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NORWAY
NORWAY: Sacked professor sues the state
Earlier this month, five days were spent in an Oslo court to hear testimonies in a case where sacked University of Oslo Professor Arnved Nedkvitne is suing the Norwegian government. Professor Arnved Nedkvitne has demanded he either be reinstated as a full professor in medieval history or paid financial compensation until he reaches pension age.

The case is unique because sacking professors or other governmental officers is extremely rare in Norway. Universities are funded by the government and the case is attracting widespread interest because it concerns where the limit of loyalty to an employer lies.

Many strange statements were heard in court that indicated a climate of conflict during periods of distress because of budgetary cuts. The case is a result of several years of tensions between different academics in the department of archaeology, conservation and history and the top leadership of the humanities faculty and at the university's central level.

Nedkvitne had held a tenured professorship in medieval history since 1994. But in June, 2008, a faculty meeting voted unaminously for a motion that he be sacked. The following February, the university's board agreed by a vote of nine to two that he be dismissed.

The basis of the charge of grave misconduct was a year-long campaign by Nedkvitne in sending emails to more than 100 staff with claims his research field of medieval history was systematically discriminated against in the budgetary processes and in resource allocations at the department.

He also claimed the research group in contemporary history had received funds that should have been distributed more evenly. Although the great number of emails over many years alone were not in themselves grounds for the sacking, more serious was the claim they also contained negative personal characterisations of members of the contemporary history research group, notably that the researchers were from a sociologically homogenous elite group of prominent Norwegian families, indicating nepotism in recruitment.

One particular target was the head of the department, Professor Jorunn Bjørgum, who Nedkvitne said was the sister of a well-known Norwegian politician.

Faculty and university leaders had attempted mediation without any success, the court was told. A third factor contributing to the sacking was the fact that in spite of 15 calls to meet the department head for consultations, Nedkvitne had not attended - hence the argument of gross neglect of employer's rights.

During the court case, former rectors, deans, colleagues, doctoral candidates and students gave evidence. Many defended Nedkvitne's rights to freedom of speech as a basic principle in academia. The media were critical of the failure of the university's leadership to resolve the situation at an earlier date.

The most bizarre piece of information was presented by a previous pro-rector, Professor Haakon Breien Benestad, who had himself been involved in mediation. Benestad then received a letter from his superior, the rector, stating that if he did not keep out of the conflict, he would risk losing his own position.

"Does that mean he would have had you sacked?" the defence lawyer asked. "Yes", was the answer.

The proceedings have attracted considerable attention among Norwegian academics. Head of department Bjørgum received a lot of sympathy when she told the court that during her leadership period, the number of professors was reduced from 33 to 20. Each of these reductions raised the underlying tensions of resource allocation and these the sacked professor often followed up with accusations by emails.

Nedkvitne is being supported by the Union of Norwegian Researchers which will meet the costs of the court process should he lose. The defence claim is that the sacking has affected his career options, attacked his integrity and created much psychological stress.

He is now registered as a student at the university so as to continue to have access to library services and computer facilities. Judgement in the case is expected by mid-February.

COMMENT:

This was a very one-way interpretation of both the Nedkvitne case and the court procedures. Nothing is mentioned about Nedkvitne's alleged harassment of junior colleagues and students, nor the impact on the working environment at a research department. When it comes to the answers of the former assistant rector Benestad, it can rightly be characterized as bizarre. But the fact was that he mixed his medical profession with his position as assistant rector in a peculiar way, trying to diagnose Nedkvitne as well as solving a case outside his personal jurisdiction as assistant rector. The case is very important in Norway, as it will be tried how far a professor can go breaking all kinds of normal concepts of behaviour without the normal consequenses that regulate this outside Academia.
Bård Frydenlund

When I was a history student Nedkvitne was my supervisor. I do not at all recognize the description of him given by Frydenlund. This article is based on several articles in Norwegian newspapers. But I guess that Frydenlund knows better than the journalists attending the court
proceedings?
Norwegian historian
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