A lucky coincidence brought him to the top

Jens Schollin

Jens Schollin sums up his career before leaving his duties at Örebro University.

It has been an exciting journey. Smashing fun! That is how Jens Schollin sums up his career before leaving his duties at Örebro University. And not surprisingly, he does it with the same enthusiasm and good humour that characterised his eight years as vice-chancellor.

Someone has said that one rarely meets an academic who possesses as much local patriotism as Jens Schollin. He often speaks of how well he enjoys his hometown. A fondness which is apparently mutual since he was recently named Örebroare of the Year.

“Initially I was a bit hesitant. Then I thought to myself, it would be for the good of the university. But to be honest, I never thought that a university vice-chancellor would stand a chance against a very popular goalkeeper on the local hockey team. A real delight and a true honour.”

But it has not always been so obvious that Örebro would be the place for him. A question that he would ask himself time and time again was, “Should we move?" 

The question has popped up every now and then, with obvious links to the development of the University Hospital (USÖ) and Örebro University.

The tide turned with the medical programme. It gave us renewed confidence ...

His birthplace of Örebro has not always radiated the optimism and good spirits which prevail today, as displayed by development curves and on the faces of people in Örebro. Jens Schollin sees a parallel to the University.

“How did things look eight to ten years ago? Örebro University was in the doldrums, confidence was low and outside support was almost non-existent.”

The view of the new universities was stamped by how the whole college-to-university transition came about. At first Örebro had been turned down, but then the government overruled the panel of assessors which had rejected the application. At that time, public opinion was not so jubilant for a new university.

“It takes time to turn things around. The tide turned with the medical programme. It gave us renewed confidence, something which has not been insignificant for the development of the city in general.”

It is not possible to elude the fact that Jens Schollin played a key role in the placement of a new medical school in Örebro. And again, a fact inevitably linked to the question, “Should we move?”

“I returned to Örebro in 1982 after medical school in Linköping. That I became a paediatrician was unexpected. Throughout my studies, my aims were on clinical chemistry, on becoming a laboratory doctor. But during one of my last courses of the undergraduate programme, concerning children, things finally fell into place, that this was what I was supposed to do.”

“There are so many things that are treatable in children, and you contribute to the well-being of the whole family. And kids are such great fun too!” 

His new mission

Jens Schollin – Always on the go

His commitment to helping sick children will continue when he assumes chairmanship of the Children's Cancer Foundation, to which he was appointed in late April. It was this, prior to the foundation’s annual meeting, that made everyone a bit curious when he with a certain delight talked about an exciting and interesting, but unfortunately secret mission.

“Which was also a way of warding off other inquiries,” says Jens. But now we are getting a little ahead of the story.

At what was then called the Regional Hospital (RSÖ), he took part in the development of children's care, particularly neonatal care, while remaining in touch with Linköping, where he completed his Ph.D. in 1988, with his thesis on heart valve infections in children.

“After I was appointed docent in 1990, the question of whether to stay in Örebro or not popped up again. What would happen in Örebro, what does the future hold?”

The answer – Schollin was made director of the Paediatric Clinic in 1991.

In 1995 Kjell Nilsson became hospital director at RSÖ. The crisis in the 90's had placed health care in a difficult position. Nilsson’s mission was to cut down by 20 percent, while at the same time he was charged with developing the hospital. And this is when the goal was set to start a medical school in Örebro. But establishing a medical school demands that the hospital has established research and conducts training.

“My colleague Jan-Erik Johansson and I made courting trips to woo medical students here. We were successful in Linkoping, we were able to attract more and more students, but we had to do more. Or should I move?”

Jens Schollin, who had been made professor, was appointed head of research, which was then organised as a medical faculty.

New efforts

“A major obstacle (of starting a new medical school) was that Örebro did not have university status. But this changed at the turn of the millennium and soon after RSÖ became USÖ, and the new university’s vice-chancellor, Janerik Gidlund, was actively interested in getting a medical school here,” said Schollin, putting things in perspective.

The recurring relocation question was finally answered in 2003 when Jens Schollin was made pro-vice-chancellor of the University, and the ties between the university and USÖ were strengthened. Work on an application for a medical school was done in 2006-2007. 

But the Agency for Higher Education saw that we had not given up. Indeed, we had recruited more scientists, developed the cooperation with Glasgow…

 “But our application was lacking a great deal. It was fragmentary, ideological, with not enough specifics, and in the end, controlled too much by many different interests. But okay, we were beginners.” 

