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Yellow blood in his veins

After eight years in the post, Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen has stepped down as rector of Aarhus University. Not at any other time in the university's history has it seen such radical developments in such a short space of time.

2013.08.09 | Sys Christina Vestergaard

Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen is well-known for his huge enthusiasm for Aarhus University and for always highlighting it rather than any other institution, so much so that many people in the university sector believe he has yellow blood in his veins.

Maritime expressions spring to mind when appraising Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen's eight-year term as rector of Aarhus University which has just come to an end. Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen is seen as the captain at the helm who has led Aarhus University through – sometimes – high seas in Denmark and, not least, out into the world's oceans.

As Uffe Toudal, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Education, put it:

"When you step ashore, you will have handed over the helm to Brian Bech Nielsen. A lot has happened in the world at large, in Denmark and here at Aarhus University. You have played your part everywhere. Your visions have left their mark. The universities must not shut their doors on the outside world – they must be open, provide answers, listen, challenge and make us all wiser. You have led Aarhus University through a comprehensive reform process. It has not always been a smooth passage. You have not shied from your goal. You have persisted in your mission of making Aarhus University one of the best universities in the world. And in my view your ambition has borne fruit."

Chairman of the University Board Michael Christiansen also drew parallels with the maritime world to describe the developments which 'Lauritz', as he is known to most, has spearheaded as rector.

"A new admiral will take over, but it will not be forgotten that it was you who prepared the fleet, and that it was you who ordered it to sea. You will undoubtedly go down in the history books as the person who took Aarhus University onto the world market."

Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen's closest colleagues said goodbye at an informal surprise party on Monday 5 August. Here, "goodbye" meant "see you soon", as Lauritz is moving to another AU office to serve as the university's international advisor. But it was goodbye to Lauritz as rector.

Brian Bech Nielsen is taking over his place in the rector's office.

"As everyone knows, I am a physicist, so I will use a quote from my field. From Newton: "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." I feel privileged that I will be standing on your shoulders. I will be drawing on your efforts – also in future."

Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen took up his post as the first rector to be employed at Aarhus University on 6 August 2005. Previously, he had worked as a researcher, head of department and dean at the university, and brought with him many years of experience from the international university sector from his time as a consultant with the World Bank. He joined the university at a period when the political winds were favouring fewer institutional units. Subsequently, Aarhus University has changed from being a regional university to becoming a large national institution with considerable focus on internationalisation – within both research and education.

Internationalisation has been Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen's lodestar from the outset, completely in line with the wishes of the board. Later, the heightened international focus had to be combined with developments in Denmark towards mergers, which for Aarhus University happened in 2006-07. In the space of just a few years, the university's profile changed markedly.

The reforms which were designed to adapt Aarhus University to the new profile were launched in 2010. Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen is the architect behind the new management structure, which saw the deans becoming part of the overall university management and the former nine main academic areas being reduced to four.


The reforms became the subject of considerable  discussion. Internally and externally. As a colleague, Jens Oddershede, Chairman of Universities Denmark and rector at the University of Southern Denmark, has followed developments over the years. In his speech for Lauritz he said:

"You returned to your beloved Aarhus University and wanted to transform it into an international university. Your plan succeeded, as all the objective measures show.

During the process, you have made uncompromising decisions which you found necessary. Decisions which the rest of us have shied away from making. I know that you are not immune to criticism. Together with the rest of the management, you have tried to enter into a constructive dialogue with your critics. The criticism has not been in vain, and you have worked hard to solve the problems. You have done it out of a love for your university – like all of us who have studied here at Aarhus University, you have yellow blood in your veins. Even though you often try to see something positive in other universities, none of them can quite measure up to the yellow brick walls in Aarhus."

At Aarhus University, the wide-sweeping changes have posed huge challenges. Joint union representative Aase Pedersen did not ignore the fact when she provided a status at the reception. She had praise – and some criticism.  

"Your huge commitment, all your visions and your belief that everything is possible have rubbed off on all of us. It has been hard with all these changes, and still is. But it is also very exciting. What is important is that people are listened to if a new initiative turns out not to work, or if any areas become excessively heavy or bureaucratic. However, we don't always get our way, even though we make ourselves heard. But then we try again and come up with new arguments, and then something might happen."

During his time at the university, Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen has often invited students to join him for coffee in his office and accepted invitations to student debates. Over the years, there has often been a fresh exchange of opinions, which Per Dalbjerg, chairman of Aarhus University's Student Council, did not sidestep:

"Well, you have never been afraid of teasing us, so now it's our turn. We haven't always agreed on everything – that's no secret – but we have always been able to drink a cup of coffee together and talk about it. Occasionally quite loudly. You have always talked a lot, and sometimes a bit beyond yourself. Discussions flow smoothly over coffee, and the Student Council at Aarhus University has therefore perhaps been the most well-informed student council in all of Denmark. And which the staff might sometimes have found slightly irritating. We find it hard to envisage that you will remain silent from now on, and we look forward to a good discussion over a cup of coffee, or perhaps in a newspaper, about university fees for example."

Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen is now putting on a new hat. As an advisor to the university. At a surprise 'farewell' event earlier in the week, he talked about his time as rector:

"For me, it makes perfect sense to step down now as rector. It is, of course, completely according to plan. I have had a number of objectives. I have worked a lot, but without counting the hours. I have done it for Aarhus University. It has all been a great pleasure. There is a sound basis for continuing the work, and the university now has a promising future ahead of it. I am very happy to pass on the best job in the world to Brian, who is just as fond of the university as I am," said Lauritz, before pausing for a moment.

"I have done all the things I wanted to . I can't think of anything I wanted to do which I haven't done. But if you ask me whether there is anything I could think of doing ...," he said with a big smile.

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