«We need to bring out the best in each other»

Rectors speech at NTNU’s leadership meeting.

Rektor Tor Grande på scenen.
Foto: Tore Becker/NTNU

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This is an opinion piece. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

Dear all,

Welcome to NTNU’s leadership meeting. We are finally back here in Oppdal. I have been anxious in the last few days and weeks, anxious ahead of an important board meeting for NTNU yesterday and anxious about my first leadership meeting as principal here at Oppdal.

To address the first matter first: I believe the outcome of yesterday’s board meeting was wise. And lot has happened in the sector since our last meeting. Two ministers have resigned within a short time frame, leading to changes in our program here in Oppdal as well.

The plan was for State Secretary Oddmund Løkensgard Hoel to participate, and it is now public knowledge that he will be our new minister. Hoel has great trust in the university and college sector. He is familiar with NTNU, and I expect that we will have a close and constructive dialogue with him in the future.

NTNU is an institution that has had a significant impact on the development of our society.

We are a university that aims to provide people with optimism for tomorrow and the competence to shape a better future. By being a university that seeks new knowledge, breaks barriers, and educates candidates to face changing times with solid values that takes our society forward. If there is anyone in this country well-equipped to face the challenges we encounter with all its nuances, breadth, and complexity, it is us at NTNU.

NTNU is a university I am proud of, and a university I am proud to be a part of.

Knowledge and competence are more important than ever, and NTNU has a significant societal responsibility to contribute to Norway and the world. How will we face the future as the largest university in our country? That might be the biggest question and an important foundation for the strategic process in the coming fall.

The big picture

But where do we stand today?

Let me take the big picture first: Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine, the humanitarian catastrophe due to Israel’s warfare in Gaza, the U.S. elections – these are three issues that dominate our news cycle. The outcomes of these three are crucial for how the world will develop.

Another concern of mine is that there are about 700,000 Norwegians who are either outside of education or employment. Particularly, the significant absence of the youth is unsustainable for our society.

Ahead of the World Economic Forum, the Global Risk Report 2024 was published. They ranked the biggest risks in a 2- and 5-year perspective shown in this image. But, as you can see from the color codes, the major challenges in a 10-year perspective, according to this risk analysis, are related to nature and the climate crisis. The consequences of climate change, such as extreme weather and global warming, and the loss of nature and biodiversity, top the list.

This is one of the key perspectives we need to consider, and will be central for our work on this leadership meeting.

It’s worth noting that we are a university belonging to an even larger valued based community – through our connections and collaboration with other universities in Europe and the world. These are some of the positive forces we align us in what is a global effort to create knowledge.

NTNU is an international university, and one of our most significant contributions to a better world is sharing knowledge and solutions with the global south. We cannot just talk about a fair green transition; we must also do what is a well-known trademark of NTNU: ensuring that knowledge is used where it is needed most.

Therefore, international collaboration will become more important for us.

This implies that supporters, colleagues, and the external world have high expectations of us as a culture-bearing institution.

Leading a university, a faculty, an institute at a time as unique as now is a great privilege. It is also a corresponding great responsibility, precisely because we are here to facilitate our employees and students to contribute to this effort.

There are more Nobel Prize winners among us. This year marks 10 yearssince our two leading researchers, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, received the Nobel Prize. I still remember what it did for us as an institution. We should use this 10th-anniversary to highlight outstanding research and dissemination and showcase our potential.

The next Nobel laureate may not have been born yet, or for all we know, may already be sitting in one of our auditoriums – as a student or as a lecturer. It’s not a question whether NTNU will have a new Nobel laureate; it’s more a question of when and in which field the next Nobel laureate from NTNU will emerge.

We should have that level of ambition. However, it should not be the case that we, as an institution or as individuals, measure our achievements solely based on Nobel Prizes or other prizes. But used in the right way, this can create enthusiasm and motivation for the younger generation at our university.

We need to bring out the best in each other. And we must see the best in each other too. To do that, we also need to address the distance many employees feel towards us as leaders.

The perceived distance to the Government Quarter in Oslo can be just as long for someone living in Grorud as for someone in Gamvik. Similarly, the distance to the Main Building at Gløshaugen can feel equally far for an employee in Gamle Elektro as for one in Gjøvik. I believe this feeling extends to leaders at institutes and faculties as well.

We must see participation and involvement as a natural part of being a university. We must also find ways to create spaces where we can have difficult conversations. I hope we bring this with us in our work when we return from Oppdal.

