Consultants' report blasts university leadership, but president undaunted

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Leadership at the University of Oslo (UiO) has been a subject of debate all week, after newspaper Dagens Næringsliv reported that a top consulting firm had branded UiO as “an organized anarchy.” Now the president of UiO is defending the need for “clear, professional leadership” to guide UiO’s drive to be among the top-ranked universities in the world.

“There’s a greater need than ever before for clear and pronounced leadership,” Ole Petter Ottersen, the rektor (president) of UiO, told Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Thursday.

He’s been at the core of debate that’s come since DN wrote about the report from consulting firm McKinsey. Ottersen and his leadership colleagues ordered the McKinsey report themselves, which ended up harshly criticizing both the organization and management of the university.

It concluded that UiO has far too many levels of leadership and lacks a common management culture and sense of loyalty. The report suggested that “everyone writes and says what they want,” according to DN, prompting the description of “organized anarchy.”

The McKinsey consultants also cited a lack of incentives that could boost the quality of research, and equated hiring policies to “inbreeding.” UiO leaders, McKinsey claimed, also fail to step in and deal with faculty members and academic staff who aren’t producing or performing well, adding that not enough importance was placed on quality.

At the heart of debate since are various opinions about what constitutes good leadership at an academic institution. Several professors claimed that only the academics themselves are qualified to lead others.

Janne Haaland Matlary, a professor of political science at UiO who also has held a wide variety of international positions, wrote a commentary in DN that administrative staff are there to “assist” academic staff, who are “creative and demand freedom.” She believes that professors and researchers, for example, are part of an international academic community that guides their work, “not the local leadership where you work.”

Professor Hans Petter Graver of the law faculty also disagrees that UiO needs stronger professional management. Joining the top ranks of research rather will result from “having the right people with the right ideas,” he told DN.

‘Yelling in the corridors’

Biology professor Kristian Gundersen claimed that professional leadership and management bureaucracy already has too much prestige at UiO, and that “only the best” academics are qualified to lead researchers. He added that it can be “very upsetting” for a “top man” in a field of study if a “weaker” leader can make decisions about the work to be done. He longed for the day when fellow academics could simply “yell at each other in the corridors” and put a matter to rest.

Others disagree, saying that a university isn’t only a lifestyle but also a workplace that needs professional leadership. Knut Aarbakke, leader of the organization (Akademikerne) that represents around 150,000 university employees with masters’ degrees or higher in Norway, told DN that Gundersen’s preference for “yelling in the corridors” can “scare off” young researchers. “How many aspiring researchers would want to work in an environment like that?” he wondered, claiming it would hurt recruitment efforts.

“We absolutely need more and better leadership,” Aarbakke said. UiO’s president Ottersen clearly agrees, worrying that “many don’t understand what leadership is.” Ottersen said “good professional leadership” can and should make it easier for the academic professional to do his or her job, and defend their need for freedom and autonomy.

“That’s how they can better develop their own potential and creativity,” said Ottersen, who remains firm that “we have an ambition of becoming an even better university.” He defended the McKinsey report despite its critical conclusions, saying “we must have a corrective view from the outside. We can’t just evaluate ourselves.”