The Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture 20230223

Madam Deputy Secretary-General
Your excellencies
Distinguished guests

In 1954 Dag Hammarskjöld held a speech at the University of California. Almost seventy years have passed since then, but I can’t help thinking that some of his words could also have been said today.

Of course, the context at that time was somewhat different. The Secretary-General was talking about the years and challenges after the Second World War and the sacrifices and efforts that were necessary in that period. But then he said:

When I speak of the high price of peace, I am not thinking of the burden of armaments. That is in the picture of course. But I am thinking primarily, of the price in terms of the demands upon our capacity for patience and for steadiness of purpose. The process of learning to live together without war in this torn and distracted world of ours is going to continue to be painful and a constant challenge for the rest of our lives. Yet we know what the choice is. Either We manage it or we face disaster.

Steadiness of purpose. Why are we here?

At our University in Uppsala, we want to assist in the efforts that Dag Hammarskjöld worked so hard to set in motion. We want to be a constructive listener, a centre for knowledge where perspectives and cultural differences can interact and be heard. We want to acknowledge our shortcomings and occasional prejudices openly and fearlessly so we can overcome our pride, get to the core of the conflicts across our world and do all we can to contribute to solutions.

That is our purpose in this.

And we must succeed, or else face disaster.

After the Second World War, nuclear weapons scared humanity – that was the disaster to which Hammarskjöld was referring.

Today we are in a similar situation yet again. The tensions between the communist world and the west, which Hammarskjöld managed as best he could, are no longer what they were. They are now, generations later, often distorted and blurred memories of a time passed, that some miss and others want to forget. We have leaders who use history as a justification, nationalism as motivation and fear as fuel – in that fuel also nuclear disaster might be brewing.

Last year we inaugurated the Alva Myrdal Centre for Nuclear Disarmament. The centre offers an important new angle that will contribute new expertise and knowledge to our peace and conflict research. This shows steadiness of purpose.  

And so does this lecture. It is a great privilege to stand here today as Vice-Chancellor of Uppsala university and to welcome you – Deputy Secretary-General Ms. Amina J. Mohammed – to our Grand Auditorium in which our great alumnus also met the students and colleagues of his Alma Mater during his time here.

In the speech I quoted, Dag Hammarskjöld took a humble approach to what the United Nations could accomplish. He was sure of his mission, but painfully aware of the obstacles and finished his speech like this:

It has been said that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven but in order to save us from hell. I think that sums up as well as anything I have heard both the essential role of the United Nations and the attitude of mind that we should bring to its support.

I can only agree.

A warm welcome to you all. I now give the floor to Professor Peter Wallensteen.

Winter Conferment Ceremony 20230127

Mr County Governor of Uppsala
Mr County Governor of Gotland
Former Vice-Chancellors
Madam Chair of the University Board
Mr Chair of Uppsala Municipal Council
Honorary doctors
New doctors
Esteemed guests

I would like to begin by addressing each and every one of our new honorary doctors and new doctoral graduates directly and thanking you as personally as it is possible to do from a rostrum.

My heartfelt congratulations, and those of the University, on your new status, on your personal passage through the eye of the needle, on earning the title of doctor or honorary doctor at Uppsala University, the first university in the Nordic region. I welcome you today with appreciation and pride. I hope you all feel it.

I would also like to thank each and every one of you for your contributions to research, for carrying the heritage forward, for helping to advance science and scholarship and being champions of knowledge. The breadth of your – new doctoral graduates’ – work promises well for the future and encompasses, among other topics, studies on:

  • The Hebrew Bible in Swedish media
  • Cyber operations
  • Migration
  • Same-sex marriage and partnership
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Human intestines
  • Anabolic steroids
  • Knitting patterns
  • An oasis in the Libyan Desert
  • Linguistic style among Finland-Swedes
  • Mining futures in Sweden
  • Gender equality and conflict
  • Drawing science
  • Thin-film solar cells

It is difficult to grasp how many aspects of our world you can explain in depth between you.

I would also like to thank you for conducting your studies at Uppsala University and thereby doing your Alma Mater such a great service. You have enriched us and strengthened our position in the world. Thank you for all these things.

Today we are united in our feeling of pride and joy – all the faculties with their new doctoral graduates and honorary doctors. One university – in Latin, universitas, a whole. A vast array of knowledge is assembled in this room. However, other qualities unite us, apart from our University, our being gathered here in the same auditorium, and our common humanity. What do we all share? And by the way, I would like to include everyone here in this auditorium, supervisors, degree conferrers, friends, family members. What do we have in common?