It was after Jens Schollin was appointed vice-chancellor in 2008 and after preparations in the spring, that he sat down in his office with USÖ colleagues Ulf Tidefelt and Torbjörn Andersson, and together they wrote the new application, which was completed that summer.

“Even if it was very much improved, it was still rejected. With hindsight, we can establish that this was due to a general resistance to start more programmes, which had received considerable attention by the assessment panel that reviewed our application. However, we had developed our contacts within the sector and benefited greatly from the cooperation with Glasgow.”

In the third attempt, not much was changed.

“The resistance from Peter Honeth, the State Secretary at the Ministry of Education, was still strong. However, the National Agency for Higher Education saw that we hadn’t given up. Indeed, we had recruited more scientists, developed the cooperation with Glasgow... and we had a different assessor.”

Jens Schollin inaugurating Campus USÖ together with, among others, Marie-Louise Forsberg-Fransson.Jens Schollin inaugurating Campus USÖ together with, among others, Marie-Louise Forsberg-Fransson.

A memorable day

Jens Schollin remembers that day in March 2010 when the call came from the Ministry of Education and they said that the Minister of Higher Education and Research wanted to come to Örebro because he had something he wanted to share. 

“It wasn’t until then that we dared to hope that it could be a positive response. Because there wouldn’t be a fourth application, at least not from me.”

This decision, to grant Örebro University a medical school, brought with it the long-awaited answer to that recurring question of whether or not to stay in Örebro.

“I think you have a responsibility to give something back. But there has never been a quest for positions on my part, instead I see it more as a lucky coincidence that I ended up in a leadership position.”

Improved confidence

In the spring the first students will be graduating from the medical school, while at the same time Schollin will conclude his tenure as vice-chancellor, at a university with a much improved self-confidence than ten years ago. Not least evidenced by recent prominent placements on various rankings of Times Higher Education, which the vice-chancellor says is a testimony to the qualitative work of many of our researchers.

 “I believe one can say that the university has been successful. My strategy has always been to be attentive. There are always conferences to go to when you’re a vice-chancellor, but I wanted to discover the soul and opportunities here. A university is always in development, and the vice-chancellor is the final link in the chain of responsibility, a position that must be managed. At the same time, I also had an idea.”

Jens Schollin wearing the vice-chancellor chain at the University's annual celebration.Jens Schollin wearing the vice-chancellor chain at the University's annual celebration.

The idea has been to develop the professional degree programmes on offer with the help of good people who you can put your faith in.

But should a vice-chancellor interfere in the details?

“I'm very interested in everything going on at the university, but not driven by a need for control. On the otherhand, as vice-chancellor you cannot just let everything go, not everyone can do whatever they choose. I'm involved in the structure of things, how we give support, that new employees are familiar with the sector.”

“No one has as much freedom as a university and we have received greater autonomy, but we must also learn to manage it. A university must be a university. But leadership should be adapted to the situation. Being vice-chancellor in Uppsala is different than in Örebro.” 

The recent prominent placements on various rankings of Times Higher Education is testimony of good and qualitative work of many of our researchers

He sees a future in which research will be strengthened and international exchange will increase.

“The agreement with Aston University in Birmingham provides great opportunities for structured exchanges, for researchers and students, but also administratively, not least when it comes to possibilities for research funding from the EU.”

A matter of survival

Attracting funding for research is a matter of survival. Attempts at fundraising in the region has not been a tremendous success, but has created important contacts for the future. The Master of Science may not have the same significance nationally as the medical programme, but it has been of great importance regionally and for contacts here in the business community.

“Insight into the University's significance for the region is increasing and we are receiving greater support and understanding from the business community, something which I think will grow even stronger in the future.”

In his personal life, he is looking forward to being the master of his own time, not being controlled by others, and again being able to spend time with his grandchildren.

“I have my professorship for another year and will supervise in any case one doctoral student. And I also have my own research still waiting to be written, and for first time, I will be able to write in peace and quiet, not while on night or standby duty. My assignment at the Children's Cancer Foundation is very stimulating. And I have also received an offer from the Leadership Foundation in London, dealing with leadership issues in academia.” 

In other words, Jens Scholin's smashing fun journey looks set to continue.

TEXT: Lars Westberg
PHOTO: Kicki Nilsson/Icon