First non-Norwegian to head nation’s largest university college

Minnesota-born Professor Curt Rice has been appointed rector of the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, the largest university college in Norway aspiring to become a university.

A pro-rector for research and development at the University of Tromsø, Rice was one of 14 applicants for the Oslo position and won, although a foreigner taking up the top post at a university in northern Europe is extremely rare. But he told University World News that his origins were not an issue at the interview.

Rice brings a fresh approach to Norwegian higher education while subscribing to the Google leadership principle: “Support the staff; match people and opportunities. And stay out of the way”.

A regular commentator for University World News, Rice has a PhD in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin and started at Tromsø in 1993. With a 10-year grant from the Research Council of Norway, he established a centre of excellence in Tromsø and was its director from 2003-08 and later became a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study in Wassenaar in 2013-14.

Rice is widely published and also writes a blog called Science in Balance. He has 12,000 followers on Twitter.

Interests and expertise

Asked about his main objectives in academia, Rice said that as a result of his informal observations, especially while holding leadership positions, he became interested in ways to make universities perform better.

“Two areas that especially triggered my interest are new ways to communicate scientific research results through say open access, and how that might contribute to quality enhancement including gender balance, again as a quality enhancing tool. The Education Ministry has asked me to use my expertise in these areas to serve as chair of the board for the Current Research Information System in Norway.”

The research information system is responsible for documenting publicly financed research activities such as publishing, as well as promoting the government’s open access policy and carrying out negotiations of journal subscriptions on behalf of a consortium of Norwegian institutions.

“I have been leading the board since the organisation was established in 2010. The ministry has also asked me to head Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance and Diversity in Research, a position which I commenced last year,” Rice said.

Rice takes up his position at the university college in August, at a time when the Norwegian government has initiated extensive structural reforms in higher education. It plans to introduce a tenure track system while redressing the gender imbalance in universities and creating more permanent positions for scientists, both Norwegians and foreigners, who account for a significant proportion of new recruits.

The government has allocated 300 positions to universities to establish a tenure track system. This is intended to tackle the increasing tendency for young scientists to hold temporary positions and to attract more women to tenured posts – a measure Rice does not think will work well.

“It’s too strong to say that I’m against the tenure track in general, although I think it’s difficult to do it well. I have many, many colleagues who have been through this process in the US and none describe it as particularly satisfying,” he said.

“But the Norwegian proposal is problematic for several reasons, as I have pointed out elsewhere. Among other things, the decision comes with absolutely no new funding so the ministry is simply allowing universities to start using tenure track positions.

“Where does the money come from for these positions? It comes from funds the universities already have, which is to say that it’s from those available to fill vacancies in other positions. In Norway, positions are advertised as permanent jobs, so we have to ask whether the tenure track is more attractive than a job that is permanent right away?

“The claim is that the tenure track will make Norwegian institutions more attractive for international superstars. But why would an international superstar prefer a tenure track or temporary position to a permanent post?"