Rollercoaster of life as head of department

Just before Christmas, his department lost out on a top international researcher, an investment worth over SEK 100 million. A month later, his group reported a major breakthrough in pheromone research.

Professor Christer Löfstedt, head of the Department of Biology, one of the largest departments at Lund University, features in the first of a series of articles on day-to-day academic leadership – an existence that has its ups and downs.

Christer Lofstedt o Glenn Svensson liten

Christer Löfstedt and his researchcollegue Glenn Svensson.

In Ekologihuset where Christer Löfstedt has his office, the mental distance feels greater than the actual kilometre to what he calls ‘town’ – Universitetshuset and the central administration – from which he receives “a load of edicts and announcements”.

A bit closer is the corridor where he has his research room and pheromone group – some of the 300 members of the staff of the Department of Biology.

“I was very critical of the merger that led to this big department”, he says. “I saw how much work was required to avoid the emergence of smaller departments within the large one. It was ironic that I was then asked to be the first head of department and got landed with everything.”

Whether he arrived like a whirlwind on that April day 35 years ago when he started as a doctoral student will remain unsaid. Over the years, he has gained a reputation as an outspoken critic of most things, from gender equality plans to research policy, both at local and central level. The concept of the ‘silent university’ is alien to him and he has his own blog, Spegellandet, where he develops his opinions.

“However, I am a fairly kind and practical person”, he says.

He is also able to embrace change, as he now seems quite pleased with his large department.

“We have six fairly loosely comprised units and it is good that the boundaries are not set in stone. Collaboration between research groups has increased.”

He thinks the department is a bit on the large side, but can also see benefits in terms of efficiency, stability and the possibility to prioritise.

He might know the names of all the staff at the department, but he’s not as good on faces.

“I’m not good at recognising people, so I say hello to everyone I meet. It’s a lot of greeting…”

At the department, most things are decentralised. He doesn’t want to be an authoritarian leader and doesn’t think that is necessary either.

“The people who work here are adults who, as a rule, know what’s best for them. This is also an elitist world and it has to be if we are to live up to the university management’s vision of being a world-leading university.”

Christer Löfstedt is pleased with his collaboration with the faculty management and thinks the management council works well. The council includes all the heads of department, including a couple whose departments are shared between the Faculty of Science and LTH.

“That’s not a problem – they think like natural scientists”, he says with a smile. “Our faculties have different roles and complement one another.”

And how does a natural scientist think?

“We are curious, analytical and critical.”

He is an advocate of allowing room for different opinions, and when asked how much room there is at the department, he reckons that everyone is free to say what they think.

“That doesn’t mean that everyone gets their own way. I’m not very interested in listening to lots of complaints either. However, I try to work to ensure that good suggestions for change can be realised.”

This is in line with what Christer Löfstedt regards as his most important task as head of department: giving researchers and lecturers the best possible conditions. He does this by maintaining a focus on its core operations.

“This means protecting the operations from the ‘evil’ that comes from above in the form of exaggerated regulation and all sorts of edicts. We get sent a lot of information about how we have to do this and that.”

Christer Löfstedt gives the example of a 17-page questionnaire that had to be completed, in which all infrastructure worth half a million kronor had to be documented, indicating how it was used and to what extent.

“The way I see it is that someone who doesn’t know how our department works thinks they have the right to my time – as if it were free. A questionnaire of this kind only guarantees a lot of meaningless, time-consuming work and poor quality results”, he says.

The head of a large department has a lot of matters to deal with, both large and small. Christer Löfstedt has a special flowchart for incoming tasks on a large whiteboard in his room, which he tries to follow.

“Things that can be dealt with in less than two minutes should be done immediately, and tasks that can be delegated should be passed on. It’s important not to grasp at everything, to filter things – and I haven’t had any reprisals yet”, he says.

Christer Löfstedt also gives himself enough time for his research. Recently, the pheromone group, of which he is part, made a breakthrough. For 25 years they have been searching for genes that are involved in the production of scents in moths. In a project carried out with colleagues from Alnarp, they inserted genes from different organisms into a relative of the tobacco plant. The plant produced moth scents. This means that plants can now be used as factories to produce pheromones, scents that can be used for environmentally friendly pest control.

“Recently we have published a number of articles in Nature, PNAS and Nature Communications, so the champagne corks have been flying quite often. Cake is also important. In the group we celebrate everything from passing an MOT to new babies and birthdays.”

However, just before Christmas the atmosphere was not as jovial at the Department of Biology. A top international researcher backed out of a job offer in Lund. It was an investment from the Swedish Research Council worth over SEK 100 million, but fell through at the last minute.

“It was a failure and meant that a lot of work was done unnecessarily. I am, and was, critical of this type of major investment in one person. If instead, SEK 1 million a year for ten years had gone to our ten best researchers, I am convinced it would have produced greater benefits”, says Christer Löfstedt.

Ten years ago, times were hard for research in Christer Löfstedt’s field. They joined forces with colleagues in Alnarp for a Linnaeus application that didn’t gain the support of the faculty management. Their colleagues in Alnarp went ahead without the Lund group and got the funding.

“That was frustrating, but the situation changed after an important couple of million kronor, good new colleagues and the graduate school in genomic ecology that we started thanks to a major grant.”

Four or five years ago, the pheromone group and Christer Löfstedt also receive a number of large grants of their own – and then he was asked to become head of department.

“There have been a couple of occasions when I have taken on administrative tasks, just when I have received major research grants. It also happened in the 1990s when I became head of division and assistant head of department.”

What is it about this type of position that attracts you?

“I am a strong believer in collegial leadership, and if you have the confidence of your colleagues you should take it up”, he says.

He is now in his second term as head of department and says he is also in favour of rotating leadership – so in 18 months’ time he is prepared to hand over the reins.

“I don’t like the leadership industry complex, so I am happy to set a good example and return to the core operations once I’ve done my duty.”

Text: Maria Lindh

Photos: Gunnar Menander

More about Christer Löfstedt:

Lives: In Galjevången in Lund

Family: Wife Kristina, a doctor, and four daughters, who have almost entirely flown the nest.

Interests: Nature, food and drink, reading and writing, tennis, DIY

Likes: Genuine people with a positive attitude

Dislikes: Injustice. When the rules of play are changed once the game is underway

Hopes for from the new university management: A focus on the core operations, clear financial boundaries for MAX IV and ESS, order and peace and quiet