Fears raised over embassy staff teaching at universities

The right-wing Danish People’s Party (DF) is calling for registration of all foreign embassy staff teaching at Danish universities, claiming they could be “Trojan horses” for surveillance or attempts to increase political influence.

The push began on 5 October when DF Member of Parliament Morten Messerschmidt posed the question to the minister of higher education and science: “What standpoint does the minister have regarding instances where Turkish, Saudi Arabian or Chinese embassy staff, for instance, are teaching at Danish universities and with the contact they get with Danish students as a consequence of this?”

Minister of Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen on 19 October answered: “As a part of higher education autonomy, these institutions are self-governed when deciding on staff members that are best suited to lift a certain task.

“I hence expect that the universities are only hiring persons qualified to fulfil the teaching requirements. I also expect that universities have a glance both towards security and basic values of external teaching staff, including embassy personnel.”

‘Trojan horses’

This did not satisfy Messerschmidt and on 28 October he and party leader Jens Henrik Thulesen Dahl, who is a representative on the parliament’s higher education and research committee, wrote a debate article in the Copenhagen University newsletter Uniavisen: “The government does not want to register foreign agents at Danish universities. We will not sit idle and accept Trojan horses at our universities.”

They said: “In Denmark embassy staff may teach at Danish universities. That does not have to be a problem. But in a time when the embassies are having a more and more expressed political role, this is not without problems.

“For instance, the Turkish Embassy over a period were conducting surveillance on Turkish citizens in Denmark and registered their sympathies or antipathies for the ruling government.”

They said similar examples have been found for other embassies and therefore a couple of weeks ago they pressed Petersen on the matter.

They questioned how universities can be trusted if they arrange teaching by the use of staff who are paid their basic salary by foreign dictatorships or countries that are known for industrial espionage.

“Industrial espionage is on the rise and international PhD students are coming in great numbers to Denmark with grants from their home countries. Does the minister not see that this is a problem?”, Messerschmidt and Thule Dahl argued.

They said the minister was leaving it to universities to decide. “As long as the teacher is competent to teach [it is] opened up for Turkish, Saudi Arabian and Chinese embassy staff. And if you read the answer more broadly, this is a general regulation that will also apply for North Korean, Iranian, Russian and Syrian embassy personnel, without raising any interest from the minister,” Thulesen Dahl and Messerschmidt wrote.

No central registration

In parliament on 5 October, Messerschmidt in a follow-up question also asked if the minister found it necessary to establish a register of foreign teachers at universities, including noting where they are employed, so that “we can have an overview of who and how many, are employed notably from non-democratic countries’ embassies and who thereby have contact with Danish students”.

But Minister Jesper Petersen told MPs: “There is today no central registration of university staff, and it is my view that we at present have no grounds for establishing such a register over foreign teachers’ employment at [Danish] universities.”

This led Thulesen Dahl and Messerschmidt to claim that Denmark’s knowledge society is being eroded.

“We have a responsibility towards our citizens and our businesses and for our common future. We will not see that universities are accepting Trojan horses from foreign embassies that are directed by foreign governments that we know are excelling in espionage, and with a mixture of pressure and financial incitements, are forcing their most qualified young people to spy for them when abroad – including in Denmark,” they wrote in Uniavisen.

They said it was good enough for the minister to cling to principles such as “research freedom” and “research is apolitical” while the great powers freely exploit Denmark’s “good will and naivety”.

They demanded that the minister should establish “transparent regulations” without delay.

Asked for insight on researchers’ travels

Meanwhile, Berlingske Tidende, the major Danish newspaper, reported on 24 October that Morten Messerschmidt had applied for insight from the personnel division at Copenhagen University on seven researchers in Islamic-studies and the Middle East region and their travels abroad, notably as a possible link to their collaboration with foreign powers.

Annika Hvithamar, who is head of the department of cross-cultural and regional studies at Copenhagen University told Berlingske Tidende that the request from an MP for information on researchers’ travels abroad and use of mobile phone amounts to “pressure” being applied to the department.

Uniavisen asked Messerschmidt when asking these questions about profiled researchers such as Jørgen Bæk Simonsen and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, if he is thinking that they have a “too close” and “unhealthy” relationship to the embassies?

Messerschmidt said: “Yes, it would be natural that a researcher on the Middle East has one relationship or another to those embassies where they are doing their research.”

“When I mention these two researchers, it is because we see problems in their trying to paint too rosy a picture of Islam that is not grounded in reality,” he said.

“Therefore, it is of interest to hear what kind of people they see, so that we can identify which sources are giving them this very favourable opinion. Perhaps they are giving a rosy picture of Islam so that they can be good friends with certain types of embassies. Therefore, it is irritating that this is not something that is of no interest for the department’s leadership.”

Pressure claim dismissed

Messerschmidt denied that he was applying pressure. But Simonsen told Uniavisen that politicians have been stirring up suspicions since the summer and this was an attempt to discredit people who are doing research on the Middle East.

Professor Susan Wright, professor of educational anthropology at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University and director of the Centre for Higher Education Futures, told University World News that the critique of university research and teaching confuses the political process of forming opinions with the academic process of research.

“An academic’s work is to research an issue, carefully investigate a large amount of data and use their disciplinary methods and training, to make a professional analysis that can be defended with facts and sources. As teachers, our job is to enable students to make similar critical analyses – not form personal opinions from single sources.”

She said embassy personnel, whether involved in teaching or encountered in research, could be just one source of information about what is going on in a country, but many written sources and interviews with a wide range of different people would also be part of the analysis.

“Studies of how authoritarian regimes emerge, present themselves abroad and operate in practice (for example, in Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia) are important, not least so as to develop defences against any such tendencies at home.

“In democratic countries, academics have a social obligation to exercise their professional judgment about which issues to research and to share their knowledge with society without fear or favour. In return, society has to defend this space for independent, critical exploration against fear mongering and attempted interventions. That is one of the pillars of democracy.”