Professor: “Swedish universities are like cults”

Published 20 February 2024
- By Editorial Staff
Bo Rothstein and the Linnaeus University campus in Kalmar.

One of Sweden’s most famous political scientists, Bo Rothstein, is highly critical of the lack of academic freedom in Swedish universities.

He says they are “characterized by a kind of almost clannish or tribal orientation”, where dissenters or critics are rarely given space, and where those who disagree risk being slandered or harassed.

Less than a year ago, Linnaeus University in Småland advertised a position that required applicants to embrace far-left ideas such as “norm criticism, decolonialism, feminism, queer theory and post-growth theories”.

Rothstein ironically applied for the position – mainly to see if his long-standing academic credentials qualified him for the position, or if ideological obedience and orthodoxy were the deciding factor, and if he would be fired if his research came up with the “wrong” results.

When his application was highlighted in the national media, he withdrew it and offered instead to be a visiting professor without pay – where he would lecture on the autonomy of research. The university accepted, and all seemed well – until Rothstein read the university’s response to the Swedish University Administration about academic freedom and the culture of dismissal. This did not mention at all the announcement of the “norm-critical” and “queer-theoretical” position, which was the whole reason for Rothstein to come and lecture in the first place.

“I see it as a less than honorable and almost fraudulent action on the part of Linnaeus University not to take up this example of a clear restriction of freedom of research that I have noticed in the mass media. The formulations used as described above have no bearing on the actual actions of Linnaeus University. For me, this means that Linnaeus University must be regarded as irredeemable when it comes to a serious discussion about academic freedom. Therefore, my promised stay to discuss this issue is a waste of time for me”, he wrote in an email to the department.

No critical voices

In the podcast Under all kritik (Beneath all criticism) with Ivar Arpi and Anna-Karin Wyndhamn, the political scientist develops his view of the Swedish university world and argues that there is no pure “cancellation culture” in the strict sense of the word – because no one needs to be “cancelled” or canceled, since universities already practice extensive self-censorship and dissenters are never invited in the first place. He also likens colleges to a cult.

– I’m very inspired by a man named Jonathan Cole, who wrote a fantastic book about the American Ivies. He was the president of Columbia and a major figure in that. One of the things he says is that academic freedom is the cornerstone of what legitimizes what we do in academia.

Rothstein points out that the greatest threat to academic freedom comes from academics themselves and from self-censorship, where only those who think alike and “right” are allowed to come forward or be invited.

– The Swedish university system in large parts, not everywhere, is characterized by a kind of almost clannish or tribal orientation, where you very rarely invite people who have even breathed criticism of what you are doing, and then no one can be fired because no one is invited.

Similar thinking is rewarded

He points out that the same tendency to create a closed and sectarian environment that does not tolerate questioning is found not only in radical left fields such as gender studies and post-colonialism – but also in economics and religious studies.

– They don’t want to be confronted with critics, but they want to create a closed environment where like-mindedness is rewarded. It also has to do with the way our university system is structured, where, unlike the US, England and Germany, for example, we have very extensive internal recruitment.

– This means that you create a very strong internal environment where you are taught from your time as a student how equal thinking should work in this environment, and this means that you try to keep critics as far away as possible. They should preferably be slandered and bullied internally, he continues, adding that this is something that is never discussed or problematized internally.

Rothstein, who has a Jewish background, was a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg until 2021, when he retired. He has also been a professor at Oxford University and a visiting scholar at several international universities, including Harvard in the US.

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