My answer comes with a hope. I believe and hope that we can agree that we have curiosity in common, that we all desire to learn more and understand more about what makes our world tick. We are not all interested in everything, but I can guarantee each and every one of us has a special interest in some aspect of the world – this applies to our new doctoral graduates at least. I think we can also agree that the scientific method – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – the methodical proof of an idea, is a working model that we approve of and embrace. Finally, though, I believe there is one more thing that is relevant in this connection and that we share: doubt.

Having supervised a fair number of doctoral students, I have learned along the way that regardless of previous experience and personal maturity, no one escapes the sickly pallor of doubt. At some point while working on their thesis, every doctoral student goes to see their supervisor after a sleepless night with the question: “Is what I’m doing any good?”

There is a desperation in these words with a deeply existential subtext. Anyone who has heard this question knows that it has several components. Do my findings have any scientific or scholarly value? Are my insights really new? Can I justly make the claims I do? Do my arguments hold up? Are my claims interesting? Will I be exposed as an impostor? And above all these questions hovers the most important: Am I good enough?

Does this feel familiar?

As a supervisor I then find myself in a new position. The agonised doctoral student has given me a task that is not just academic. Instead, it is a question of restoring the doctoral student’s self-belief and explaining calmly and methodically that what they are doing is good, as long as it is. Correcting what is wrong can probably wait. The important thing is to listen and be supportive, so as to help put their work back on track.

But doubt is something we can probably never be rid of.

Uppsala University pledges in its mission statement that we will contribute to a better world. I have no desire to change this formulation, but we are certainly all liable to feel that some of our working days do not contain any very significant contributions to improving the world. On days when doubt has already reared its head, these kinds of thoughts can leave us feeling downhearted and out of sorts.

On days like that, I try to find something to cheer me up. I might get a smile, for example, out of Tage Danielsson’s well-expressed assertion: “Without doubt, you don’t really know what you’re talking about.”

I believe he’s onto something important. Beyond the essential ambiguity and humour, something resonates, there’s a depth that touches on a fundamental truth. Perhaps that’s precisely what makes it funny, by the way.

A person who feels no doubt about their abilities or their allegedly brilliant conclusions isn’t really quite right. I mean: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. That was one of the ideas I just claimed we had in common, wasn’t it? I had the impression you agreed. If you did, you surely also agree that this method includes questioning our assumptions and analysing the real knowledge content. By questioning ourselves and others, by thinking it over once more and seeking to analyse, we verify and confirm our results. With this awareness, with this approach, perhaps we can also be a bit kinder towards ourselves when doubt sets in. Because seen this way, questioning is part of the process and a necessary condition for all progress. Your doubt, your sleepless nights, your agonising have brought you here today. You’ve reached your destination, you can alight on the platform. This stage of your journey is over and you can stop feeling doubtful about your achievement.

And remember this: the whole University, supervisors, colleagues, external reviewers, all those who have followed your progress and seen what you have done, have come to the same conclusion after examining your arguments, listening to your reasoning, and reading your texts. You really do know what you’re talking about, there’s no doubt about it.


Hugo Valentin, 20230125


Personal morality is complex. It is developed over a long period and influenced by so many factors that it is likely impossible to dissect it fully. But if we try nevertheless, we soon reach the conclusion that our upbringing and culture are the main components, with major roles being played by our ability to empathise, our self-confidence that influences our moral courage, our religion or lack thereof, our social status and understanding of the world around us.

In every period of repression, the objectification of the ‘other’ has always been crucial in suppressing moral warning signs. This reasoning is based on the idea that if a person is not part of our culture, is of a different kind, does not belong to our social sphere or does not share our belief, there is nothing to say that it is a person for whom it is worth feeling empathy. In the most extreme case, even the value of being human is removed from the enemy or the victim, leaving no obstacles in the way for most people. Morality is crippled.

Such strategies were developed extensively under the reign of the Nazis, and today we recognise and criticise them while using those same strategies in other contexts in our view of the ‘other’ in conflicts closer to home. We rationalise our actions by distancing ourselves from the person; by viewing them as representative of a philosophy and choosing to only see what’s on the surface.

I believe we all need to reflect on these issues on a regular basis. We need to reconsider our view of other people and our perception of the world around us and analyse why we are more interested in people we don’t know who are suffering geographically close to us than in people suffering a long way away. What is our personal responsibility? What can we do to see the person underneath it all?

Today we are going to be listening to Renée Poznanski, Professor Emerita of History at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

During this nineteenth Hugo Valentin lecture, she will discuss her research on the reasons why fewer Jews from France were killed than from other surrounding countries in the war. What led to fewer Jews being sent to concentration camps under Vichy France than under other neighbouring countries’ governments?

Could it have been the case that indoctrination failed to grip the French to the same extent, and that the French felt more empathy for the Jews than other countries as they continued to view them as an integrated group of the French nation?

As Vice-Chancellor of Uppsala University, I am thrilled to welcome you here today and I thank you for sharing your expertise with us.

