg universities.

“You have to take some risks to make some things happen,” Eriksson told Lund University Magazine in a farewell interview in December.

Eriksson is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and was awarded the National Prize for Academic Leadership, the Janne Carlsson Prize, from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm in 1999.

He was recently elected chair of the organisation Crossroads, which is working to coordinate all public activity for EU migrants to Lund University, including Romas from Romania who are begging in the streets.

His place at Lund University has been taken by Professor Torbjörn von Schantz, previous pro-rector of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala from 2012 to 2014, and before that dean of natural sciences at Lund University.