Employees and students have different perceptions of how things are at NTNU. Even though the descriptions of NTNU vary, it is the responsibility of leaders to take seriously when colleagues or students are left with concerns, feel unrest, or generally have questions for which there are no obvious answers to.

What happened before Christmas We will use this leadership meeting to focus on what lies ahead. At the same time, we must have a retrospect look at what happened before Christmas.

On December 15, Anne resigned as rector at NTNU.

Anne has personified the best of NTNU in her role as rector: integrity, ambitions, care, and solidity without ever putting herself first.

So, we all know what happened on December 15. In broad terms, the discourse has revolved around these three themes:

  • Academic freedom
  • Institutional independence
  • And freedom of speech.

Universities are special communities precisely because academic freedom is a prerequisite for our role in society.

What one wants to research and how (method) is a freedom that each researcher has. It is also a freedom that belongs to the entire university as an institution. This is enshrined in the Higher Education Act.

Academic freedom ensures the institution’s independence from the state as an owner, from the business sector, from public administration, and other financial contributors or those who may want to influence research and education.

Academic freedom is a fundamental prerequisite for NTNU to fulfill our societal mission in research and education. Academic freedom and our independence are crucial for us to fulfill our societal responsibility.

Academic freedom cannot be compromised.

There have been questions about whether academic freedom is being pressured by special interests in the business sector. Implicitly, the connection between the business sector and the university is too close, and that relationship comes at the expense of our integrity.

First and foremost: I believe the task we received from the board to review collaboration agreements with actors in the labor market is a sensible starting point. We are well underway with it, and we have posted an overview of our collaboration agreements online.

It is important that we are transparent about collaboration with the business sector. It may not be obvious to those outside the sector, but we do not enter into, and should not enter into, agreements that bind or dictate individual researchers in their work or activities.

Researchers at NTNU are free to decide how such collaboration should unfold.

My experience is that actors in the business sector value our independence and impartial. This has also been stated by several after December 15.

Something crucial is lost for collaboration partners if we did not have that integrity. It is this independence that enables us to challenge the business sector, something they need us to so they can evolve further.

Sometimes our academic integrity means that researchers provide scientific answers that a partner did not hope for. But that is where the real value lies – high-quality research must be fundamentally free.

Everyone loses if we do not collaborate.

I have reacted to the perception that collaboration with the business sector is seen as something negative. We need more collaboration across sectors, not less, to solve the major challenges of our time, as I mentioned at the beginning.

One of NTNU’s great strengths is that we are an interdisciplinary and outward-facing university. We are committed to understanding the world around us and contributing to changing it for the better with knowledge and facts. With the vision we have, it is wrong to sit in an ivory tower and observe the world.

Take an example from my field: Carbon-free production of metals is a significant contribution to reducing CO2 emissions. Our strong academic communities can (and should) contribute to realizing new technology that will significantly reduce emissions, and we must succeed if we are to achieve the green shift. How can we achieve this without collaborating with the business sector that will put the knowledge to use? We cannot assume that knowledge itself will be used just because we publish our research.

If you are concerned about the success of the green shift, collaboration is a prerequisite.

EU’s Horizon Europe is an example of how positive forces come together. Thematic or challenge-driven research requires collaboration across sectors because contributions from all are needed.

However, academic freedom for our researchers is a fundamental prerequisite for our role in collaboration. We should not trivialize the criticism that has come. We take it seriously, and we will make ourselves worthy of trust by being open, transparent, and honest about our collaboration agreements. If there are formulations that are unclear or open to misinterpretation, we will look into them and correct where necessary.

Freedom of speech is an inviolable principle

I am also clear that freedom of speech is an inviolable principle. If there are employees or students who say that the ceiling feels lower and the corridor of opinions narrower, we will listen to that, and we will take that challenge seriously.

Just over a week ago, academic freedom at NTNU was discussed in Storsalen at Studentersamfundet. And the “country’s freest podium” was also used to ask me critical questions. We need more of that.

Freedom of speech, and academic freedom, has been one of the most important topics in our sector for a long time. That was also the reason the Kierulf committee was appointed. I was given the responsibility for following up the committee in 2022, and I believe we had a good start, but we have received a specific mission from our board in December, and we will follow up on it.

Threats to academic freedom come in many forms and from various sources. Many researchers experience that public discourse is a hostile place. At times, it is also lonely to stand in debates if one has positions not shared by others or one’s own colleagues.

The front page of the Kierulf report succinctly states: “A good culture of speech must be built from the bottom up, every day.” The latter is perhaps the most important; we cannot be “finished” with this issue, and we must continuously work on it. Leadership training is crucial, to mention one of the most important measures.