A warm welcome to all of you who have come to listen too.

Thank you!

Inauguration of Professors 20221122

Mr County Governor
Former Vice-Chancellors
Madam Chair of the University Board
Professores installandi
Honoured guests

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. These words from Kris Kristofferson’s song, interpreted by Janis Joplin, often come into my head when I think of the word ‘freedom’. In that text, freedom means being without commitments, without ties: that is what makes a person completely free. When nothing matters anymore, there is nothing to hold you back. Perhaps that is total freedom. Desirable for some, often romanticised – actually rather lonely and sad.

When we talk about freedom in academia, however, we have something else in mind.

What we talk about is responsible freedom, the freedom of self-determination within certain limits. Though it may not be as cool, this too is a kind of freedom. If Joplin’s freedom means burning the candle at both ends, academic freedom is an energy-efficient light bulb – freedom with responsibility.

Yet academic freedom is a wonderful thing. It’s a kind of contract. Those of us who desire – and who should receive – this kind of freedom know that it does not entitle us to behave however we want. We can’t just head for the Californian sunshine and hope for the best. No; we pledge to devote ourselves to our field of expertise, using the resources at our disposal, within the time we have set. These are rather strict parameters. What we want is the right and the opportunity to think critically – to examine, comment and discuss – without limits. We want to be able to determine completely independently the focus and direction of our research, and on top of that, we need the right to pursue it wherever it leads us. For even if research is a partly predictable process, the point in fact is that we cannot know in advance what will surprise us and capture our interest. That’s precisely why we do it. The kick of discovering the unexpected, which could perhaps lead to answers to questions that we were not always aware we were going to ask. That is the kind of freedom we are talking about.

Dear friends, we are now about to inaugurate new professors here at Uppsala University – all these colleagues who, in their new position, will shape our future for a long time to come. New professors, I hope you have pondered the meaning of this freedom that we seek, and to some extent possess. I would like you to reflect on how you, as leaders in your respective fields, can give your colleagues and the doctoral students you meet as much freedom as possible. This, after all, is the best gift you can give.

This insight came home to me a few years ago when I was at a symposium in memory of one of our Nobel Prize winners, Arne Tiselius. A cheerful pensioner who had been one of his doctoral students told me that a few years into his research, he had come up with a new idea. Seized with enthusiasm, the young doctoral student had set off in pursuit and as time flew by, it was months before he realised that his famous supervisor was not yet aware that his doctoral studies had taken a side track. Feeling rather nervous, he plucked up courage and arranged a meeting with Tiselius. Would he be reprimanded? Would his idea be utterly trashed? But Arne Tiselius had not been angry. He had listened carefully and, after a fairly lengthy explanation, he had said: “Very interesting, carry on.”

This encouragement and freedom had meant the world to the young man. With his self-confidence boosted and his sense of security reinforced, he went on to enjoy a long and successful career.

A second insight to note is that we need to work together. Make use of the freedom inherent in acting across boundaries. Uppsala University is dropping down the rankings. This is serious. Many collaborations depend on our reputation. In all the contexts in which we participate, we must collectively improve our record of showing that we come from Uppsala University. Our name is known around the globe. We must continue to uphold this name and give it substance. Furthermore, I believe it is important that we aim to publish more extensively in the most prestigious journals. This creates waves. In addition, we need to be bold. We must discuss, we must question. A university is not worthy of its name if there is no room for differences of opinion and perspective. And we must listen. We must rely on one another’s expertise. Imagine what we could achieve if we worked together even better.

A third insight is that the whole academic community needs to do a better job of explaining what research is. Today, false claims and lies are spread by people who use disagreements in the scientific community as an argument. Not everyone agrees, they say. These arguments impress those who do not realise that science is the best thing we have. Though we and our colleagues don’t know everything, we are the people who know most – collectively. Spreading knowledge about falsifiability; about thesis, antithesis and synthesis; about theory, probability and truth – is a great and difficult task. But if we do not do it, who will? If we don’t explain, how will the truth about the breeding grounds of lies be exposed?

So, my dear new professors: the road lies before us, parts of it clearly marked out, much of it unknown. The University requires you to perform many tasks and shoulder heavy burdens, but I hope you will enjoy doing so and think them worth bearing. Resist territorial thinking, small-mindedness and envy. Believe in curiosity, in the desire to turn over stones because it’s exciting to see what lies underneath, believe in the aspiration to improve and to understand, in remaining focused until the insights come. Believe in yourself and in Uppsala University.

I would like to congratulate each and every one of you. Make use of your newly gained status as a professor and the opportunities this position brings. Feel the winds of freedom – with responsibility – and you will be helping Uppsala University, this wonderful university we share, to become even better.


Last modified: 2023-02-23