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In 2019, Denmark's youngest university is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Here, the IT University of Copenhagen's first Vice Chancellor, Mads Tofte, tells the story of the university's journey from the hectic first months back in 1999 to the present day, where ITU is a leading institution for IT education and research in Denmark.
The idea that Denmark should have an institution devoted entirely to IT research and education was first aired in 1997.
Increasing digitization created a massive shortage of IT specialists, and many felt that something extraordinary needed to be done in order to educate more IT graduates. In 1998, the Ministers of Education and Research created a task force that set out to investigate what could be done. One of their recommendations was to set up an IT university (‘IT-højskole’) in Copenhagen.
At the time, 39-year-old Mads Tofte was happy in his job in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Copenhagen. His colleagues had just persuaded him to apply for a position as Head of Department.
In October 1998, he took part in a meeting organized by the Ministry of Research at the University of Copenhagen about the new IT university, thinking "If I'm going to be Head of Department, I probably have to take an interest."
Mads Tofte was certainly not convinced that the idea of an IT university was good, and the meeting made him no less skeptical.
“I was pretty horrified at what I heard. I thought this IT university sounded like a really bad idea,” he recalls.
He found the idea of adding two-year IT master's programmes on top of any bachelor's degree especially off-putting. How could those graduates be useful for anything at all, when others spend many years specializing in IT?
The more he considered it, however, the more he liked the idea. In the end, he was convinced to seek the position as Managing Director of IT-Højskolen.
Mads Tofte recalls how he became Managing Director of IT-Højskolen.
As newly appointed Managing Director of IT-Højskolen, Mads Tofte showed up for his first day of work on April 1, 1999 with a monumental task ahead of him: to prepare the university to receive the first 150 students at the end of August.
“We have secured you the money and political backing. We might have a building – it just needs to some renovation. Here is my business card. Call if there are any problems,” said Ove Poulsen, Director of the Ministry of Education.
In just five months, the new university needed to create a campus, develop four education programmes from scratch, hire staff and attract applicants.
But first, Mads Tofte had to define exactly what IT-Højskolen meant by 'IT', since this was not specified in the official documents. In April 1999, he sat down to formulate the academic foundation for IT-Højskolen – what later became known as the "ITU triangle".
The basic idea was – and still is today – that IT should be considered from both a science, business and design perspective. Often all three perspectives are involved at the same time. Therefore, all students should specialize in one of the perspectives, but also gain insight into the other two.
"I had noticed that often when you create value with IT, these three perspectives are at play," says Mads Tofte. He gives an example:
“Consider for instance a digitalization project in the health sector. Here we are talking about some technology that needs to be built or adapted. This belongs in the science corner. Then there are the business processes connected to the treatment of patients, this is in the business part of the triangle. And the third is the perspective of the individual employee or patient – what does the system mean to them in their everyday lives?”
Based on these considerations, the contours of four graduate programmes were drawn up during the early summer.
Since the beginning, ITU's research and education have been based on an interplay of three perspectives: science, business and design.
A more practical, but also massive task at hand was to prepare the campus on Glentevej in Copenhagen's Northwest Quarter – a former auto shop and former campus of the School of Graphic Design – for the students and staff due to arrive after the summer holidays.
IT-Højskolen in June 1999, two months before the first students arrived.
Office under construction, 1999.
The finished campus at Glentevej.
The first students having breakfast in the canteen, August 1999.
Breakfast for the new students, August 1999.
Mads Tofte opened the first website from a server in his bedroom at home.
“Basically it said, 'Welcome to IT-Højskolen, we are not quite sure what this is going to be about, but if you are interested, please leave your name and email address, and we will contact you when we have found out,” he recalls.
There was enormous interest in the new university, not least thanks to extensive coverage in the media. Every time IT-Højskolen was mentioned on the radio, traffic spiked on the interim website.
The first website ,which was launched on April 1, 1999.
News segment from TV2 about IT-Højskolen, July 15, 1999.
On August 30, 1999, 19 employees had breakfast ready for the first 147 students. Minister of Research, Birte Weiss, Minister of Education, Margrethe Vestager, and Chairman Mogens Munk Rasmussen made the opening of IT-Højskolen official.
Mads Tofte recalls the first day at IT-Højskolen, which included student protests, minister visits and DYI-chairs.
During the first year, the programmes were designed more or less from week to week.
“A lot of time was spent figuring out how the heck we should organize ourselves. Plus there was a full-time operation with enrolled students, who we had to give a proper education. It was like building a rocket that had already been launched,” says Mads Tofte.
"We did things without really knowing if we were allowed to – because we thought it was the right thing to do."
On the application form, prospective students had to declare that they intended to study 40 hours a week. However, there turned out to be no legal grounds for this procedure.
"To the Ministry of Education's credit, when they found out we had done this, they did not call and tell us to stop. They hung it on their bulletin board for general amusement,” Mads Tofte says with a laugh.
Over the next few years, a more structured organization started to take shape. The programmes received curricula. The first MSc received a diploma in 2001.
Formally, IT-Højskolen had been part of CBS since the beginning, but with its own board of directors and its own post on the national budget. This construction lasted until 2003 when an international evaluation recommended a detachment. On July 1, 2003, the IT University of Copenhagen became an independent university and the Managing Director became Vice Chancellor.
Over the years, several universities have proposed mergers, but they all have been rejected. According to Mads Tofte, major societal changes such as digitization require a separate institution that concentrates exclusively on this subject.
A major societal change such as digitization requires an institution dedicated to just that, says Mads Tofte.
From the beginning, the government had decided that ITU's permanent building would be located in the burgeoning Ørestad, and an architectural competition was announced already in 2000.
Mads Tofte explains the original vision behind ITU’s building.
"One of my ideas was that when you are at ITU, you should be in one of two states: Either are sitting in a place where you can concentrate and be undisturbed, or you are getting the rest of the organization smack in the face," he says.
Another idea was that there should be students from floor to ceiling. Researchers and staff should not be isolated in long, prison-like hallways on the upper floors.
The solution became an atrium in the middle of the building, which with a little ingenuity passed right through the local urban planning committee.
Henning Larsen Architects won the competition, and their iconic building was completed in 2004.
How ITU's atrium got through the local urban planning committee.
The development of the ITU took off – processes were established, more programmes were created. In 2007, Software Development was launched as the first bachelor’s programme, followed by three more. Today, ITU accepts around 900 new students a year into its BSc, MSc and professional education programmes.
According to the first Vice Chancellor, many of the original principles are still present in the research and education, although things are done somewhat differently today than in 1999.
“You can't say that we were burdened with great quality considerations when we were starting out – we just had to get started! And we did, with the resources available. Gradually everything has been developed and bettered. ITU is a completely different place today than it was in 1999 in terms of the degree of professionalism that characterizes everything that goes on here,” says Mads Tofte, who in 2019 left the helm to his successor, Martin Zachariasen.
Mads Tofte’s hope for ITU's future is that the university remembers why it was created – because society needed something new.
“I hope for the IT University that it remembers its societal responsibility, because there is a huge responsibility resting on the shoulders of the university. But this is also what makes it fun to be here and what makes it worthwhile to be here. You can actually make a difference in Danish society if you do well at the IT University,” says Mads Tofte.
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