Academics hit back over interference in university boards

A media row has broken out in Sweden over government proposals to shorten the terms of university board members from 3.5 years to 17 months in a move seen by universities, higher education stakeholders and opposition parties to threaten the academic freedom of universities.

The decision, which will affect 238 board members at 30 higher education institutions, came less than a week after University World News reported on Swedish initiatives to have academic freedom written into the constitution.

In a televised interview Minister of Higher Education and Research Mats Persson said the decision was taken due to a new procedure for vetting of board members in response to the international security situation. Persson said the threat from China, in particular, necessitated new security measures not only at universities but at all levels of Swedish government and beyond.

In a later article in Svenska Dagbladet, Persson said “the security situation demands that more extensive background checks of the board members of Swedish universities have to be undertaken before selection and the ministry is working on establishing new criteria and procedures”.

Open letter

In an open letter on 28 April, 37 rectors of Swedish higher education institutions wrote that the government’s decision can only be understood as “mistrust” of the competence of boards and the process to select their members.

“As a consequence of this decision there is a threat to the authority of the higher education institutions and furthermore to the opportunity to critically search for new knowledge and hence a threat against academic freedom.

“Our main critique is directed towards the problematic situation of political governance over who shall be entrusted to sit on the universities’ governing boards.”

The letter finishes with an appeal to retract the decision: “A free academy, independent lawyers, free arts and a free press are the cornerstones for sustaining a democratic system and to safeguard human rights, and these are the basic values of our society that the security policy has to protect. Instead of mistrust we all need to cooperate to defend these values even in times of great distress. We are calling for the government to think twice!”

Astrid Söderbergh Widding, rector of Stockholm University, wrote on her blog page that the government’s hasty decision showed “disrespect for all involved”: for the people nominating the board members, the chairs of the boards and the board members who will have their periods of service halved; and the vice-chancellors and higher education institutions that are in need of stability and long-term predictability in their work.

Media storm

The government’s decision on 27 April led to an immediate storm in social and mainstream media, with the government facing accusations of threatening academic freedom and allowing politicians to meddle in academic affairs.

The intensity of the debates prompted former Minister of Higher Education Anna Ekström to write via social media: “I have experienced many storms in the academic world. All ministers of higher education are exposed to criticism. But during my 40 years in the higher education world, I have never experienced such an upset and hard criticism.”

On social media the government was accused of having given in to pressure from the Sweden Democrats to remove left-wing political elements from university boards.

Major Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published three articles by top academic professors Bo Rothstein and Sverker Sörlin, warning that Sweden was sliding towards autocratic regime practices like those observed in Hungary and Poland.

In Dagens Nyheter on 7 May, opposition leader and former PM Magdalena Andersson wrote and op-ed article with the headline, “The regime of the SD [Sweden Democrats] is threatening the foundation of our democracy” in which she said developments in Sweden are “on track with how authoritarian right-wing regimes are functioning around the world – where opposition, media and the academy are silenced”.

She said the SD have gained power with the help of those parties that historically have fought for freedom.

“Now the same parties are contributing to reducing freedom. The soul of our country is at stake,” Andersson said.

Increased political control

Professor Erik Renström, rector, vice-chancellor and president of Lund University, told University World News all Swedish vice-chancellors agree that increased security is an important aspiration. “But this decision is a slow and inefficient way to achieve it. The most serious thing is that the decision opens the door to a new practice where current issues on the political agenda govern the appointments to the university boards.

“The government has slipped in its justifications for the decision – from first emphasising the need for increased security competence in the boards, to the need for an in-depth background check of the individual members. This leads to the suspicion that it is the increased control over the appointments that is the primary driving force,” he said.

Explaining the background to the government’s decision and why it is worrying, Dr Agneta Bladh, immediate past chair of the Swedish Research Council and former State Secretary, said: “The decision on the governing boards of the state higher education institutions in Sweden has been prepared since summer 2022 by nomination committees appointed by the former government.

“These two-person committees consisted of one representative from the institution, and another chosen by the ministry. The results from the nomination committees were presented to the new government (in office since middle of October) in late January.

“Thereafter the minister took his time until a couple of days before the government decision on April 27, which was four days before the mandate period started for the new governing boards. This decision included a shorter mandate period compared with what had been decided earlier. The explanation is for security reasons.

“This decision by the new government is hard to understand as the governing boards decide on broad issues and are not supposed to influence what kind of research and research collaboration will take place, [nor] which students to accept. The important people for research issues are the researchers themselves and their department heads and deans, not the governing boards. Added to this is a specific right for researchers to own patents from their research (lärarundantaget). This cannot be influenced by the governing boards.

“However, now the Swedish government can decide about a new way of appointing board members a bit earlier. There might also be plans for new legislation, which we do not know. As the decision is hard to understand for those who know the system, it is worrying what kind of authority might be given to the governing boards,” she said.

Against a democratic spirit

President of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) Professor Sanna Wolk told University World News that while everyone agrees that security is important, appointing political commissioners to the boards was “a completely wrong approach” that “crosses the line when academic freedom and institutional autonomy are seriously threatened by political interference”.

She said that for several decades Sweden has had politically appointed university boards, which has not been seen as a big problem – largely because the government has seldom rejected appointees proposed by the two-person nomination committee made up of a representative from the university and another from the ministry.

“The current system means that the government appoints the chair and most of the members of the board. It is a peculiarity of the Swedish system and is unusual in democracies that value academic freedom.

“So even though we already have political control through the majority of board members being appointed by the government, it has still functioned in a democratic spirit. But the government’s decision, combined with the short mandate period and politicians’ ability to appoint members with agendas that differ from the institutions’ mission of conducting research and education, has significant consequences,” she said.

In attempt to stop what they believe is the “ongoing hijacking of universities and colleges”, SULF has demanded that the government: reverses its decision regarding shortened mandate periods; allows the university boards to serve their full mandate period; and authorises an investigation into a possible reduction in the number of external board members on university boards to strengthen academic freedom and institutional autonomy and to enhance constitutional protection for academic freedom and institutional self-determination.