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Professor Peter Axel Nielsen is running for the University Board

AAU Elections 2019: Five questions for candidate Peter Axel Nielsen

Professor Peter Axel Nielsen is once again running for the University Board, and will work to ensure that researchers and students at the university have a bigger say in the development of the university’s new strategy. As Peter Axel Nielsen sees it, researchers and students have increasingly not been made privy to key information and have been excluded from participating in central decisions which demand input from all sides.

Name of the candidate, job title, place of employment at AAU:

Peter Axel Nielsen, Professor, the Department of Computer Science.

Why are you running for the University Board?

I have been at Aalborg University since 1987 and I have always worked at the Department of Computer Science, with occasional short periods spent at Aarhus University and universities in the UK, the US and Australia. My research and teaching activities fall within the spheres of what nowadays is called human-centred computing, software engineering and digital transformation. I am a professor and the head of a research team. My research comprises both technical and social/organisational aspects. Alongside my management duties, my work has brought me into contact with colleagues throughout the university, many of whom I have also collaborated with across subject areas and faculties. For the past two years I have also served as an internal academic staff representative on the University Board.

With the background that I have, I believe that I can help strengthen the university through my work as a board member. In general, the board views the university from the top down and from the outside, reflecting the fact that most board members are external to the university. But it is essential that the discussions and decisions taken by the board take into account the views of researchers – to fail to do so would be for the board to only consider the external perspective.

In your opinion, what is AAU's biggest challenge?

The university is facing a number of immense challenges. We face external pressure, first and foremost financially. But we are also under pressure to make ourselves more relevant for society, our students, businesses and public organisations. The society to which we contribute is changing more rapidly than we traditionally are used to changing as an institution. We often think of ourselves as a highly dynamic university, but it is more likely the case that we are very slow to move with the times. This is perhaps because it can take up to ten years to establish a new research environment, and accordingly a long time to adjust our focus and activities. The greater the effort required to create and maintain a research environment, the greater the risk of stagnation, rendering it more difficult to work in an interdisciplinary perspective.

How can the identified challenge be addressed?

It is easy to say that we need to be better at managing our finances, but in my view,  this will not make a significant difference. In the long run, our only option is to maintain and improve the quality of our research, teaching and partnership with the world around us, as well as our ability and willingness to collaborate across subject areas. We must be open to external financing of our research, we must strive to better compete with other universities and we must prepare our master’s students for a changeable labour market. And we will be more likely to succeed in these efforts if we focus on the quality of our research and teaching and can manage to work together.

Why vote for you?

For one thing, I possess experience which spans the university as a whole, and I have also served on the board for the past two years. Secondly, because I will work to bring about two fundamental changes which I will place an extra focus on:

Openness when it comes to management and administration: A university is, at root, an open knowledge environment, and it plays to the university’s strengths to foster a culture of openness surrounding the university’s affairs, topical discussions, how decisions are reached, and by whom. Researchers and students have increasingly not been made privy to key information and have been excluded from participating in central decisions which demand input from all sides.
Constructive dialogue between management and staff: The university has seen constructive dialogue, most recently surrounding its current strategy; however, a series of 5-minute café discussions underplayed the impact of researchers and their opportunities for contributing to the dialogue. There are many other areas in which researchers can make a constructive contribution with their specialist knowledge and experience. For instance, many researchers have extensive knowledge of research-based collaboration with the business community - something which the university management could make good use of.

What is your key issue?

 In my next term as board member, there are also two particular areas I would prioritise:

The university’s new strategy: The current strategy, “Knowledge for the world”, runs through to 2021. This means that a new strategy will need to be devised in the course of 2021. The board will play a central role in devising this strategy, as it will be up to the board to approve the new strategy. Any new strategy should include a development strategy which allows us to improve as a university, deliver higher standards in every area of the university and maintain a focus on long-term goals without getting bogged down in specific tactics. The new strategy should be developed via an open process through a constructive dialogue between researchers, students and management.

The university’s digital transformation: The university is failing to keep up when it comes to digital transformation. Society as a whole, including our students and other universities, have made a great deal more progress than we have. The world around us presents a challenge. We need to catch up. But we also need to ensure that we do not simply use this as an excuse to streamline and rehash the things we already do. We need to aim higher than that, and we need to be in a position to utilise a range of information technologies to raise the bar when it comes to our research, our ordinary and continuing education programmes and our collaboration with businesses throughout the university.

Over and above these two areas, it has been my experience that changes to the environment in which the university exists, to the university management and to our approach to budgeting and budget models never fails to give rise to important discussions. In this context, it is crucial that the voices of researchers are heard when the board discusses such matters.