Business schools caught in conflicts

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Norway’s two major high-level business schools BI and NHH are both caught in conflicts over personnel and organization. Criticism also erupted this week over how the University of Oslo recruits its top academic talent.

Norwegian business schools seem to having some trouble going about their own business. Here, the atrium at BI in Oslo, where the dean is the target of complaints over his management style. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Norwegian business schools seem to be having some trouble going about their own business. Here, the atrium at BI in Oslo, where the dean is the target of complaints over his management style. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The conflict at Norwegian Business School BI in Oslo mostly concerns the management style of the school’s dean, Tom Colbjørnsen, and the failure, according to researchers and the union representing administrative employees at the school, of board leader Terje Venold to address complaints. The conflict at NHH (Norges Handelshøyskole) in Bergen involves rising complaints over a major departmental restructuring.

Newspapers Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and Bergens Tidende have been publishing articles for several days about the ongoing and turbulent reorganization at NHH that began in 2011 and started setting off concerns last year. It aims to reduce the number of departments at NHH, downgrade some to sections and place them under other departments. Several positions have been changed and employees have had to re-apply for their jobs, reported DN on Monday.

The reorganization is being carried out by managing director Ole Hope and personnel chief Christina Brünner. It has, however, led to resignations and a rise in sick leave among administrative employees, while 14 professors and three institute leaders have sent formal letters of concern to both NHH’s dean, Jan I Haaland, and the board of NHH.

Norway’s most prestigious schools of business and management thus seem to be having trouble managing themselves, with two high-profile NHH professors publicly at odds in DN on Monday. Professor Thore Johnsen, among the 14 professors who wrote the letters airing concerns, told DN that the reorganization process has been plagued by secrecy and a failure to involve employees, creating uncertainty leading to the sick leave and resignations.

“I think that’s just terrible,” Johnsen told DN. He claims there’s a lack of confidence in leadership at NHH and that some heads should roll. One of his colleagues, Professor Victor Norman, disagrees and expressed full confidence in NHH leadership. Norman, a former government minister in a center-right coalition, said the dean and the board have his “full support” because he thinks they’ve tackled the unrest well.

Johnsen claimed Norman is “relatively” alone in his opinion and that other professors agree administrative employees have been poorly treated at NHH. They expect their letter to generate results, and Haaland already apologized in DN on Monday for comments he’d made over the weekend indicating that the resignations and illness were “normal.” Now he concedes they are problems, and that he actually thinks the effects of the reorganization on staff are “sad and unfortunate.”

‘Anxiety’ at BI
At BI, both labour organizations representing employees and management reportedly are working hard to prepare for a board meeting next week where the issue of a lack of confidence in Colbjørnsen is on the agenda. They deny it will involve a “legal battle,” but rather be a chance to “talk things out.”

The declaration of lack of confidence hit earlier this month, with Colbjørnsen criticized for his management style and strategic choices. DN reported that some BI employees say his management is “old-fashioned” and that the school is plagued by a “culture of anxiety.”

Colbjørnsen, who’s finishing up his second period as BI dean, said the letter criticizing him went to the board, not to him, and that he’ll defer to the board to deal with it. He has also been criticized for shutting down several areas of study in recent years. The consequence, said Professor Atle Midtun, “will be a traditional business school like those in the 1980s.”

Others claim Colbjørnsen nurtures little dialogue, jumps to conclusions and often seems to have made decisions before any dialogue with colleagues or staff is underway. Reform processes, it’s claimed, aren’t real but only meant to satisfy regulations and collective bargaining agreements.

‘Nerds and geniuses’ having problems
Meanwhile, a professor at the University of Oslo (UiO) told DN on Monday that he thinks “nerds and geniuses” don’t have a good chance of securing academic positions any longer, because too much emphasis is placed on personality factors. Professor Kristian Gundersen said personal attributes are becoming more important that professional qualifications.

“It’s become much more difficult to come in as a genius and get a job at the University of Oslo,” Gundersen told DN. “Nerds and geniuses have bigger problems when personality traits are more important.” He thinks “the (hiring) system is easier to manipulate,” but the dean of UiO, disagreed.

“There have been some changes in the employment process in recent years,” Dean Ole Petter Ottersen told DN, “but these changes mean we put more emphasis on pedagogic qualifications and experience within education.” He said there also have been efforts to recruit from abroad and to boost the number of women among UiO’s professors.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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