Open letter to NTNU’s Rector and Board:
Transparency and trust, please!
«Ensuring that the people most affected by a decision are involved in all stages of the decision-making process will help prevent situations like the present one from occurring in the future.» is one of the requests from the writers of this letter.
The purpose of this letter is to express the concerns of the undersigned employees at the Department of Engineering Cybernetics (ITK) at NTNU, relative to the recent process of hiring the new head of department, including the manner this process was conducted and communicated by the IE Faculty.
Our current head of department (HoD) has been employed in his position for almost eight years now, and it came as a shock to us to find out that he would not continue. We know him as highly committed to the department, NTNU and its students. Under his leadership the department has flourished, which in addition to his highly recognized position both scientifically and personally, makes this decision incomprehensible. Indeed, it has been impossible to find any convincing answer to this fundamental question: Why?
From our perspective, the decision-making process is lacking transparency to an unusual degree for an academic environment. Even more concerning, the information available to us suggests that the process of the ranking of the candidates may have been contrary to the qualification principle. We are aware that Tekna have raised similar concerns.
Since, despite our efforts, the correspondence with the faculty so far has not been fruitful and has not dissipated these concerns, we take the initiative by sending this as an open letter to the NTNU management, hoping that this matter will be taken into consideration.
We remark that the intent of this letter is not to express concerns about the person that has been appointed as new head of department, but rather to express our concerns about the selection process itself.
Read the answer from dean Ingrid Schjølberg at the Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at the bottom of the article.
ITK’s evolution and achievements the last eight years
To better contextualize our concerns, we list our perspectives about the achievements of the department in the past eight years. In this period ITK has exceeded the records with regards to research activities, publications, and dissemination compared to previous years. The permanent scientific staff at ITK was doubled, record numbers of both Master’s and PhD candidates have graduated, the popularity of our studies as well as their entry requirements have risen dramatically, and the gender balance has been improved among permanent staff, PhD candidates and students. The department has developed innovative and cutting-edge new research directions and courses. All of this has been according to the department’s own strategy and actions plans, which are well aligned with NTNU’s strategies at all levels. Moreover, the department scores on the work environment polls have been high.
ITK’s progress has been mirrored by having been awarded numerous research projects and centers, including the recent Center for Autonomous Ships (SFI Autoship) and a recently awarded and highly prestigious ERC Advanced Grant. ITK has also established extensive ongoing collaborations across the faculty and department boundaries. Over the past eight years, ITK has collaborated with over 100 academic institutions and over 40 companies from all over the world. Since 2015, nine spin-off companies have been established.
It is our opinion that these impressive achievements in a short time are the result of an excellent collaborative environment that was promoted and scaled up by a fully engaged department head.
Recent facts, the way they were presented to us
As a first event, we were informed that a new HoD had been employed for ITK. In that announcement the IE Faculty Dean stated that all regulations had been followed and that all hirings were unanimous [15.03.2021].
An e-mail was then sent from the current HoD to all ITK affiliates, where he raised concerns about the selection process, and implied that in his opinion the qualification principle had not been followed [17.03.2021].
An e-mail from one member of the recruitment committee, where information was provided that the recommendation made by the recruitment committee (innstillingsutvalg), headed by the Dean, was not unanimous [18.03.2021].
Following this event, in a dialogue meeting with the IE Dean, she started by applauding the current HoD for his excellent work. Given this praise, it was even more difficult to understand why he did not get to continue in his position. Moreover, in this meeting all requests for information regarding the selection process were turned down. The Dean stated that all information around the process is confidential, and that her role in the process was simply that of being the faculty board secretary [18.03.2021].
An article at Universitetsavisa describing some points of view of the persons involved appeared on 25.03.2021. Two weeks later, this article was followed by an email sent by the IE Faculty Dean to all the employees at ITK where she ensured that the HoDs complaint was being handled by the IE Faculty through an external law firm [12.04.2021].
Meanwhile, various employees at ITK started numerous discussions in different internal informal groups, which led to a formal request to the ITK leader group for a dedicated department meeting where the issue could be presented and discussed in a more structured manner. At that meeting we became aware of some facts related to the selection process that revealed aspects of grave importance [13.04.2021]. Some of them are:
- During the time period when the current HoD’s own application to continue was being evaluated by the recruitment committee lead by the Dean, she repeated an earlier request for rapidly transferring her professorship from another department to ITK. In other words, this led to both parties playing a key role in each other's employment matters. Did this constitute a conflict of interest for the Dean? And did this exert an unacceptable pressure on the current HoD to comply with her request?
- Why did the faculty update the evaluation documents to the faculty board on the evening before the board meeting, with changes that are still unknown to the members of the recruitment committee?
- We hold it to be indisputable that the performance of ITK (as briefly summarized above) has been very good under the present HoD. His qualifications and competence as a HoD are therefore outstanding. Other factors must therefore have been considered by members of the recruitment committee and the Faculty board. What are these factors?
- In public employment processes one expects the evaluation criteria to be well known and generally accepted by all parties involved. In this case, the criteria that have been applied are unclear even to the current HoD. This puts the employment process in an unfavorable light. What are the underlying reasons for this policy?
- Who has the legal and moral responsibility for fair treatment in this recruitment process?
With this letter, we the undersigned attempt to live up to NTNU’s values as presented on https://www.ntnu.edu/vision-values-social-mission-key-challenges-and-main-objectives:
We are critical to the hiring process: From our perspective, the aforementioned information suggests that the hiring process for the new HoD at ITK lacked integrity. In a modern public university such as NTNU, we expect transparency and trust to be key pillars that we can rely on. Since this case may jeopardize trust in the faculty leadership, we find it necessary that NTNU’s leaders take this case seriously.
We respectfully make the following constructive requests.
Investigate in depth the validity of the ITK HoD hiring process, in terms of the qualification principle, potential conflicts of interest and abuses of power.
Ensure that the ongoing investigation process is impartial and the report is openly available to the employees of the department. The Dean's e-mail from 12.04 suggests that the complaint is handled by the faculty itself. How is this possible when the faculty's role in the whole process is under investigation?
Start a dialogue at all levels with the aim of updating NTNU policy and practice around important decision making processes. Ensuring that the people most affected by a decision are involved in all stages of the decision-making process will help prevent situations like the present one from occurring in the future.
Assoc. Prof. Jo Arve Alfredsen
Assoc. Prof. Morten Omholt Alver
Assoc. Prof. Trond Andresen
Assoc. Prof. Edmund F. Brekke
Assoc. Prof. Torleiv H. Bryne
Assoc. Prof. Anders L. Fougner
Assoc. Prof. Martin Føre
Prof. Sebastien Gros
Researcher Kristoffer Gryte
Prof. Morten Hovd
Prof. Tor Arne Johansen
Assoc. Prof. Anastasios Lekkas
Innovation manager Jan Onarheim
Assoc. Prof. Morten Dinhoff Pedersen
Prof. Adil Rasheed
Assoc. Prof. Annette Stahl
Prof. Damiano Varagnolo
The dean at the Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering, Ingrid Schjølberg, have read this letter. She refers to a previous article about the employement, and points out than an independent investigation into the subjects already is being done by the law firm Simonsen Vogt Wiig. Schjølberg wishes to make no further comments until the law firm has delivered their final report.