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Forceful criticism of AU’s handling of requests for access to documents in 2019

The Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science has issued a sharp critique of Aarhus University’s handling of requests for access to documents in the wake of the so-called ‘beef case’. Release of documents was delayed, and incomplete reports were submitted to the agency. This is not acceptable, Rector Brian Bech Nielsen emphasises. “We must always act in accordance with the law, and our word must be absolutely trustworthy,” he says.

2021.05.07 | Sys Christina Vestergaard

Photo: Lars Kruse

The Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science has considered a complaint from the newspaper Information regarding Aarhus University’s responses to the paper’s requests for access to documents related to the ‘beef case’ in 2019. The agency has now issued a highly critical reprimand of Aarhus University’s handling of the case.

On the background of the agency’s conclusions and after reviewing the facts of the case, Rector Brian Bech Nielsen agrees with the agency’s conclusions:

“Now that the facts of the case have been clarified, I have to say that I concur with the agency’s ruling, unfortunately. We have not complied with the rules, and this is not acceptable. Integrity is something we value very highly at Aarhus University, and so I take this criticism extremely seriously.”

The complaint concerns five requests for access to documents that the university responded to in November 2019.

Decision found to breach the document access rules

First, the agency criticises the university’s failure to process the requests for access to documents in the order in which they were received. According to the rules, each request should have been dealt with “as quickly as possible”. Instead, Information received the responses to all five requests for access to documents at once at the last possible deadline – which in this case was 4 November 2019. In the case of some of these requests, the responses should have been sent a few days earlier.

This decision to postpone access to documents is a breach of the Danish act on access to documents in cases related to information about the environment.

Second, the agency, which considered the complaint from Information on a number of separate occasions, strongly criticises Aarhus University’s failure to inform the agency in its first report to the agency regarding the case that a decision had been made to postpone granting requests for access to documents until after the university’s internal investigation of reports from DCS (Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture). 

Critique of the university’s handling of the case and leadership

The requests for access to documents were handled by the Faculty of Science and Technology (since dissolved) in collaboration with the legal team under the Rector’s Office. 

“In response to the most recent developments in this unfortunate case, I have contacted the managers involved, and regardless of the fact that this was not their understanding of the matter, a decision was made that was not legal, according to an internal document from the faculty. This means that the leadership team responsible for this decision at the former Faculty of Science and Technology failed to live up to its responsibilities, and was involved in making a highly condemnable decision. I have personally reprimanded the former dean of ST, the vice-dean for knowledge exchange at Technical Sciences and the director of DCA for their conduct, and I have made it absolutely clear that this must not happen again,” the rector says. 

Since the events in the ‘beef case’ of 2019, the extremely large Faculty of Science and Technology has been split into two faculties, each headed by a new dean. The former acting dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology is no longer part of the university’s senior management team. He resumed his position as professor when his term as acting dean expired in the spring of 2020. 

Incomplete statements from the university

The Rector’s Office was not informed that a decision had been made in contravention of the rules, which is also condemnable, the rector emphasises. It is also unacceptable for the university to submit reports to the agency which we have since learned are incomplete. For example, the decision taken at Science and Technology is not included in the first two reports.

“Our reports describing our actions and decisions must be accurate and complete. We must be able to clearly and precisely describe what actions we have taken, and the public must be able to trust our words 100 per cent,” the rector says.

He has discussed the case with the university’s chief legal counsel and has informed the employee in question that s/he will no longer perform these duties. As a consequence, a mutual termination agreement has been entered into with the chief legal counsel.

“This is deeply regrettable, because the chief legal counsel is both extremely competent and dedicated to the university. Aarhus University found itself in an extreme situation during the ‘beef case’, and our lawyers, among others, were subject to an unreasonable workload. In fact, the university handed over about 64,000 pages in connection with requests for documents in the period September to December 2019. Our records show that a total of 2,546 manhours were spent on handling these requests in this period. This is not an excuse, but it does put our handling of the case in perspective. And unfortunately – regardless of this perspective – we must acknowledge that the university failed to live up to its responsibility,” Rector Bech Nielsen says.  

Heightened focus on correct procedures across the entire university

Across the university, steps will be taken to heighten awareness that requests for access to documents must, as a matter of course, be in full compliance with applicable rules, and that if there are grounds for doubt in regard to the handling of a case, that attention must be drawn to this clearly and in writing to ensure that decisions are made on a fully informed basis.

Rector Bech Nielsen stresses:

“This case and how it has been handled are not typical of Aarhus University. We have extremely competent employees and managers in our large organisation who work together to perform many complex tasks with a high degree of professionalism and responsibility. But this case has been handled in an unacceptable manner that damages the university’s reputation. And that’s of no benefit to anyone.”

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