This is a personal story about the best three years of my professional life. It is a story about how I took up an exciting job in the Faroe Islands, and developed the first English master’s programme in the Faroes as well as a UArctic Thematic Network. It is, however, also a story about the precarious nature of academia today, structural challenges in Arctic societies, and why my story ends before it really began.
THE LAND OF MAYBE?
I first set foot in the Faroe Islands in 2014. My job was to develop a new master’s program called West Nordic Studies, Governance and Sustainable Development. I remember flying over the Faroes in perfect sunshine revealing the green islands and mountaintops below, piercing the calm North Atlantic Ocean. I had read somewhere that the Faroe Islands are also called “the land of maybe”, because circumstances (weather) always change, and things never really get done, especially new ideas. Leaving Copenhagen for a small city of less than 20,000 people and an even smaller university – and asking my wife to join me, even though we were not sure there would be a job for her – was a very big decision. Before applying and accepting the job, I had consulted with people like Oran Young and Leslie King who encouraged me to take this opportunity to actually develop something new and learn more than you could by reading books and papers. They were right. A maybe is not a no – it’s an opportunity.
The West Nordic Studies program is a two-year Joint Nordic Master with five universities, the other four being University of Greenland, University of Iceland, University of Akureyri, and Nord University. Each university would develop their own program profile and courses based on local strengths and expertise. My PhD studies had focused on governance of climate change, and I saw this new program as a way of adding more in-depth knowledge of Nordic and Arctic cases to my research. I also saw it as a chance to build a different kind of transdisciplinary master’s program, experimenting with pedagogical methods, focusing on sustainability as a crosscutting theme for all courses, and engaging students in practical questions of changing the society to be more sustainable. Some of the amazing projects that students came up with were a public art exhibition mixing professional art and elementary school kids’ art projects – all exploring the meaning of climate change – and a project developing an aquaponics system.
TO HAVE OR NOT TO HAVE FUNDING AND SUPPORT…
The university had secured initial funding through UArctic (from the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science), covering my salary for the first year, to develop and advertise the West Nordic Studies. One year later the university hired me more permanently, and we also got additional UArctic funding to hire a research and teaching assistant. The same funding would also help us develop a UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Coastal Communities for Sustainability. Being at a small university with few support functions, I took on several tasks to develop and implement the program. I would develop the curriculum and courses and also teach most of them, as there were only a few other relevant courses offered in English and not a lot of funds for external lecturers. I would develop a marketing strategy and end up being responsible for its implementation. I would often function as a student counselor and translator as well. It was a lot of work, but I actually liked being part of everything and close to all the new students, sharing their journey with them. I enjoyed the trust of the university to do all this, and took the freedom to experiment and follow my ideas.
THE THEMATIC NETWORK
Recognizing a need to focus on shared experiences and challenges across Arctic coastal communities, and based on existing activities and networks from my work with the West Nordic Studies, I developed a UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Coastal Communities for Sustainability. We began with Nordic and North American UArctic members, and later added Russian and Chinese members. The main activities were to further develop the West Nordic Studies; to establish a new PhD network; and to arrange regular dialogues and workshops with scholars, students, civil society, and public and private stakeholders. During the first year, we did a lot of work on the first and third issue. However, a string of simultaneous circumstances meant I had to stop developing the network, and also leave the Faroe Islands.
A SUDDEN END AND SOME RECOMMENDATIONS
In 2017, after two years, my wife still had not found a job, and we decided to return to Denmark. I kept working at the university half time and found a half-time postdoc in Copenhagen. I had no funds or time to further develop the Thematic Network, and to make things more difficult, the Faroese Parliament decided to significantly cut funding for the university from 2018. The internal consequences and new priorities made it impossible for me to keep the West Nordic Studies running at an acceptable level. So, in early 2018 I resigned, but kept an affiliation with the university to be able to supervise a PhD project I had created. After another year in Denmark with short-term postdoc projects, I finally gave up on an academic career. I now work as an international climate negotiator at the Danish Maritime Authority.
To avoid similar endings to the many good ideas and projects in the Arctic, some changes are needed. I hope that the small universities and communities in the Arctic will recognize the need and take steps to develop a “family package” to make it worthwhile to move or stay there with one’s family. It is also extremely important that parliaments and university managements allocate long-term funding for new activities and people.
These were still the best years of my professional life, and I hope these words can inspire others to further change the Arctic to become more sustainable.