Before I summarize this section, in the wake of recent events, I would like to say that ethics touches on much of what we have talked about. Ethics is fundamental for a university. And again, training in this is crucial. It is also an area where we learn throughout life.

In summary:

  • First: Academic freedom is a fundamental principle for a university.
  • Second: There should be no doubt about NTNU’s independence. And we will continue to collaborate with the business sector in line with our vision.
  • Third: Freedom of speech is an inviolable principle. We should not take it for granted.

These are points I am happy to repeat until the lights in the room go out. And if I know myself well, these might be the last words my wife hears before we go to bed (hopefully not every day).

Tighter financial times and new opportunities.

Now I want to shift attention to something else that we are all in the midst of.

There is a lot of positive things happening at NTNU at the moment. The construction of the The Norwegian Ocean Technology Centre is on schedule and will be crucial for maintaining our leading expertise in education and research in the marine and maritime fields.

The concrete start of the Campus project came with the budget for 2024. This is a massive project that will require good cooperation and coordination at all levels. It is one of the most extensive construction projects Trondheim has seen in a long time and will also have a significant impact on the development of Trondheim as a city.

It is important to recognize that the economic times in our sector are more challenging than in many years. In that situation, we must take the long-term steps that contribute to ensuring that we remain a robust organization capable of delivering the quality, knowledge, and competence that our society needs.

It’s easy to see the glass as half-empty when our economic constraints have tightened. But then it’s important to acknowledge that the glass is actually much more than half full. We are a university rich in talented colleagues and human resources.

We recruit very skilled and committed students. We have some of the sharpest minds in the country at our disposal, and we have approximately 8 billion NOK from the National Budget available in 2024. It’s up to us to take the steps that ensure we can do what our colleagues are best at, namely educating strong candidates for the workforce and researching and developing new knowledge and solutions that society needs.

We are the university that has come furthest in innovation.

There will be tough priorities. As leaders, you will face difficult choices. But when this challenge arises, we will have to make the decisions that strengthen us. We have to. With greater expectations of what we should deliver with fewer resources, it means that strategic work becomes even more important.

Our university’s strategy and roadmap ahead:

Our strategy, ‘Knowledge for a Better World’ has been an important guiding principle for NTNU, and my impression is that many of us have a very strong ownership to our vision.

The strategy lasts until 2025, and it’s natural that we have started preparing for a new strategic process. Some believe that the process itself is more important than the product or the ‘document’. Many have stated this time that both the process and, not least, the product are more important than ever. From what I understand, it’s because we need a good process and a good compass to navigate the turbulent waters we are sailing into.

I took on the overall responsibility for the work on the new strategy in August 2023. An important part of the current strategy is our values as a university. The discussion about freedom of speech in 2022, and the geopolitical changes that have truly put ‘responsible international cooperation’ on the agenda, have been something I have thought a lot about in the last two to three years. I think that a discussion about our vision and our values must be an important part of the strategic process. I am quite sure that I am not alone in this; these are topics that employees and students also are concerned about.

We will chart a new course for NTNU. A new strategy will be carved out, and the leadership meeting will be the point of departure for two analyses that will form the basis for the strategic process. The work on the new strategy cannot be top-down. We must get the entire organization involved in this work. The strategy has a long time horizon, and therefore, the foundation on which the strategy is built on must be solid.

Therefore, the two analyses: Environmental analysis and situational analysis will be important precisely because they contribute to a common starting point for the conversation about the way forward. This conversation about where we stand and how the external world will affect us going forward must primarily take place in the academic communities of NTNU, so that the process can be anchored on different levels in the organization.

Conclusion – a brief mention of a project

Before I go in for a landing, I have one more thing on my mind.

The last leadership meeting focused on thematic focus areas. The board approved our five new ones that started in January 2024. I’m almost moved when I start talking about this.

Tomorrow we will have the pleasure of meeting the five who now have the responsibility for the new focus areas. As you know, I have high expectations for what we can achieve with them. Considering what I have mentioned earlier today, I believe we have made a good decision of topics here. Remember that this is one of our most important tools for interdisciplinarity and collaboration, across sector boundaries and national borders. Time will tell how the thematic focuses will be included in our new strategy.

Now I am at the end of the road, and I think it’s fitting to have a little buzz around the table. There are probably several of you who haven’t met each other before. Then it’s a good opportunity to get acquainted.

All that remains is to simply say thank you for your attention. I look forward to starting the important work together with you.