Row over 40% gender quota for reading lists at Lund

Erik Ringmar, a senior lecturer in political science at Lund University in Sweden, ignited a heated debate on 28 October when he wrote in a blog that it had been impossible to find enough women authors for a course in fascism and totalitarianism to achieve a decade-old policy at Lund that women authors should account for 40% of recommended literature.

“Let me use my course in political idea history as an example,” Ringmar wrote. “I wanted to give a course on how different rightists’ ideas on nationalism developed before World War I and how 1800s globalism and open borders paved the way for the dark blue reaction.”

The proposal for readings was presented to the department board in September and featured 1,588 pages. There were many conservative authors, from the nationalistic and anti-Semitic Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769-1860) to Pope Leo XII who in 1891 wrote against socialism.

Also on the list were women authors such as the anarchist Emma Goldman and the philosopher Simone Weil. But only 238 of the total number of pages, or 15%, were written by women, the newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet reported.

“The problem was the lack of women authors. My course did not meet the demand of 40%. Since the course was about right-wing authors at that time, it was difficult to find women authors since women expressing their ideas at the time as a rule were relatively liberal and progressive,” Ringmar wrote in his first blog.

“When presenting the course to the associate dean of the department, I was told that a course with so few women represented was never going to be accepted by the course committee.”

The blog was picked up by writer Ivar Arpi in Svenska Dagbladet, one of Sweden’s main newspapers, who in three commentary articles argued that gender science had become a “super-religion for Swedish universities” – the integration of gender equality had taken over.

Arpi said that gender research “is less of a science and more a sort of academic feminism that only a minority of the population subscribe to”. When studying reading lists at Swedish universities, Arpi stated, one got the impression that universities had “an almost compact misogyny, racism, funkophobia and heteroconformity”.

After the first two op-eds by Arpi, representatives of a national committee established at the University of Gothenburg to promote gender research wrote a response in Svenska Dagbladet.

Head of the committee Maria Grönroos and research coordinator Fredrik Bodenstam stated that Arpi was closing his eyes to gender inequalities. “Swedish universities are not neutral places with few problems connected to sex,” they said in a long, well-argued article.

After this a large number of op-ed articles appeared. There was a third one by Arpi in Svenska Dagbladet with the title “Gender Science is Sweden’s own Creationism”. Ringmar’s original blog was published in Svenska Dagbladet with the title “The Government is Threatening Academic Freedom”, and there were two articles in the newspaper by professors at Lund University defending the 40% quota of women authors on reading lists.

The issue was commented on in detail on the Facebook page of Academic Rights Watch and the right-wing think tank Timbro, and was picked up in Norway by the major newspaper Aftenposten, the researcher’s magazine Forskerforum and the student newspaper Universitas.

There were also numerous interventions on Facebook and Twitter. Most questioned the logic of having a gender proportion requirement for reading lists at universities.

In a Lund University press release, Ann-Katrin Bäcklund, dean of the faculty of social sciences, and Jakob Gustavsson, director of studies in the department of political science, said that the content of courses was not determined by governmental instructions.

“Our guidelines specify that we want literature [in reading lists] written both by men and women, but we do not specify that this literature shall be within gender science,” they said.

Ringmar speaks out

Ringmar is an accomplished political scientist with international experience. He obtained a PhD from Yale University in the United States in 1993, and from 1995 to 2007 was a senior lecturer in the department of government at the London School of Economics.

After that he worked as a professor of political science in China, the last two years as professor of international relations at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Ringmar is a faculty associate of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale and a Fulbright Scholar.

University World News asked Ringmar, who joined Lund University in 2014, what had struck him most about the debate he stirred up.

“What has surprised me the most is that university teachers in Sweden don't have the right to teach their own courses in their own fashion – this is standard operational procedure in the rest of the world.

“I've worked abroad for some 20 years and coming back to Sweden I took the right to teach as a given. If you don't have power over your own courses, teaching becomes a mechanical exercise and the courses become boring,” Ringmar continued.

“The teaching profession is also devalued and a university education becomes similar to high school. Swedish universities would improve a lot if only teachers were given the right to teach freely.”

A range of views

Lena Adamson, director general of the Swedish Institute for Educational Research, commented: “I think there is a delicate balance between university teachers’ rights to teach freely and societal demands on issues that concern human values, which the gender issue certainly belongs to.

“Of course we need to push these matters in many different ways, especially in academia, a place where merits are said to be the winning factor but where men and male patterns still rule disproportionally,” she told University World News.

“However, we seem to live in an age where everything has become ones and noughts, yes or no, all or nothing. I would like to recommend the use of the Swedish word lagom [just the right amount] a bit more often in the debate.

“And I am sure that the study course committee would be wise enough to accept a reading list lacking in women authors if these simply did not exist? Was the committee even ever asked?”

Former rector of Stockholm University, Professor Kåre Bremer, agreed with Ringmar on the situation regarding teaching. “It is true that in Swedish higher education statutes it is not made clear that teachers have the right to decide about their own teaching, whereas it is plainly stated that researchers decide about their own research.

“In the higher education ordinance there is a paragraph indicating that planning and implementation of courses are to be decided not by the individual teachers but by faculty boards or similar bodies,” Bremer told University World News.

“Nearly 10 years ago a government investigation proposing increased autonomy for universities led to some removal of detailed regulations, but more needs to be done to secure the independence of Swedish universities and their teachers and researchers,” he said.

Professor Clas Hättestrand, pro vice-chancellor at Stockholm University, said it had no general rules regarding gender balance in reading lists. However, some departments had decided on similar guidelines. “I write guidelines, because that is what they are, not hard regulations.”

At Lund, “the rules in these cases are often that when there is an apparent gender imbalance in the authors in a reading list, this should be noted, and there should be a discussion whether the imbalance is merited, or if a better balance can be achieved without making sacrifices to the academic standard of the course. In these cases, changes may be considered. But I am not aware of any cases where a hard 40-60 rule must be upheld at all cost.”

Student view

Charlotta Tjärdahl, chair of the Swedish National Union of Students, which represents 275,000 students, told University World News: “Teaching professionals developing courses in a context with strong student influence and set routines does not equal an infringement on academic freedom.

“In fact, an effort to jointly develop content in order to challenge set norms while simultaneously maintaining high quality content relevant to the course seems only natural and in line with the progressive role academia should take.

“If a teacher in a certain case is kept from influencing the course, that can absolutely be problematic, but does not necessarily equal a faulty higher education system,” she said.

“Student influence should be seen as the resource it is and used to enhance quality and gain perspectives in discussions. The final decision is made among peers, and the quality assurance a collegial body helps achieve.”

Turning to the gender issue, Tjärdahl continued: “The main issue in this debate is not rooted in a recommendation for 40% female authors in a course list. Approaches to deal with gender issues, even shedding light on them, are generally met with protests.

“Just as in the case of student influence, it seems easier to dig into individual cases and blame the whole system for faults rather than seeing possibilities with more perspectives and a more progressive higher education landscape.”