Danish lecturer got sacked after not conforming on the war in Ukraine

The board at the People’s University of Copenhagen, Denmark, has canceled planned courses and fired the lecturer, after he publicly differed with required opinion on the war in Ukraine. The People’s University of Copenhagen, Denmark, is an educational institution founded in 1898 to ensure wider public access to science and research results, and therefore has no entry requirements and no examinations.

M.A. in History and History of Ideas Jens Jørgen Nielsen has been teaching courses there on Russia and Ukraine since 2014. In 2023, he was supposed to teach two courses on the two countries, but November 24, 2022, was Nielsen’s last day at work.

On November 8, he received a letter from the board of the People’s University, stating in the first paragraph that they had decided to cancel the two planned courses, and that the board had decided to “discontinue cooperation” with Nielsen.

The letter stated that Nielsen has a “highly unbalanced view of the conflict in Ukraine and its background.” In addition, the board pointed out that several unnamed colleagues did not want to teach at the People’s University as long as Nielsen was employed.

The only concrete criticism presented is plucked quotes from Nielsen’s book Ukraine i spændingsfeltet. Not one person from the board had ever attended a lecture by Nielsen.

Nielsen himself is puzzled by the board’s decision, telling the Danish media outlet Arbejderen that he was very conscious of distinguishing between expressing his own opinions in public and how he approached teaching, where he presents facts and different points of view. He added that the board could have invited him for an interview and asked for his views, but instead he has neither met nor spoken to the current board.

The avalanche against the Ukraine/Russia lecturer began in earnest after he appeared in an interview with a Russian state television program in September about the sabotage of the Nordstream 1 and 2 gas pipelines. “I was asked who could be behind this—and I said I thought the arrow pointed to the United States—because a few months earlier President Joseph Biden had directly stated that he would put an end to Nordstream 2 if Russia invaded Ukraine,” Nielsen says.

After the interview, four of Nielsen’s colleagues went to the board and gave them an ultimatum: “They let the board know that they wouldn’t be teaching if I was teaching too. Their only justification was that I had taken part in the interview on Russian TV about Nordstream 2, which had just been blown up. There was no criticism of my teaching.”

And indeed, there is little dissatisfaction to be found among participants in Nielsen’s courses. Arbejderen was able to get a hold of student evaluations of Nielsen’s latest course “Putin Seen from the Inside,” held last spring. In all cases, the students answered that they were “very satisfied” with the teacher’s professional level.

Eleven out of twelve students answered that they could “definitely” imagine enrolling in another course at the People’s University. One responded “possibly.”

Since his dismissal, Nielsen has received many expressions of sympathy—including from people who do not agree with him politically—but who support his right to hold his own views and to express them publicly.

“Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine has moved the fenceposts in terms of which discussions we can have. The corridors of opinion have narrowed. The slightest criticism of the Ukrainian government and of the West’s actions in relation to Russia is enough to be accused of spreading Russian disinformation or of acting in Putin’s interests. But the criticism I have of Western policy has nothing to do with doing Putin’s bidding,” remarks Nielsen.

He sees his dismissal as coming at a time when knowledge about Russia is generally lacking—and where the information about Russia that does emerge is one-sidedly anti-Russian.

“It’s scary. For the task of science is precisely to challenge the established ideas and the existing order. If we are to develop policy and be able to make the right decisions, we need to know what is going on. Otherwise, we’ll be making crazy decisions,” Nielsen warns.

The sacking of Nielsen comes after he and three other Danish researchers and commentators were branded “pro-Russian” in August by Ukraine’s Centre for Countering Disinformation—a part of the country’s National Security Council.

Arbejderen has confronted the chairman of the board at People’s University, Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, with Nielsen’s criticism. The chairman does not wish to be interviewed by Arbejderen, but has instead sent an e-mail in which he writes:

“JJN is of course entitled to have his own personal views on what is going on in Ukraine, but for the People’s University it is a problem if e.g. historical facts are denied, as happens in the book Ukraine i spændingsfeltet, where JJN calls it ‘a defensive step’ on Putin’s part to accept Crimea as part of Russia and writes that it is not true when the West and the Ukrainian government talk about Russia’s annexation of Crimea: ‘There are no reports that the Russian military attacked Crimea or any of the peninsula’s institutions. The initiative for the independence of Crimea came from the Crimean parliament.’”

He goes on:

“It is NOT the task of the board to monitor the work of our teachers, we must be content with assessing evaluations, listening to professionals, possibly reading various books and weighing various considerations against each other. Among the most important is that we should at all times be able to attract the best possible teachers for our students and ensure that the reputation of the People’s University is top notch. It is against this background that we are putting a new team in place to teach about Russia.”

It is clear that Nielsen’s participation in the democratic debate on the situation in Ukraine, and in the case of the sabotage of the Nordstream pipelines, has cost him his teaching position at the People’s University. But Nielsen has no regrets: “It is important to me that, in addition to my teaching, I have the right to have an opinion that I can express in public,” he declares.