Per Eriksson: “You have to dare to take risks sometimes if you want to make things happen”

He is checking out at the same fighting weight as when he checked in, and does the same number of push-ups (40!) now as he did then. He has been through several tough rounds and had to fight to defend his convictions and his views on the University’s development. Per Eriksson summarises his time as vice-chancellor as “six years of incredibly great joy, development, pressure and intensity”.

Per Eriksson, rektor för Lunds universitet från januari 2009.There was a period when good eating habits and exercise took a back seat, the scales showed ten kilos too many and a micro-clot reminded him of the fragility of life, even for him.

“I guess I had become careless about my blood pressure and got a little warning signal”.

Per Eriksson thinks that the most remarkable thing about his six years as vice-chancellor is the development and expansion that the University has undergone. LU has grown by 1800 new employees and SEK 2.4 billion in annual turnover. He often points out that this increase is greater than “the whole of Linnaeus University or the whole of Malmö University”. The expansion concerns research – and only that.

“When it comes to the volume of undergraduate education, Sweden has lost international competitiveness. That is why I have doggedly fought for more study places. They are finally being announced and I hope we will get a considerable number of them”, he says.

For Per Eriksson, the greatest success is the construction of new student housing thanks to new regulations for which he managed to obtain government approval, together with the municipality and University accommodation agency, AF Bostäder. After that comes the realisation of MAX IV and ESS. He is particularly happy that the University’s finances concerning these facilities are in order, something he has worked on since spring 2009. He also mentions the creation of Medicon Village and cooperation within Lärosäten Syd and the Research and Innovation Council Skåne, FIRS.

It is precisely this type of collaboration which has earned Per Eriksson a certain amount of internal criticism, as well as praise. People worry that “all” the money is going to major facilities. His commitment to the cause of the homeless, to student housing and other areas beyond the traditional sphere of the vice-chancellor in Lund has also been called into question.

“This is about people’s view of the role of a vice-chancellor. It is more than an internal leadership role, obviously you have to contribute to societal development. Not participating in wider society is not to take your role as a vice-chancellor seriously”, he says with conviction.

He also thinks there is a lot to learn from the way in which higher education institutions in Stockholm and Gothenburg work on strategic alliances with business and wider society; in his view, Lund University, in comparison, works mostly on a project level.

He does not worry about not being universally popular.

“I act openly and transparently; I chose to follow my convictions as to what I believe was best for Lund University”, he says.

He emphasises, however, his gratitude for what he calls the working marriage with the deputy vice-chancellors, first Eva Åkesson and now Eva Wiberg, with whom he shares leadership.

“They have been and remain extremely valuable to me. And I am also very grateful for the good collaboration with the pro vice-chancellors, the head of the University administration, the deans and the students.”

Per Eriksson has also been questioned in the media. His career as vice-chancellor got off to a flying start with a lot written about his Christian faith. How to reconcile faith with science – that was a question he was asked time and time again.

“I mainly felt strengthened by that media storm; in addition, it emerged that many outstanding researchers are practising Christians. The media furore also made me better known, both as vice-chancellor of Lund University and as a Christian”, he says.

The next storm was worse, calling into question his eligibility as a professor and his role as a supervisor of doctoral students.

“That was tough from a personal point of view – here my honour was questioned along with the management of the Faculty of Engineering. One constantly learns about how the media work and that episode diminished my trust in them, in particular in the Sydsvenskan daily newspaper to which my wife and I no longer subscribe”, he says.

There were more headlines after the latest board meeting in which Per Eriksson asked for a budget increase of SEK 40 million. He agrees that budgets should be maintained and he himself proposed that the board should “register its criticism of the vice-chancellor” but still uphold the request. The board decided to approve the budget increase; in addition the vice-chancellor was able to announce that SEK 82 million are now being released by the government towards the University’s financial responsibility for ESS. In general, Per Eriksson believes you should dare to take risks sometimes if you want to make things happen.

“We all know that the difference between great success and failure can be a hair’s breadth. There can be no strong development without some occasional failure”, he says.

At the time of his appointment, one of Per Eriksson’s goals was to increase the University’s visibility, not least in Stockholm where he opened an “embassy” – an LU branch. The idea was to involve more people in national development and for them to have their own premises from which to operate. This worked well until the landlord, the Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis, moved. Now the embassy is closed.

“I still frequently go to Stockholm, as do many others, to take part in various meetings.”

But he makes no secret of the fact that the geographical distance from the capital is a problem – “we don’t have our people there”. This is noticeable, not least in our lack of influence over policy and also in grants from VINNOVA, for example. Here Lund University is still quite a bit behind the Royal Institute of Technology, Karolinska Institutet and Chalmers. Cooperation with Copenhagen and Denmark has not lived up to Per Eriksson’s hopes either. The Öresund region is hard to work with, not least because of many border barriers.

Tuition fees for non-EU students were also introduced during Per Eriksson’s time as vice-chancellor. In this field, Lund University has been the most successful in the country in recruiting students and creating scholarships; it is in the process of closing the gap created by lost enrolments after the reform. The welcoming of international students is one of Per Eriksson’s absolute favourite events.

“They are radiant and you get to hear how the opportunity to come and study here has changed their whole life. It is fantastic.”

In his continued career at Lund University, Per Eriksson would like to work with “Bostad först” (“Housing First”), alumni activities and fundraising as well as increased external interaction. He is at the disposal of the new management for the following year and a half.

Text: Maria Lindh

Photo: Gunnar Menander

A FEW ACHIEVEMENTS AND UNFINISHED BUSINESS, IN BIEF …

Achievements (and participation)

Expanded the University by 1800 employees and SEK 2.4 billion in research

Launched Max IV and ESS

Initiated new student housing and brought about changes in regulations affecting land and leasing

Got the government to reintroduce the right to directly appoint professors

Initiated Lärosäten Syd

Developed innovation activities including FIRS and Medicon Village

Unfinished business

New study places – but they are underway

Development of collaboration with Denmark and the Öresund region

Opening welcoming doors on the Main University Building with inner glass doors

Acoustics and sound system in the University assembly hall (Aulan) and Pelarsalen

Changing the gravel surface on the University square in Lundagård park.