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Annual University Celebration

Rector’s speech 2022

Dear Board, dear guests.
Dear employees, dear students.

About 50 years ago, the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked one of his closest advisers for a brief. The young adviser, named Winston Lord, immediately got to work, and after some intense days of writing, he delivered the requested paper to Kissinger's office.

The next morning, the brief was back on Lord's desk with a handwritten Kissinger note on the front page: 'Is this the best you can do?'

Slightly shocked, Lord immediately set about adjusting, improving and polishing the paper. And after another few days of hard writing, he 'resubmitted' the brief to Kissinger. The next morning, the paper again lay on Lord's table: 'Is this really the best you can do?' was Kissinger's handwritten note.

According to myth, this back-and-forth process between Lord and Kissinger repeated itself no less than eight times. Until one morning a deeply frustrated Winston Lord burst into Kissinger's office and exclaimed:

'Henry! I've beaten my brains out! I know it's the best I can do; I can't possibly improve one more word!!!' To which Kissinger replied: 'Well, in that case - now I will read it.'

The anecdote about Kissinger and Winston Lord tells us two things: First, that Henry Kissinger was at times an unusually cold and cynical boss. But history also reminds us that excellence and high quality arise when we do our absolute best.

SDU is a quality university where we strive daily to produce the very best.

We do it for many reasons. But we do it first and foremost because high quality is the very precondition for us to live up to SDU's overall strategic ambition: to create value for and with society by contributing to a sustainable future.

We are here to produce relevant, new knowledge and turn out graduates that are relevant to the society that finances us. But research and education can only be relevant if the quality of the study programmes is of the highest calibre and the research excellent.

I could use many annual speeches on listing examples of how SDU's excellent research and educational environments create value. But the story of Tina tells us in a few words how high quality is relevant to real people in the real world.

Tina was 47 years old and was fully underway with her career when she suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2017. With no warning. Overnight, Tina was paralysed. She couldn't walk. In fact, she couldn't even get out of bed.

After a year of treatment and attempts at rehabilitation in the general system, progress was very modest. The disheartening conclusion was that Tina would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

Fortunately, Tina got in touch with the interdisciplinary Trinity project at SDU. In the project, researchers from different faculties had over some years developed a robot trainer for rehabilitation. The robot trainer makes patients weightless, so they can train muscles they otherwise cannot work with. This helped Tina.

Today, with the help of a walking stick, Tina can walk two kilometres.

The reason: excellent, interdisciplinary research that creates value for real people in the real world.

However, high quality and excellence do not come by themselves. The quality university is a product of the daily endeavours of excellent students and staff. As you know, quality is about doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. It is SDU's people who have created - and continue to create every day - the quality culture that permeates the University. Because, as Aristotle put it, quality is not an act. It is a habit.

The quality university appears in the SDU student, who with curiosity, enthusiasm and great effort throws themself into the material to achieve deep realisation.

The quality university makes itself known in the researcher who, through creativity, insight and hard work, formulates and tests bold hypotheses.

We find the quality university in the teacher's persistent effort to ensure that the material is understood in depth.

And the quality university is personified in the administrative staff member who works purposefully to ensure efficient and proper procedures.

However, there are also other prerequisites for quality. Let me just mention three important factors:

Firstly, a quality university like SDU necessitates Academic Freedom. It is about freedom of research, freedom of education and freedom of debate and expression. Specifically, it is about the freedom to choose research questions, methods, forms of teaching and to speak publicly about academic matters.

I am proud that we at SDU have contributed to the formulation of a 'Declaration of Academic Freedom'. This sets a clear direction and is a crucial foundation for the University in an ever-changing world.

The second prerequisite for high quality is renewal. Excellence and high quality require continuous development and innovation. At SDU, too, we must adapt to constantly changing framework conditions.

When the labour market is moving in a direction in which many more people will change jobs much more often, we must develop and expand our continuing and further education programmes. And when the opportunities for obtaining external funding improve, SDU must also take steps towards basing a larger part of the University's activities on external funding. Not to become bigger. But to create the foundation for even more and better research.

The third and final prerequisite I would like to highlight is reasonable framework conditions. SDU is an internationally oriented, regionally anchored quality university. We are proud of - and take pride in - delivering quality education in five cities across the region.

But the current framework conditions are challenging us. Because no matter how well we do it, not all of our smaller places of study will be financially sustainable in a time of declining youth year groups. We therefore need political support and improved framework conditions for our study programmes outside the largest cities.

We have read the so-called regionalisation agreement. And it contains some sensible elements. But to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, we ask Christiansborg: 'Is this the best you can do?' We are happy to contribute to 'More and better education programmes throughout Denmark'. But we cannot do it without substantial investment in the regional supply of education programmes.

We need larger decentralised subsidies or significantly higher student full-time equivalent rates outside the largest cities.

As the musician, Peter Bastian, pointed out: 'the only thing that matters in life is the quality of the tracks you leave behind.' In December, when we hold the last SDU Board meeting of the year I will have the opportunity to thank the outgoing Chair of the Board for his great effort. Let me just say here that the tracks you - Niels - leave behind at SDU are of outstanding quality.

Your hand at the helm has been steady, and your ability to manoeuvre the ship through at times perilous and troubled waters has been beyond compare. At the same time, you have been able to nudge SDU in the direction of both greater relevance and higher quality. It only makes your efforts for the University even more admirable.

The sun is shining on SDU. And that is very much to your credit, Niels.

Thank you for that and thank you for your attention!

Last Updated 03.11.2022