As I’m nursing an upset stomach, what better way to spend some time than to look into the illustrious career of Helge Sander, the former Danish Minister of Science. Sander, as you may have forgotten, held the portfolio from November 2001 to February 2010 and it would be an understatement to say that he was unloved by the Danish scientific community. I suspect that more than one university professor is enjoying the fact that his reputation will be forever linked with that of Milena Penkowa.
But why did Sander become so loathed among the scientific community and if he was such a terrible minister, how did he get into office in the first place? I will argue that the two questions are linked and to prove my point, let us first look at how you become a government minister.
Obviously, if you are the party leader you belong in government. If you are the leader of the largest party in a coalition government, you (almost) automatically become prime minister and as a rule a) the prime minister prefers to have the other party leaders in the tent p***ing out rather than standing outside p***ing in, to use Lyndon B. Johnson’s formulation. I can only think of one exception in recent Danish history: Erhard Jakobsen stayed outside the “four-leaf clover” government between 1982 and 1987 and it was a sign of the beginning cracks in the coalition when he took up a Mickey Mouse-portfolio in 1987-1988. Conversely, Olof Johansson left Carl Bildt’s four-party coalition shortly before the election in 1994 and even if it was on an eccentric excuse, it precipitated the Centre Party’s change of allegiances during the 1994-1998 parliamentary term.
If we look at the present government: Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Lars Barfoed, Lene Espersen (2008-2011), Bendt Bendtsen (2001-2008).
Second, you can be a major political talent and perhaps even a future party leader. If your party is in government, departemental experience is definitively an asset and – let’s face it – it is also an advantage for the party leader if potential competitors are bogged down in the day-to-day businesses of a government department.
The present government: Lars Løkke Rasmussen (2001-2009), Kristian Jensen (2004-2010), Troels Lund Poulsen (2007-today), Lene Espersen (2001-2008), Brian Mikkelsen (2001-today).
Third, you can be a safe pair of hands. Not a coming party leader, but somebody with a reasonable set of ideas and first and foremost administrative competence. Somebody who will not get your department into the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Classical cases were Erling Jensen (Social Democrats) and Knud Enggaard (Liberals) who were able to make entire policy areas – even controversial ones – disappear from the public view and who for exactly that reason enjoyed distinguished political careers.
The present government: Per Stig Møller (2001-today), Benedikte Kiær (2010-today), Claus Hjort Frederiksen (2001-today).
At this point, things get more complicated. The pool of talents is not inexhaustible but a) there are still positions to fill and b) political constituencies to consider. So representing a constituency which is considered important to cater to, will help you get into office – and obviously this is where Helge Sander fits in.
Nobody could accuse him of being a major political talent (even if he managed to become mayor of Herning) but he did have a following in Mid and Western Jutland both of which are important areas for the Liberal Party. His main engagements have been in the sports world so Culture would have been an obvious choice of portfolio – but unfortunately that one was reserved by the Conservative Party. Education would have been another option but at the time Ulla Tørnæs was considered a bigger political talent. So, what minor portfolios do we have? You’ve guessed it: Science. And as it was, the government had big plans about creating elite this-and-that in research and higher education and Sander had a background in promoting elite sports. A perfect fit, no?
When evaluating Sander’s performance, we also have to take into account that the ideas behind the new legislation which did away with professional self-government and instead turned universities into top-down controlled mastodons weren’t particularly Danish or even limited to higher education. The “Sander model” fitted nicely with general New Public Management ideas about the organisation and running of public policies – “market-like” competition for funding, an emphasis on strong managers rather than professional norms – and were more likely thought out in the Finance Ministry. We can also see similar developments in other countries such as Sweden or the UK. The question is if the development would have been much different under a Social Democratic government.
The big difference between Science and, say, Agriculture is that the Liberal Party never felt the need to be responsive to the sector. After all, agriculture is still a central constituency for the Liberals and a Minister for Agriculture (under whatever name) cannot allow him- or herself to ignore the interests of the community. Science and higher education is very small and – despite all babble about “Denmark as a leading knowledge economy” – insignificant in comparison. On the political arena, any complaints from the
ivory towers community can be safely ignored.
So to sum up: Sander was placed in the Ministry of Science to execute the policies designed by the Ministry of Finance, he was never – and never intended to be – a partner of the scientific community but concentrated on and enjoyed running his own little fiefdom. The question – which I cannot answer – is if he positively broke the rules in the process.
PS: An earlier post about the Danish university reforms. And danglish – another of Sander’s elite legacies.