Noted critic of identity politics denied promotion at Stockholm University

Overruling the recommendations of independent referees, Stockholm University recently declined Johan Lundberg’s application for promotion to Full Professor. A noted public intellectual, Associate Professor Lundberg had, in a series of books and articles, criticized identity politics and postmodernist ideas. The university’s decision, which commentators perceive as being ideologically motivated, has put Swedish academia in a state of dismay.

Taking a critical stance vis-à-vis identity politics or other postmodern phenomena can be a risky business in Swedish academia. This was previously evidenced by a case at Malmö University, where a reorganisation was used as a pretext for dismissing Professor Göran Adamson, a Swedish sociologist educated at the London School of Economics noted for his politically incorrect research on multiculturalism. The case was documented by Academic Rights Watch on our Swedish website.

Before Adamson published his The Trojan Horse – A leftist Critique of Multiculturalism in the West (2014), Johan Lundberg, an Associate Professor  at Stockholm University, had published a similar book: The Enemies of Light: Western Self-criticism and the Swedish Debate, (2013), which cemented his role as a dissenting Swedish intellectual (our translations into English throughout). Postmodern thinkers, Lundberg believes, actively undermine the core values of enlightenment and Western civilization. Lundberg recently published The Last Museum, a book questioning the societal influence of identity politics.

In addition, Lundberg had previously figured in the media objecting to the dismantling of cultural science education at the university. A similar case, relating to Dick Harrison, a well-known Professor of History at Lund University, illustrates that the level of internal acceptance of this kind of criticism may be surprisingly limited. Harrison was silenced by his department after criticizing the lax standards by which students were allowed to pass history courses. Representatives of the university have publicly denounced the accusations.

Those acquainted with the Swedish academic system would agree that the conditions in place when Lundberg handed in his application for promotion to Full Professor in late 2016 could hardly have been less favourable.

Two independent referee reports were commissioned, both recommending promotion. Claes Ahlund, a Professor in Literature at Åbo Academy, wrote: “After having carefully studied his qualifications in relation to the requirements at Stockholm University, I have come to the conclusion that Johan Lundberg should be appointed Full Professor in Literature”. Professor Emeritus in Literature at Lund University Eva Haettner Aurelius reached a similar conclusion. Based on careful assessment, it was her “opinion that Johan Lundberg should be appointed to the level of Full Professor”.

But instead of routinely following, as is customary, the recommendation of the external experts, the Appointment Committee, in a surprising move, produced an evaluation report of its own. In this report, Lundberg is declared incompetent, scientifically as well as pedagogically.

The Committee’s report states that taking pedagogical courses at the university is an absolute requirement for being appointed Full Professor. Soon thereafter, it was documented by Academic Rights Watch that the Committee applies this principle selectively. The fact that one of his doctoral students had changed supervisor after Lundberg had submitted his application is, moreover, viewed by the committee as a significant negative fact, even though an assessment process, by academic standards as well as by Swedish law, must focus exclusively on the merits at the date of application.

The Committee’s report spends a suspiciously large amount of time criticizing Lundberg’s The Enemies of Light, although this popularly written book does not belong to his main literary works. The fact that it may not qualify as a work in Literature is, by the committee, turned into an argument against Lundberg’s general qualifications as a scholar in the discipline. The Committee does not mention the fact that Lundberg, even if The Enemies of Light is disregarded, has a significant list of other academic publications, including three monographies on literary figures.

An appointment committee does not have to slavishly accept the recommendations of external experts, but this only holds in cases where the external experts have not done a proper job. Nothing in the Committee’s report suggests that they have not done so. On the contrary, the experts have, in the words of the Committee itself, “carefully related their evaluations to the written guidelines of the Faculty”.

To make matters worse, the Committee had only one member with expertise in Literature. The other members came from other humanistic disciplines. Interestingly, on their faculty home pages, two members declare that their own research is influenced by gender and queer theory, respectively, i.e. areas of study whose practitioners Lundberg regards, in his book, as “the enemies of light”.

Following Lundberg’s complaint the Committee published a reply. As will be remembered, the disputed report stated that the experts had carefully followed the guidelines of the Faculty. This statement was now contradicted: “In the view of the Appointment Committee, it is evident that the experts, in order to be able to reach a positive verdict, have been forced to make a very wide and generous interpretation of the guidelines of the faculty and the university.”

Several senior academics have publically expressed outrage at the committee’s reply, which they view as a strategic attack on the external experts’ characters and reputation. In a touching act of support for Lundberg, an honorary doctor promptly removed his framed diploma from the wall, placed it in a letter, and returned it to Stockholm University. Academic Rights Watch reacted by issuing a statement advising scholars against accepting assignments as external referees at the university.

An unsettling circumstance is the fact that Lundberg was called to the Head of Department no less than four times in one month. Initially, the discussion concerned his application for promotion. Then, a few days later, the topic shifted to “complaints” regarding his lectures. (Academic Rights Watch has secured an audio recording confirming this). During the fourth discussion, Lundberg had the strong impression that the Department Head wanted him to withdraw his application for promotion.

The assessment of applications by independent external experts is a fundamental academic principle aimed at ensuring the highest possible standards and quality in research and teaching. Violating this principle opens up for appointment and promotion on ideological rather than scientific grounds, as the Stockholm case sadly illustrates. The result is that scholars become increasingly nervous about expressing their sincere views on, and conducting research in, politically sensitive matters. Thus, lack of respect for the academic appointment and promotion process jeopardizes another cornerstone of academic inquiry: freedom of speech.

The case of Johan Lundberg has been completely documented in several postings on Academic Rights Watch’s Swedish homepage.