Academics face pushback for alleged racism and sexism

At Lund University in Sweden, an adjunct professor in organisational psychology, Johan Grant, has been fired from a course in leadership psychology that he has taught for eight years after students complained about the theme of the course being sexist and homophobic.

The course, which was taught in 2019, was based on the Tavistock model of leadership in organisations and was entitled “Where is daddy? – An explorative conference on the individual, the group and the collectives’ relationship to sex, power and leadership”.

At the University of Bergen in Norway, a social psychology professor, Svein Larsen, in a lecture, joked to a German student that “the Germans have been here before and now they are sneaking back in again”.

He has been relieved from lecturing in the fall and the German student has been awarded NOK10,000 (US$1,100) in compensation for the pressure she has felt after the university leaked her name to the press.

At the Oslo National Academy of the Arts in Norway, six staff members sent a letter, along with a petition with 130 signatories, to the rector demanding that, in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests, a piece of conceptual art by Italian performance artist and photographer Vanessa Beecroft – depicting black near naked women all standing upright in a statuesque group formation – be removed from the area of the entrance to the academy.

They claimed it was racist and sexist and demanded that anti-racism and anti-sexism courses be made compulsory for staff and students.

The three controversies, which occurred between the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020, have stirred extensive debate in the Norwegian and Swedish media, demanding that the leadership at the universities intervene.

But the interventions have only escalated the media debate further and in the Larsen case led to a member of parliament sending an open letter to Norway’s Minister of Culture Abid Raja, who is responsible for the so-called “law on discrimination”, demanding to know what the minister will do to address increasing attacks on professors’ right to free speech at universities.

‘Sexist and homophobic’ accusations

In the case of Johan Grant, the “Where is Daddy…” course at Lund University was grounded in the work of Professor Chris Argyris on how learning in organisations is taking place and how the tendency to avoid negative feelings is leading to stagnation, ineffectiveness and a bad working climate.

An experimental part of the course is a group conference where the students spend two days analysing how unconscious group processes are influencing their learning and attitudes.

But, in a report based on interviews with participants from the course published in Lundagård in January, one woman told reporter Louise Lennartsson that the theme excluded her as a homosexual. Another found the theme “sexist and homophobic”.

After five students protested to the director of undergraduate studies, Dr Jonas Bjärehed, he concluded that the module “is in conflict with the ethical norms and guidelines that apply to activities at Lund University” and that the complaining students could be exempted from the module.

Regarding which aspects were supposedly in conflict with the university’s ethical norms and guidelines, Bjärehed told Grant that “it probably had to do with discrimination and harassment”.

Grant was informed by the head of department, Dr Robert Holmberg, that he was prohibited from continuing to teach the course and it is now highly unlikely that his contract will be extended.

Grant believes that he has found a way to hold the leadership accountable.

“Transparency and open discussion are best for everyone. That is why I have reported myself for abusive discrimination or discrimination against students,” he told Academic Rights Watch.

However Academic Rights Watch commented that, in reporting himself, Johan Grant “may have overestimated the management’s ability and willingness to carry out an impartial investigation – but that is for the future to tell”.

German student reports professor

The background to the complaint against Larsen was that a student at the University of Bergen felt offended after a lecture he gave in August 2019 in which he discussed his research project on tourism and said that 90% of the German tourists surveyed said that they did not look upon themselves as typical tourists in Norway.

One German student present also confirmed that she did not look upon herself as a typical tourist when travelling on holidays. According to the student the professor then said: “They [Germans] were here before, and now they sneak back in”, whereupon most of the students present laughed.

But the German student complained about the professor and stated that she felt offended, arguing that she expected the University of Bergen to have an inclusive attitude (to foreign students) and asking the university to monitor staff members’ statements to avoid similar episodes in the future.

The leadership of the department and faculty took the complaint seriously and the student received a letter from the dean regretting the statements of the professor.

“We as faculty pride ourselves in being an inclusive and safe environment and have no tolerance for bullying or harassment,” the dean said. “The lecturer agreed with your rendering of the situation and is sorry that it offended or hurt you in any way.”

Professor Svein Larsen, however, said that it is far too easy to offend today’s students and took the case to his labour union Forskerforbundet, who sent a letter to the university demanding that they retract the statement supporting the student and criticising his lecture.

The case then made it into the national media and even led to a question to the minister of culture asking about the right of professors to free speech. In an interview with Khrono, Minister of Research and Higher Education Henrik Asheim said that academia has to be open for challenging the students.

“We need an education that is able to ask critical questions and we cannot protect people against all arguments we do not like or opinions we do not like,” Asheim said.

The German student who reported the issue, however, was identified by the press and approached to give her version, putting psychological pressure on her, for which she sought compensation through a lawyer.

The university agreed to pay a damage compensation of NOK10,000 to the student. But Rector Dag Rune Olsen’s explanation of the university decision to national television’s main news channel Dagsnytt 18 provoked a strong reaction from academics.

Sociologist Kjetil Rolnes, an influential intellectual on social media in Norway, wrote on his Facebook page: “The German joke case is becoming worse. But also more interesting. Because it demonstrates a way of thinking of the leadership at the University of Bergen that is violating almost everything that a university stands for.”

He said it was like “leading a kindergarten where everyone must feel safe. Including those who have a completely irrational way of reacting to jokes.”

Critical art students

Regarding the push for the conceptual artwork at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts to be removed, the rector, Måns Wrange, agreed that the artwork is problematic and should be removed, but only after an open debate on why.

However, he acknowledged that racism is taking place at the academy and said he is working on an action plan addressing “continuous internal teaching for staff and students in critique of norms, ethics, sexual awareness, and decolonialisation pedagogy, students’ rights, law against bullying, discrimination, misuse of power, unwanted sexual attention and sexual harassment”.

But this triggered a heated reaction from six students who argued through the media that this amounts to indoctrination and has no place in the teaching of art.

Commenting on the case, Asbjørn S Grønstad, professor of visual culture in the department of information science and media studies at the University of Bergen, told University World News: “Generally I would say that the context and location where a piece of art is displayed arguably plays a significant role in the impact it may have. Beecroft’s picture would have been unproblematic if it was placed in a gallery where the context probably would have been made clear by the curator.

“In a museum or gallery pictures are primarily aesthetic objects that serve as a source for historical knowledge and reflection. When on display in the common area of a higher education institution, the framework for interpretation is different and the picture is primarily decorative. And then you may ask if it is a good idea to ‘dress up the wall’ with 15-20 almost naked women with an African look.”